Tuesday, July 11, 2006

How do you believe in a mystery?

"Here's a question: How do you believe in a mystery, in something you don't understand and can't prove? When we're children we're encouraged to believe in some mysterious things that turn out to not necessarily be true at all - things like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny or the flag. Naturally, we're disappointed after our illusions have been shattered, but usually we get over it. Some of us, however, become skeptical, even cynical, after that.

I've been asked on many occasions how I write my songs. Often I'll glibly reply, "I sure don't wake up in the morning and sharpen pencils." Then I'll admit how lazy and lucky I am, and how successful and downright great some of the more notorious pencil sharpeners have been -- two of my heroes, Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin, being among them.

If I'm feeling expansive I'll bring up the mysterious aspect, the mere five to 10 percent that matters the most -- what's commonly called "the inspiration." That's the thing beyond the technique and the discipline, when the sharpening and the gnawing stop, and something, as they say, "comes to you." It's a bit like fishing, really. There's certainly luck involved, but maybe what you took for laziness was (and I'm going out on a limb here) a sort of divine relaxation.

When I write what I consider to be a good song, when I realize it's going to hang together, when I somehow manage to get it into the boat, so to speak, I invariably find myself looking upwards and thanking something or even, dare I say it, Someone. If I'm alone, my heartfelt thank you is often an audible one. Oh, yes, I've been known to mutter a few words at the head of the table at Thanksgiving dinner, or hoarsely whisper an "amen" at a wedding, funeral or Christmas pageant, but usually it is just embarrassed lip service. As a rule I don't give thanks at a dinner table or in a church pew. For me, it happens when I've been hunched over a guitar for a few hours.

I believe in the power of inspiration, in the mysterious gift of creation -- creation with a small "c," that is -- creation as in one's work, hauling in the day's catch. When I write a song, I'm happy for a few days and it's not just because I've been reassured that I still have a job, though that's certainly part of it. Mostly I'm happy, I think, because I've experienced a real mystery. I haven't the slightest idea how it happened or where or from whom or what it came. I'd prefer not to know. In fact, I'd prefer not to talk about it anymore. It might scare the fish away."

This is a wonderful essay that Loudon Wainwright III did a few weeks ago for This I Believe on NPR. For those not familiar with it, start listening to it, it's a wonderful way to get a glimpse into what inspires other people.

Several things really struck me about this piece. First of all, the idea of laziness as divine relaxation. Now certainly all laziness should not be interpreted, justified, or excused in this way. But I do believe that there is a real truth to this idea. In my curriculum at the Adcenter there is a class called Creative Thinking. Each week our professor would assign us some task to do, such as "Seduce someone in the class" or "Write a magazine article about yourself in the year 2025." Things that were simple but required a lot of thought and effort if you wanted your work to be interesting and/or useful.

Whenever I felt stuck on one of these assignments, coming up with nothing but trite ideas and drivel, I would force myself to relax and put it out of my head. Do something else. Or do nothing else. Usually I would perform little exercises like asking myself, "If I were snow I would ...." or starting with some object and working backwards, going bigger and bigger, to see if I could connect it to God. Just things that get the brain working in different ways.

I particularly like the way Wainwright puts it. Divine relaxation. Faced with a big task, with the biggest of tasks, creation, how do you take a first step that you can reasonably trust? The act of creation is like having to learn to trust yourself and your instincts over and over again. And each time I have trouble with it, I have this moment of panic when I think, "Well, that's it, I can't do this any more. It's gone." Overcoming that and getting the buzz back again is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. No matter how much it takes out of us, it gives us back even more.

I also love the idea of creation as experiencing a mystery, of taking part in something that doesn't have or need an explanation. So much of what I do as a student of strategic planning is about explaining things. My new friend Rebecca asked me the other day what exactly strategic planning is. I gave her some long answer about how we are the middlemen that govern the relationships among agencies, clients, creatives, and consumers. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A much better explanation would have been that our job is to explain things to people.

"Well sure, Cliff, but you could say that about lots of jobs. Bank tellers. Financial advisors. The Pope." Okay. You got me there. But what is a little different about planners (though certainly not unique) is that we have to explain things to people about their own businesses. We have to say, "Okay Mr. Sneaker maker, I know that you've been making sneakers your whole life, but I've been looking at your business for a few months now, and I know what you need to do." It's pretty ludicrous when you think about it.

But not when you bring in the element of mystery and inspiration. The ability to convey that mystery, to convey some element of the unexplainable, to really inspire people to follow you into a big risk, that is what we really get paid for. Figuring out my own instincts about those mysteries is what I'm really learning how to do as a planner.

Oh yeah, and writing briefs. We do that too.


Blogger Brad said...

You're back on the blog, sport. Keep it rockin'.

4:44 PM  

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