The creative magic of small 't' truths.
What a pack of cards, a Sharpie and a desire for truth can do to improve our creative lives.
One of the things I find most frustrating about getting older is discovering that almost all the clichés I used to roll my eyes at are true:
Actions speak louder than words; What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today; Life’s too short; Don’t judge a book by its cover…
As it turns out, these stock phrases endure precisely because they refer to patterns, situations and dilemmas we come up against time and again—and we find comfort and utility in being able to access their readymade consolations and explanations.
This handy library of summaries can create shortcuts to perspective and understanding in the face of frustration, alienation and confusion—packaging complex ideas and emotions into bitesize wisdom that’s easy to wield and understand.
A double-edged sword.
The trouble is, if we leap to the summary too readily, we miss the nuance and specificity that makes this expression of a timeless idea individual and interesting. We let our brains off the hook and bypass the imagination, compassion, critical thinking and creativity required to really contend with the situation as it is right here, right now.
It’s easy to do without realizing, but by using someone else’s idea or expression—out loud or in our heads—we leave ourselves out of the process of understanding and communicating. And that’s a problem, because contained in our self is something no one else has or will ever have: a perspective and viewpoint that is uniquely ours.
By making things easier to grasp and neatly file away we’re in danger of shaving off the edges capable of leaving a mark.
Reinventing the wheel.
There are times when this summarizing is helpful, even necessary. If we sat with the full, nuanced reality of every idea, interaction or experience we encountered without ever drawing on these shortcuts we’d go steadily insane.
However, when it comes to the creative process—and any kind of creative expression seeking an audience—keeping things interesting is crucial. It’s the specificity, detail, and novelty of ideas that engages and compels us to pay attention in the first place.
While we might not be fully reinventing it, unless we can appreciate what makes a particular wheel special, our audience will let it roll by with the assumption it’s pretty much the same as every other round, roll-y thing they’ve seen before.
A rose by any other name.
I once got to talk about creativity with a successful songwriter—a man so driven and diligent in his craft that he went from sleeping in the back of his car to winning Grammys and owning a record label. During our discussion I asked him if he remembered the first good song he wrote and how he knew.
He told me a story, some 30 years old, about dating a girl for a few months before one day seeing her Driver’s License on the nightstand and discovering that the name he knew her by was not her legal given name.
That moment—that specific, precise experience—was the catalyst of the first good song he ever wrote.
Why? Because it was based in truth—both small and universal. His attachment to the particular feeling of that moment gave him the inspiration and emotion from which to write authentically, and the ability to tell a story that could connect with anyone who’s experienced doubt, deceit or delight in the unfolding process of getting to know and trust another person.
Reading between the lines.
People—whether creators or audiences—respond to truth. Whether enlivening or terrifying, it resonates with us and illuminates emotions and ideas that might otherwise remain dormant or unexplored.
However, while we can naturally see the broad themes around the specifics, we’re not nearly as good at the opposite. In the rush and stress of daily living we find it hard to appreciate the details and peculiarities that make our own circumstances fascinatingly uncommon.
It’s understandable. Aspiration keeps us focused on where we want to be, rather than where we are. Our brains tell us that other people’s lives are more exciting and interesting than our own. We get scared to look too closely at reality in case it dismantles our fantasy.
On top of that it’s just fundamentally hard—hard to look at the specifics of our lives, hard to notice their detail, and even harder to express faithfully.
But to create—to communicate something noteworthy and compelling—we have to get good at this.
We have to resist the pull of the well-trodden ‘truisms’ and commit our talents, intellect and curiosity to the task of faithful, specific, illuminating description and expression.
A taste of my own medicine.
Recently, on a solo trip to explore an unfamiliar place I noticed I was feeling uneasy. I wasn’t really sure why, or what to do about it, I just knew I didn’t like it.
Settling into my rented room, I found a packet of playing cards and a Sharpie. Prompted by the tools in front of me, I challenged myself to write down exactly what I was feeling on the back of one of the cards.
As you might imagine, it turned out to be one of those tasks that sounds easy in theory but turns out to be bafflingly hard in practice. However, after a few minutes of deliberation, I got a sentence down.
For the rest of the week I took the cards with me wherever I wandered, and in moments of pause or reflection went through the exercise again—trying to capture as faithfully and honestly as possible what was true about my situation, orientation and feelings in that moment.
Sometimes it was hard. Other times it felt easier, and then suddenly trickier again:
Is that really what I’m feeling? Am I being honest? What if I keep digging? What would I be ashamed to say? How do I write that?
Most of the time I had to be satisfied with what I knew to be shoddy representations of what was going on, but I always learned something. And, like any good game, the more I practiced the better I got. By the time I was half way through the deck I began moving beyond the obvious and trite to find more honest, curious and precise descriptions.
No harm in trying.
Give it a go.
Take a break from reading this, sit in the moment and see how accurately you can finish the sentence, the truth is…
Try it another 51 times over the next week and see how much better you get at looking, noticing and describing.
(If you’re feeling really brave, try it alongside someone else in the very same moment and share your answers.)
Still waters run deep.
I found that the more I was able to recognize myself as a carrier of complex, interesting truths, the more I could see that reflected in the world around me. I more easily assumed depth, nuance and shades of grey in people I met, even if I didn’t get the chance to see the evidence for myself. I wondered how accurately and imaginatively I could describe the objects, interactions, situations and scenarios I encountered along the way, understanding them all infinitely better in the process. I began to appreciate the reward of working to take in all the subtle detail and difference I could find.
All that glitters ain't gold.
The French novelist Marcel Proust apparently hated the use of cliché and unoriginal language. After critiquing a fellow writer for blandly describing the moon as ‘shining discreetly’ he later went on to write:
“Sometimes in the afternoon sky the moon would pass white as a cloud, furtive, lusterless, like an actress who does not have to perform yet and who, from the audience, in street clothes, watches the other actors for a moment, making herself inconspicuous, not wanting anyone to pay attention to her.”
That’s how you describe an afternoon moon. I know that moon. I’d never have described it that way, but I can see it. I’m still thinking about it now: imagining exactly how it looks, thinking about the last time I saw it, using the image of the actress to newly appreciate the peculiar delight of this nocturnal friend peeking out in broad daylight. I’ve become fascinated by something that could have just as easily slipped by under the discreet cloak of familiarity.
There’s nothing wrong with clichés or commonly used expressions and ideas, until we start applying them to our selves, our lives, the people around us or the world in which we live.
Of course, Proust was an extraordinarily skilled writer—and I’m not advocating that every creative process or practitioner chase some painfully contrived version of novelty just for the sake of it—but we can all learn from his dedication to accuracy, individuality and originality of thought.
People, places, and situations are never the same—and if we pretend or lazily assume they are, we do them and ourselves a disservice.
For work that moves, connects and inspires we need to chisel away at the big ‘T’ Truths until we find the smaller, richer revelations—because that’s where the magic is.