On Puzzles

01: Creativity

“You start out thinking, ‘You know the nice thing about paper is I can do whatever with it,’ but the irony becomes, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to screw up this pretty notebook that I kind of don’t deserve.’” (source)Merlin Mann

Starting a new project (in this case, I’m specifically talking about a piece of writing) is awful. You have to start somewhere, and that somewhere normally isn’t very good. Rather than make that first mark, you delay…maybe forever. You’re too afraid to pollute the pristine page with your garbage prose.

But as I’ve been working on my personal statement for grad school, I’ve started to realize that starting a new piece of writing is actually the easiest part. You already have a general idea of what you want to say, and your job is simply to transfer that image from your brain to the page. In that way, writing is like a puzzle. At the start, you look at the picture on the box, pour all the pieces onto the table, and put together the corners and edges. The end is also pretty easy too, because at that point you’re fitting the final pieces together and it’s blatantly obvious where they go.

The hardest part is the middle. Because in the middle, you’re stuck on this one little section. You know what you’re trying to make, but just knowing isn’t enough. It’s a tree. Every piece is the same shade of green. Nothing is fitting together, but you keep trying different combinations, and then you forget what you have and haven’t tried so you accidentally retry some combination you’ve already tried, but this time it fits for some inexplicable reason, and now those two pieces are connected. And then you do that again and again until you can finally see a tree. Then you move onto the fountain, which is an equally frustrating section, except that it’s gray instead of green. But eventually you finish the fountain. And the building. And the car. And your puzzle looks like the picture you set out to create.

Well…almost. It’s not a perfect replica. The image on the box doesn’t have all the jigsaw lines where the pieces fit together. It also doesn’t have that weird stain from the coffee spill that totally wasn’t your fault. And there isn’t a weird messed up bit in the bottom left that the dog chewed on.

It’s not a perfect replica of what you imagined it’d be in your head (or on the box), but it’s pretty close. It’s good enough. It’s done. It’s the best version of the image that you can possibly make.*

*Check out The Gap by Ira Glass for more on this

02: Improv

Starting is also easy (or should be) because the stakes are low. No one is ever going to see the first draft.

Improv is the exact opposite.

If you’ve ever tried to watch recorded improv, you’ll notice it’s not very good. Even the TJ and Dave documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up is only OK. It’s a far cry from seeing the duo live. Something gets lost in translation.

That something is the process. That’s what the audience comes to see at an improv show. They’re not interested in a polished, hilarious piece. Instead, they want to witness the act of creation. They want to watch a group of actors put something together in real time. The magic of the show is that process succeeding. That’s why every improv story ends with, “I guess you just had to be there.”

In a recording or retelling, the process is lost. The magic of creating your first draft live doesn’t transfer to film.

“Funny now that I have a four-year-old budding mechanic, who actually spends a great deal of his time copying photos and drawings of cars, taking them apart in his mind and putting them back together on the page to figure out how they work.

What I love about my son’s drawings is that he does not really care about them once he’s finished them. To him, they are dead artifacts, a scrap of by-product from his learning process.”(source)Austin Kleon

03: Inspiration

I am always impressed that certain authors, bloggers, podcasters, and the like can stay laser-focused on a single topic for so long…years even. Jimmy Carrane, who hosts a popular improv podcast, has produced 236 episodes that follow the same formula. Maron’s done over 700 interviews with artists of different stripes. Meanwhile, I can’t not change up this blog every six months to a year. I have too many competing interests.

For a while, that bothered me. I felt undisciplined. I worried people might think I was scatterbrained.

But my thinking was too narrow. I was defining my blog by a specific topic (first improv, then creativity, then…some other weird stuff). What I should have been doing was defining my blog by a theme.

“The connective thread is YOU. YOU are the one who is passionate about these different interests. SO passionate, mind you, that you’re not willing to sacrifice any of them to focus your brand on just one.” (source)Caroline Zook

This blog (or my brand, or whatever) isn’t about improv, or creativity, or inspiration. It’s about all three. It’s about how all three of those pieces come together to form a bigger picture of me—who I am, what I believe, what I’ve learned. Writing this blog is like putting together a puzzle, and the picture my interests make when they come together is far greater than any single piece on its own.

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.