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Da Vinci’s Sfumato and Chekov’s Razor


Leonardo da Vinci introduced a mindset that every author should be employing in their writing, if they are not already. This mindset resulted from a technique da Vinci used in his paintings called sfumato, or “gone up in smoke”. I use it so often that I don’t think of it as a technique anymore, but I found it interesting to read the explorations of it by one most famous artists in history. The basic tenet of the sfumato technique da Vinci made famous, was to avoid using specific and concrete lines in his paintings. This might not sound like a novel technique to the accomplished artist of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Da Vinci did not invent this technique, as some evidence suggests it dates back to the chiaroscuro effects used by ancient Greeks and Romans, but da Vinci took it to another level. As author Walter Isaacson wrote, Leonardo was so obsessed with using shadows and reflected light that he wrote fifteen thousand words on the topic, “And that is probably less than half of what he originally wrote,” Isaacson opined.

The sfumato technique also applies to writing. When an author begins writing a story, they characterize their main character with bold lines through unique, individualistic, and semi-autobiographical lines. The more an author explores that character, the more they chip away at strict characterization and allow the character to breathe for themselves in a manner that adds dimension. They characterize with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions with others and events. Their main character becomes more prominent through these literary devices, until the central character becomes the literary equivalent to an eye of the storm.

In writing, we call the sfumato technique “the show don’t tell” technique. The author uses supporting characters and setting to define their main character, and they use all of this to bring the events involved in their stories to life. The takeaway might be that the optimum characterizations are those characterizations that appear more organic to the reader. In other words, the author should be working his or her tail off to make the work appear so easy that the reader thinks anyone could do it.

Chekov’s Razor

The aspiring writer should also know the principles of Chekov’s Razor that they employ them so often in their writing that they don’t realize they’re using it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader. 

Anyone who knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the experienced writer starts writing. We can call this the discovery phase. In the discovery phase, the writing is gibberish that no one but the writer can understand. This is the “all play no work” phase for most writers, as it allows them to be creative. They love to write with an ending in mind, and they love the process of working to that ending. While working to the ending, the creative mind might change the ending, based on little points of discovery leading up to the original ending. Once that ending is changed, however, some of the little points leading up to it need to be changed. 

The greater takeaway for aspiring writers is to get the idea down before you forget it. Don’t worry about sequencing, chronology, grammar, spelling, or if this story is the base for the next great American novel. Just write it down and worry about all the editing later. Just writing a bunch of gibberish down, only the writer understands, opens them up to the subject matter. Once the author is in, the material might have the wherewithal to be in a near proximity to where a story lies, but the real story could take paragraphs, or pages, to develop.

Chekov’s razor focuses on threes, the first three paragraphs, and/or three pages of a manuscript, short story, or essay, but I’ve found this length arbitrary. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I don’t think anyone writes gibberish just to write gibberish, it feels like this could or should be the story at the time. I lock myself up when I try to determine if the writing is up to my standard, or if it’s going anywhere. I unlock myself by writing it and deleting later if necessary. 

 Chekov’s razor comes into play when we go back and delete if necessary. In those opening paragraphs is the gibberish that the writer used to familiarize them with the material. It was the entry point to defeat the blinking cursor.

In the course of writing past the blinking cursor stage, we discover pivot points that take us to the next stages of the story, but we don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, we discover that the pivot point is the story. The frustration falls on two tracks, the first is that we fell in love with that original idea, and it’s tough to just walk away. The other is that we “wasted” so much time writing “the other” story that we loved. When writers achieve the ultimate point of objectivity, when they realize story is sacred, they begin sacrificing all the information they love to leave information you will. 

Thus, I don’t believe there is magic in the power of threes in employing Chekov’s Razor to storytelling. A central idea, or pivot point arrives in the course of writing, but the point of Chekov’s razor is to dump and delete the useless information the writer used to write the story.  

An important note to add here is that if most authors work the same way I do, we do not write for the expressed purpose of finding the core of our story. Our perspective is, we think we already have the story, and that the only chore involves building upon it. The discovery of the core of story often humbles the author and slaps them back to the realization that no matter how many times we write a story, the art of writing involves mining the brain for ideas rather than having a brain loaded with brilliant ideas. That conceit eventually reveals itself to those willing to write a lot of material, and it’s up to the author to recognize the difference for what it is, if they want a quality story.

It happens in the course of writing it, editing it after we’re done, or in the daydreaming stage that can last for days, weeks, or months. I do not enjoy deleting the chunks of material I’ve written, and I don’t think anyone does, but the quality author will develop the ability to recognize what portion of the story is for them and which portion is for the reader, and they will crib note or delete the part of the story that is for them.

I don’t consider the revelation of these techniques a glamorization of my process. I think it demystifies the process by suggesting that anyone can do this, as long as they write as often as they need to discover what should become the central focus for the reader. Every author needs to move past their conceit of their self-defined brilliance to find the story they’re trying to tell, and learn how to work from within it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the most prominent use of Chekov’s razor can be found in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

How to Succeed in Writing XI: The Stages


“It is (the writer’s) job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. –George Orwell

We’ve all read authors who write from what Orwell calls the “immature stage”. They get locked in a stage of life they will not, or cannot, escape. They hate their parents, they cannot get over the fact that someone of the opposite sex has dumped them in an unceremonious manner, or they cannot get past the fact that their political party cannot win, and those mentalities are reflected in their writing. If, on the other hand, as Orwell states, a writer is afforded the ability to completely forget the transgressions and tragedies that made him miserable in his youth –that which may otherwise diminish their mental health– they may not be the writer they could’ve been if they learned how to embrace those demons. A quality writer, if Orwell’s thesis is to be believed, is one of those rare individuals who is cursed, and blessed, with the inability to forget, while capably moving to the next stage of maturity, coupled with the ability to recall all of those sentiments and mentalities they struggled with in their effort to achieve more mature stages.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needsWe’ve all heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lists the various needs a person must satisfy to achieve a sense of completion.  The initial stages of the hierarchy concerns basic needs (food, water, and breathing) that we take for granted, until they are not met. As this hierarchy progresses to completion, the needs become more complex, and the need to satisfy them more profound. There is also an idea that that person may take one level for granted –such as the need for friendship, and the need to be loved– and they may regress back a level. The basic structure of the Hierarchy of Needs suggests, however, that one cannot progress to next level, until the needs of the prior level are satisfied. Every person is different, of course, but the basic tenets are such that most people are not immune to the needs of a level you are currently on, and our stubborn refusal to accept the idea that we need more of whatever you currently have, has us stuck at that level.

Orwell’s addendum to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pertains to writers. His quote basically states that while writers are not immune to the need to progress in all the ways Maslow outlined, and that their progress is elemental to better writing, it’s just as vital to the quality of the writing that they be able to tap into the angst that drove them to want to be a writer while mired in a previous stage.

The best, most stark example, may be the starving artist that wrote something while mired in a premature stage. The piece they wrote may have been beautiful on one level, but it was generally regarded as being on the cusp of brilliance. The beauty of their piece may have been contained its raw exploration of their vulnerabilities, but it was also considered a snapshot of what this artist might be capable of ultimately, as it offered no solutions. Their piece was more of a list of complaints with no end in sight, a characteristic that can be compelling in its own right.

As we’ve witnessed, in all crafts, some starving artists never reach their full potential. Some of them become trapped in the starving artist mindset, or elementary stage of need, and they never gain a complete enough understanding of themselves, and thus mankind, to achieve a greater, or more complete artistic piece. Or, they may have progressed through the channels of their needs so completely that they’ve lost their need to create artistic pieces. It’s also been the case that a starving artist’s original piece was so successful that the person became successful and lost the starving artist mindset that gave them fame, and every piece they write thereafter is retread. This lack of artistic progression may be as simple as the artist never progressing to the self-actualized stage.

The website Simple Psychology states that “Maslow estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization.”

Is Maslow wrong, or are we? Are we a member of the ninety-eight percent, and does this affect our writing in such a manner that we don’t have the objectivity necessary to write a compelling fictional character, much less conduct our lives in a self-actualized manner?

As one that has progressed through a stage fairly recently, I can tell you that that progression served my writing well. I would not say that I’m a member of the two percent, but I have progressed, and I didn’t wake one day with the realization that I had progressed either. It was only upon reflection that I realized that only after one of my fundamental needs was met did my writing progress. I look back on my “immature stage” and I realized how much better my writing has become. I realized that my inability to complete a piece was more of a commentary on my inability to progress through my personal hierarchy of needs than it was my artistic abilities. I’ve also managed to keep in touch with all of the angst that drove some of my earlier works to bring them to completion in a manner I may not have if I hadn’t progressed.

How to Succeed in Writing X: Blog Writing


Rule#1: If you have any respect for comedy, you should avoid trying to be funny. Comedy should almost be an accidental afterthought. It should be what happens in the course of numerous rewrites. A good one-liner is hard to find, and it usually falls in the lap of the unsuspecting. It’s rarely among those first thoughts that occur in a first draft. Those one-liners are often born and bred into you. It’s often what those who know your sense of humor find hilarious. It’s usually based on what you do for a living, and all of experiences you’ve had in life. Some of us may see where you’re headed, but most of us do not … not to the point of finding humor in it. Those jokes that you write that are more universally hilarious are probably either directly, or indirectly, ripped off from some other, more universally accepted vehicle. The path to the more honest, organic place of comedy is often found within a serious piece that takes twists and turns before that piece can be declared complete. It can also be found in bits that you add after rereading your completed, serious piece so often that the words bore you. It is also usually found the day after, the week after, the month after you’ve achieved the degree of objectivity necessary to land an honest and pure line that is funny in a more universal manner.

We all think we’re funny, but even the best of the best stand-up comedians will tell you that they rarely get it right in their first draft. They test their material before live audiences, and they shape, craft, and hone it based on the audience’s reactions. A writer usually does not have the luxury of a live audience, so they must trust their instincts, and as any experienced stand-up comedian will tell your instincts are almost always wrong. As a result, you need an audience, and if you’re unable to find one, the only substitute you have is an objective perspective that can only be gained through the amount of rewrites it takes to achieve it.

femisphere_mommy-bloggers1

Rule#2: If there any writers reading this blog in search of one useful nugget, let it be this: We don’t care about you, and we’re not interested in what you think. Your modus operandi (M.O.) from this point forward should be to manipulate your reader into believing that they’ve arrived at your opinions independently.

Uninteresting way: “I like fruit better than candy. Who doesn’t? You put a strawberry Twizzler in front of me, and a beautiful piece of nature’s own, and I’ll take the piece of fruit every time. It’s healthier, it’s succulent, and I would much rather support the strawberry growers association than some huge monolithic, candy corporation that doesn’t give a fig about my health.”

Interesting way: “Thanks to the innovations made in chemical enhancement, and the machinery on the production line adding a precise quantity of these chemicals to every licorice strip, every single Twizzler you eat is going to be perfect. Twizzlers, therefore, have the advantage of consistency, but what does this type of consistency achieve for the consumer? Is a twenty-seventh Twizzler licorice strip going to taste any better than the first one you eat? A strawberry, on the other hand, has a certain inconsistency inherent in Mother Nature, and that inconsistency may lead to a greater belief in the quality of its gems, through scarcity, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can eat a perfect strawberry without thinking it’s better than anything man has attempted to reproduce in a lab.”

Both of these versions contain variations of an opinion, of course, but one is so over-the-top that it does it little more than tell us what the writer thinks. The attempts to persuade are so loaded with an agenda that some readers may rebel, and those that agree will only have their biases confirmed. No reader will leave the piece believing that they have learned something new, or that the writer has used some ingenuity to express a point. By limiting the piece to what the writer thinks, they are telling us that don’t care what we think. The import some readers will have is that the writer is a wonderful person, and they’ve finally found a vehicle for spreading the word.

Rule#3: We are not interested in your process. “You may be wondering how I came about this brilliant blog … ”  We’re not. “A friend of mine asked what I thought about some take a famous person had on an extremely controversial topic, and I said this, and she said that, and this ingenious blog is my response to that.” Some people are curious about the creative process, I’ve seen them ask about it in various replies. Most aren’t. If you become famous, or you create a piece that generates a lot of interest, there may be some call for the minutiae regarding your process, until then try incorporating the delete button into your process a little more. It may help you get to the point a little quicker.

Rule#4: Try to be succinct. Though I’m sure that some may find it hilarious for me to tell anyone to be succinct, my M.O. is to express my thoughts as succinctly as possible. I do have trouble limiting the number of words in my pieces, and that may be my failing, but I do make that attempt. Venture out into the blogosphere and you’ll find numerous bloggers that do the opposite. They stretch a point out to the 1,500 word, universally agreed upon length of substantial pieces.

These blogs, make me think of that scene where a TV director signals the news anchor to stretch a segment out, with banter, to fill time until the next commercial break. Sports radio appears to have been founded on this concept. These venues attract people that can blather in such a seamless manner that the audience doesn’t even know they’re being blathered. One of the keys to being considered talented enough to fulfill such duties appears to involve being able to say the same thing over and over with varying inflections to keep the key demo watching through the twenty minutes of commercial breaks that occur in any given hour. Me thinks that some bloggers get caught up in this definition of talent, and they attempt to duplicate it with banter and blathering.

Rule#5: Be provocative. Some may read that word and believe that it is specifically devoted to shocking the reader into questioning their moral fiber, but I prefer to focus of the base of the word provoke. Provoke your reader into thought by leading them down a road that they may have never been down before. There’s two schools of thought on this. One is to come up with breathtakingly original material that no one has ever considered before, but this one is difficult if not impossible to do on a continual basis. The more opportune avenue is to take a relatively common idea and put a spin on it that few have considered before.

The most common avenue for achieving this is to take an event from one’s own life and attempt to provide a unique spin on it. If you are going to include your personal opinions of these events, you should do so within the context of the narrative. The best role I’ve found for the ‘I’ character in these pieces is that of the straight man looking out on the madness that surrounds. Your thoughts, if you feel the need to include them, should occur soon after the reader has arrived at that opinion. At that point, you can decorate with jokes of obviousness, or extreme analogies that exaggerate the already arrived at opinion. The latter should not be done from the new age, clever “I’m so dumb it’s entertaining” perspective that so many bloggers now obsess over.

We’ve all read those “A Day in the Life” blogs that are specifically not provocative, go nowhere, and contain nothing funny or substantial. Judging by the hundreds of replies that say nothing entertaining in return, they’re quite popular. I’ve often wondered why people read these blogs, but they have apparently tapped into some sort of universal appeal that I cannot. The basis for these otherwise mundane blogs is to set a base from which the author can make leaps into humor or ingenuity, but the reader has to click on the blog first, and they do, and the whole cycle proves that I may be so dumb that it’s entertaining, because I don’t understand why anyone would purposely click on the 101 things my cat did when they heard the can opener blogs.

Free Your Mind and Creativity Will Follow


“You just sit there young man, and think about what you’ve done!” is something that most of us have heard at one point or another.  We’ve heard this from a mother, a grandmother, or some authority figure in our lives.  Sitting in silence is an excellent punishment for a young mind that wants to move, explore, and participate, and the negative connotations we apply to such forced inactivity, may be the reason that some of us still avoid it as often as we can.  For some minds, however, it may be the key to tapping into untapped resources of creativity.

Ardent advocates of noise would disagree.  They would suggest that the best way to find that creative place occurs in the exchange of ideas.  The distracted mind, they would say, requires forced participation.  They also say that suggesting these minds need more space, and more silence, may allow the cracks of distraction to grow wider.

moronThe very idea that silence should play a role in the creative process seems antithetical to everything we’ve been taught. We, as a people, have spent so much time trying to create technological advances that put an end to silence that we’re now conditioned to believe that cluttering our minds with voices and images may lead us to finding individual, creative thought in that stew.  Some do, of course, as every brain works different.  Those that require more processing of information –conditioned to the same beliefs about the creative process– may buy a self-help guide to find out what’s wrong with them.  For them, the source of creative thinking can, more often than not, be found in the brain itself … If it is allowed to breathe a little.

As Dorothy Gauvin stated:

“Your mind makes connections between facts and experiences that may seem unrelated to a logical entity like a robot.  Imagination connects the dots and comes up with an ‘Aha moment’ we call inspiration.”

These technological distractions that we have, and all of the noise of the day, prevents our imagination from taking what we’ve learned to that place where all the dots can be connected to produce a creative thought, or what Ms. Gauvin calls ‘an Aha moment’.

“Remember the famous quote from A.A.Milne,” she writes, ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sits.’”

Some of us spent most of our time outside of the Socratic Method of teaching looking in.  We’ve witnessed other brains firing right along with the teacher’s.  The teacher hits them with a question, they fire right back; the teacher probes deeper, the students respond in kind, and a summary discussion ensues in which all participants are rewarded with like-minded smiles when they’ve reached the same conclusion.  Some of us have always wanted to be those people, and we have been … the next day.  The next day, we arrived in that class with an answer that would’ve knock our teacher right on her keister … If we had thought of it yesterday.  We wanted a do over.  We wanted to show the class that we had the perfect answer.  It was too late for us, of course, the class moved on.

Every mind works different.  Some minds are excellent for business, and school, and they can come up with the perfect solution on the spot.  With that perfect guide, they can delve deeper into the depths of the mathematical mind than either party imagined possible, or they do it so quick that some of us stare on dumbfounded.

The spoils for thinking often go to the quick, and that fact has led some of us to believe that we were the dumb.  Our “Aha moments” do arrive, but they arrived when we were walking down the stairs, after the meat of the discussion has long since passed, and we thought of all the things we could’ve and should’ve said. Our minds work different, and even if we realized this in school, we may not have been rewarded in the manner the quicker minds were, but it may have been less frustrating or embarrassing to realize that our brains work different.

If you have a “down the stairs, could’ve, should’ve said” brain, Ms. Gauvin writes, you may want to consider the idea of developing a routine that involves a moment, or a series of moments, where all you do is sit in silence to digest what you’ve experienced.  She writes that some meditate, some contemplate, and some “just sits” there in a manner that “suits their circumstances and personality”.  She says that once you figure out how your brain works, you should consider creating a regular period in which you experience silence in the manner high profile “professionals in Medicine, Sports, and the Arts” all do.

Feathers

“Free your mind, the rest will follow.” —En Vogue

Years after reading the brilliant, Raymond Carver short story Feathers,  I reread it.  I was confused.  I went back to the title of that story to make sure it was the same short story I read all those years ago and recommended to everyone I knew that expressed even a slight interest in fiction.  It was the same short story, of course, and it was just as good as I remembered, but I had so jumbled the details of that story that I misremembered it into an original short story.

Carver’s short story was so great that I experienced a creative high after reading it.  As an aspiring, young writer, I have to imagine that reading that story was equivalent to a young basketball player watching Michael Jordan drive the baseline against the Knicks in the 1993 playoffs.  Carver, like Jordan, made it look so easy that I thought I could do it.

The focus of Carver’s story was, of course, the main characters, but my focus churned on the side characters.  I identified with them in some manner I couldn’t grasp at first.  I decided to explore.  I decided that this exploration was worthy of a short story, my short story.

Upon rereading Feathers years later, I realized that the side characters were so far removed from the ones that I had created that no lawyer in the land could prove an infringement on, or plagiarism of, Carver’s material.  After getting over that initial spate of confusion, and some feelings of being so stupid as to misremeber those characters, I realized that I had come up with my first original “quality” short story.  And all of those leaps occurred in quiet moments where all I did was ‘sit and think’ about them and the short story, and my relation to them.

The Sounds of Silence

Silence can be difficult to find at times.  We spend so much of our time trying to keep our minds active, focused, and participatory that we’ve cluttered it with noise, under the proviso that “No TV and no beer make Homer crazy”, until we’ve reached a point where our lives are drained of silence.

If you’re one that needs a creative space of silence, and you’re able to find time for it, it’s important to note that there is no specific quantity of silence from which creativity is born.  Laying out such a provocative idea may lead some to say that it doesn’t work for them.  “I tried it,” they will say. “It ain’t for me.”  Our natural retort will be, “Well, how long did you try it?  How much effort did you put into it?”  It’s a pointless –square peg in a round role– discussion for some, of course, because all minds are different.  For those creative minds that don’t know how their brains work yet, and the others that have to deal with them, this may be an eye-opener.  For those that experience writer’s block, or creative fatigue, silence may be the one method they haven’t tried yet.

interactionYour silence should be drained of distractions.  We all have minor distractions that pervade our silence, such as what sassy Susie said to us the other day; the delicious burger that we’re planning to eat tonight; reliving the Blackhawks championship run; and how the stand-up comedian described going to the bathroom in the toilet tank as going top shelf, and we all have an almost unnatural propensity to dwell on those ideas.  To void your mind of such distractions, I like to think of the process the Tom Cruise character went through in the movie Minority Report, when interacting with the futuristic gestural interface to find the information he wanted in its database.

Not all silence should be active, or focused, but it does require a certain degree of participation to find the undiluted creative area.  Focusing yourself into specifics is difficult, of course, but if you can swipe these distractions away, you can achieve various specific, creative thoughts on the subjects of your own choosing.  The key to creative thought, in my opinion, is to create an eighth day in which you, the god of your creation, can rest with everything that hit you in the previous seven days.  The key is to avoid putting headphones on when you jog, mow, or workout at the gym.  Some may go so far as to “just sits” in a quiet room, others may take long drives alone to nowhere with the radio in the off position.

I found the perfect vehicle for freeing my mind, a while back, when I got myself the most brainless job imaginable.  I didn’t do that for this purpose, of course.  When I was forced, by management, to do away with all distractions for the ostensible purpose of placing all of my focus on a job that I could’ve accomplished in early R.E.M. stages, I achieved a state of blankness.  Not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have found such a tedious job, I understand, and for those of you forced to focus on a demanding job will need to find another avenue, but many have found silent moments to stew.

This blaring horn of creative silence can also be found in the most innocuous places like a doctor’s waiting room.  My advice: once you reach that point where you’ve waited so long that you’re so bored that the urge to pick up that magazine –you’d never read otherwise–overwhelms you, fight that urge.  Fight that urge and stare out at the dregs of humanity that wait with you.  Look at that guy with tousled hair and frayed jeans, in a short-sleeved shirt, and wonder why no one ever taught him how to dress.  When you’re engaged in the monotony of lawn work, fight the urge to wear headphones, and pick those dandelions naked … without aural accompaniment, or stimuli of any kind.  Free the mind from everything that you’ve been jamming into it for the previous seven days, and “just sits there” on an eighth day of rest, and the rest will follow.

The Debilitating Fear of Failure


“The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “Is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the ones that stick take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers the moment we enter a room, and some people will remember our failings, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick

Pastor Steven Furtick

“Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars. An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet. At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance. These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see any benefit to them.

Most of those liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground so forgivable that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to receive any pain. Thanks to these and other technological advances, fewer children get hurt on playgrounds, fewer playground ride manufacturers get sued, and everyone is much happier. There is one casualty, however, the pain of failure.

No one wants to see a child cry, and we should do everything we can to prevent it, but pain teaches us.

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker complimented me on the agility and nimbleness I displayed to avoid hitting the ground. “It could be that,” I returned, “or it could be said that only one so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to lessen the pain and injury normally associated with it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion. I also touched a parked car, and then I touched the ground again. Among the lessons I learned is that pain hurts. Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting. This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls everyone will be looking, some will be concerned, and most will be laughing. I thought I had corrected my trajectory a number of times, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they have no association with them. These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right. The point is, no matter how we deal with these moments of failure, we usually end up having to deal with them alone. If we learn how to deal with these largely inconsequential moments, The more we deal with them, the better we are able to deal with more consequential failures down the road.

The point is that the lessons learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns. The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that any benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective  might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

In the process of becoming an artist, every individual artist has a shining light that influences them. That shining light provides a template for which the artistic form, that interests the young artist, should be accomplished. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that shining light of influence is Stephen King, since he is the most ubiquitous and influential author to most young writers of the modern age. After reading King often enough, a young writer may believe he can write like King. After repeated attempts, this young writer eventually realizes he can’t write like King, but in the course of those efforts he may have almost inadvertently created a voice that is somewhat his own. After repeated attempts to further develop this voice, some otherwise inconsequential person comes along, reads his stuff, and picks out a line or two saying, “That’s halfway decent.”  Buoyed by the compliment, the writer expands upon those few lines and begins to grow so divergent that the Stephen King influence is no longer as recognizable in his writing.

The point of this very succinct summation of the artistic process is that if the writer gets bogged down in any phase of the process, with the idea that he can’t write duplicate King’s highlight reels the writer is done before they get started. If that young writer eventually learns that taking that influence, from that influential writer, is simply a part of the process to developing a voice, he may be able to develop his own highlight reels.

1455Ernest Hemingway

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him? How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about 1 percent of what he wrote was usable. Think about that, 1 percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea. The other 99 percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards. Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

“Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing. We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published. Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away. Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”. Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable. Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature. Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess. Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work. We hear their highlight reels. We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners. Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind. Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved. We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber. “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked. Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was close enough to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation. Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands. How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously? As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner. It’s a step in the process of crafting original works. When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different … if they have any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however. At that point, the artist becomes obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea. Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad. Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good. At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right. When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off? How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with? How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind? How many of different guitar structures did Cobain and company work through, until he arrived at something usable? How many Nevermind lifted music or lyrics from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists? What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions? How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on? If Cobain were alive to answer the question, would he acknowledge that Nevermind is a 1% highlight reel of about a decade of work? Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide. That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us. The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or whatever your blank canvas is, remember that all of those geniuses —that so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create. You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because the only thing you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml