013. Storytelling as archaeology
Lowering the bar for creativity
When it comes to spontaneity and storytelling, Keith Johnstone observes in Impro that his students are often paralyzed by perfectionism:
If I tell a student, ‘Say a word’, he’ll probably gawp. He wants a context in which his answer will be ‘right’. He wants his answer to bring credit to him, that’s what he’s been taught answers are for.
Coming up with something creative on your own feels really high-pressure. You want to prove that you’re original, that you’re clever.
But how would you feel if I told you that your story already exists?
Story as fossil
In his book On Writing, Stephen King compares stories to fossils :
Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... part of an undiscovered pre-existing world
King describes how your job as a writer is to carefully excavate this fossil without breaking it.
You know what that means?
You don’t even know what the fossil is at first!
It is through the process of excavating that you discover whether your fossil is a T-rex or a trilobite.
Detaching art from ego
If we believe that art is self-expression, then someone who criticizes your art is essentially criticizing your self-worth. But the concept of art as self-expression is relatively new in the history of mankind.
In ancient Greek culture, human artists were vessels, channeling the muses and the gods’ divine inspiration.
In traditional physical crafts like sculpture and carpentry, the artist is often listening to the raw materials.
The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.
For example, a Chinese inkstone artisan describes his thought process for one of his pieces:
This stone has a really good texture… The only problem is there is some white quartz on the stone.
But that’s how it is naturally. So we’ll try and keep it, and design the stone in a way that turns its flaws into something perfect.1
This year, June Huh was awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. He had this to say about art and creation:
Huh himself draws parallels between the artist and the mathematician. For both, he said, “it feels like you’re grabbing something that’s already there, rather than creating something in your mind.”2
Collaborate with your story
You can have this type of conversation with any type of creative work.
For example, Johnstone is working with an actress and asks her to come up with a story. She freezes and says that she can’t think of one.
So Johnstone flips it. He goes:
“Suppose I think of one and you guess what it is.”
At once she relaxes, and it’s obvious how very tense she was…
She agrees, and begins to ask him questions about his story. What she doesn’t know is that Johnstone does not have a story in mind. Rather, he simply answers with the following algorithm:
say “yes” to any question that ends in a vowel
say “no” to any question that ends in a consonant
say “maybe” to any question that ends with the letter “Y”
She then easily comes up with a story because “she doesn’t feel obliged to be ‘creative’, or ‘sensitive’ or whatever, because she believes the story is my invention.”
Thinking up stories is hard, but getting them to come to you is easy.
Tomorrow, I’ll share a case study of how I’ve been using these principles in songwriting!
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