Lesson Four: The Discipline of Forgetting
There is an anecdotal story of an ad agency that was hiring a new creative director. They sent him a sample ad to complete. Likely it was for some analgesic pain reliever. He came back with a headline and copy that was something like: “Relieves your headache pain 4 ways.”
The ad agency knew a brilliant and simple solution when they saw one. They hired the guy, so the story goes.
First day on the job, they asked him to come up with the creative concept for an auto ad. He came back with: “BMW…it’s a better drive four ways.” Well, almost predictably, his fashion ad was: “Four different ways that Prada is better this spring.”
What’s going on here? This creative director had one ad, one approach in him. He was locked in a groove, using the same well-worn and familiar neural pathways for every new challenge.
That’s not being creative. That’s a one-hit wonder. Really creative people are always changing how they approach the work of communicating. A modern example? David Bowie.
Yes, real creativity borrows from the past, from the culture, from the milieu, and then crafts something new and beautiful from those elements. If it isn’t new and beautiful, it will not break through the ceiling of making the commonplace unusual, and making the unusual commonplace, which we addressed in Lesson Three.
If some of this sounds familiar, it is. T.S. Eliot’s landmark essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is an analysis of the responsibility of the artist to communicate by drawing upon his or her tradition – all the while making something new and distinctive. In pure arts or the applied arts of advertising and promotion, the producer, the maker is charged with communicating and expressing a message in a manner that will strike, illumine, delight and inform the recipient.
That’s where the discipline of forgetting comes in. Yes, the artist operates within his or her own culture, discipline or craft. However, to make something that is memorable and communicates, the artist must put something of himself or herself into the work. The artist must also use metaphor, image, and nuance to create a shorthand language that communicates.
No matter the medium; be it oil paint, pastels, watercolor, stone, glass, musical notes, words, fabric, wood, soapstone, whatever, the artist brings to each work his or her own taste, skill, and original expression. Critical to that process is the originality which arises from the artist’s own skills and being. The artist thus needs to forget what he or she made a day ago. The artist needs to move beyond the clichéd, hackneyed and mundane. That’s where the power of original communication resides.
The experienced writer will eschew clichés, while writing from within the tradition. The tradition will involve the canons of grammatical construction and good taste…but the artist must also be prepared to abandon the rules on occasion and bring forth something new. I’m not talking about originality for its own sake – but innovation that has a new sensibility; a new idea of beauty. We tend to honor those who find new ways to communicate and who advance a creative medium. I’m thinking of American author William Faulkner who chose the severely developmentally challenged Benjy as the narrator for The Sound and the Fury.
The work of the creative person is to utilize his or her medium to communicate and enlighten. The phrase that captures it for me is: “long ago Michelangelo butchered rocks to free the men inside.”
Real creativity, the type that makes people stop and pay attention or transforms how we think or feel – that has its origins in the ability to understand the existing tradition, the craft as practiced by contemporary artists and makers…and then to move past it, and add to it.
The greatest artists plough new territory that is also familiar.
Sometimes that occurs when we perceive differently, and when we forget or look past what we have in hand, to genuinely ask what is missing and how can we express ourselves differently..
Richard M. Landau is a multiple award-winning TV producer, screenwriter, author, columnist and published poet.