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A situation I’ve faced while working with clients and collaborators as well as on my own -- in everything from writing a movie script to creating a post for a brand for Instagram -- is originality versus experimentation. It makes sense to look at what others are doing, understand what we like, as well as what seems to work and what doesn't, and let it influence our next steps. But can this go too far? How much should we abide by these so-called “best practices,” and how much by our own creative impulse?
One factor that makes its way into this conversation in our contemporary context is that performance metrics are easier to come by than ever before. Every post we make on social media is immediately assessed by number of likes. Behind-the-scenes analyses are more extensive. I recently learned that the emotional tendencies of tweets tweeted following the airing a show are recorded and analyzed, and their conclusions sold to advertisers. So, sad tweets after show = more ice cream commercials next episode.
Performance metrics seem to have their pros and cons. When something works and is good, it makes some sense to do more of it. At the same time, enough of the same is enough. In Hollywood, many of the movies that are made are done so because movies just like them that came before performed well at the box office. Books like Save the Cat prescribe aspiring screenwriters with a downright formula: this needs to happen on page 92 of your script, that needs to happen on page 47. Make your character literally save a cat, and the audience will like him better.
Not enough likes on an Instagram post can lead to a certain insecurity, and being told how to proceed provides confidence. For instance, the Instagram tip du jour: include a large-text quippy quote for more likes. Yet the obvious problem in suggestions such as these is the normalizing effect. Everything online starts to look the same. Everything offline starts to look the same.
This can be true across our own bodies of work as well. One of my favorite professors in architecture graduate school told me to look at the really successful artists, architects, filmmakers etc. and consider what they all had in common. They all do one thing. They do one thing over and over and over again. Clients and audiences know what they’re going to get. In fact, ‘one thing’ is exactly what that professor does, and his business and brand are successful. (I mean this with the utmost respect. His one thing is good!)
To do the opposite seems to suggest a certain lack of seriousness and rigor. So, I get that. I understand that if someone is doing one thing one day and something else the next, they’re not honing in on whatever inquiries they might be making along the way, and pushing themselves further. But also… maybe they have a lot of questions, enough to last a lifetime. Or, maybe, there really is a lack of seriousness. And by that I mean fun. Play. When I think of someone having fun, I think of them as having an utter lack of self-consciousness. And in the context of an utter lack of self-consciousness, I think originality thrives.
It’s probably not revolutionary to say that perhaps there’s an optimal middle ground: somewhere in between proven ‘best practices’ and a person’s own un-self-conscious lack of seriousness (perhaps characterized as ‘play’) great art happens.
I think a great recent example is the movie Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from the book she also wrote.
Room is recognizable as a movie. It’s the length a movie should be. It tells a story in which events catalyze the development of characters. The scenes go down in a way its audience has grown accustomed to. But unlike the three-act structure that contemporary movies tend to be built off, Room has two: a front half and a back half. It is a structure, it turns out, that suits the story perfectly. It works so well. Donoghue said a two-act structure was a natural decision; the same for the book and the movie. She probably didn't even refer to it as "two acts." It was just how she wrote it. And there aren't any cats.
I assume experimenting with something new and unknown and relying on what we know works is something that creatives of all sorts must continue to consider as they move through their careers, and that my own feelings on it will continue to evolve. For now, I think I'll rest with a few opinions -- that what is natural for us is no doubt influenced and internalizes the things we see around us; that everything we make is part of the same system of everything that came before it; that when our creative impulse meets up with our rigor, good projects are the result.