Laying the foundation

Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, tells the story of working on the musical Moving Out, set to Billy Joel’s work. She listened to all of his music, watched all of his music videos, read or watched every interview with him, watched iconic movies of the Vietnam war like Full Metal Jacket, read and watched correspondence of the war, watched TV dance shows from the era to remember what the dances looked like, reviewed news clippings from the era, etc.

Do all of these influences make it into the final work? Probably not. Do they play a part in how the final work evolved? Almost certainly.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with Joel Johnson, a professional blogger and freelance journalist. I was picking his brain about the craft of writing, and we were talking about the ruthless process of editing. He told me that great journalists do interviews with everybody associated with the story and spend time in the library, accumulating an enormous amount of background material. Their challenge isn’t finding enough words to fill their piece. It’s finding the room for all the words they want to put in, so they have to cut every unnecessary word, every sentence that doesn’t contribute to the central idea of the piece.

Joel claimed you could tell the hacks because they hadn’t done the research and could afford to ramble. Alternatively, they went in with an idea, and only did the bare minimum of research necessary to find supporting evidence. The good journalists do the research, collect all sides of the story and then sift through their accumulated material to find the core of their piece. Once they have that core, it gives them the focus to cut away everything else.

As an aside, he recommended the work of Gay Talese, especially his profile Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, where he never actually got to interview Frank Sinatra but made the piece work anyway.

This approach also applies to the business world. While working on my master’s project, my mentor kept on pushing me to dig deeper, researching the competition, reading more material, etc. He reminded me that while the nominal deliverable was a brief business plan and a ten minute presentation, those were just the visible results. The real deliverable was an expert in the field, somebody who had done the research and could be trusted to make the right decision.

My mentor emphasized finding the core of the idea. The research was a necessary precondition to finding the idea that filled a market need by positioning the proposed product in the market, and that core idea evolved as I did more research. But finding that idea is what allowed me to construct the final presentation and business plan deliverables. I had too much to include in my ten minute presentation, so I had to pare away everything that wasn’t relevant to that core.

That “extraneous” research wasn’t wasted, though. I needed to have done it to find the core idea, and it informed what I ended up doing. It definitely made it easier to answer questions at my presentation because I had considered other options and knew why I had rejected them.

I find it fascinating that the same process is used in three seemingly divergent fields like art, journalism and business.

  1. Do directed but unbiased research
  2. Find and develop a core idea
  3. Edit away everything that doesn’t contribute to that core idea.

Doing that research up front lays the foundation for everything that comes later. You can’t find the best ideas unless you have considered them all. If you go in with a preconceived idea, your research will necessarily be limited to what will support that idea. And while it seems wasteful because that research isn’t used directly in the end resuit, it informs all of the creative decisions in the process of developing that result.

Research requires discipline, to keep seeking new sources and confirming that you aren’t missing anything. It can be drudgery, but it makes the end result better by laying a solid foundation. And so we return to the theme of discipline. Discipline is needed to not take any shortcuts, and to do the work necessary for the desired final result.

Are we sensing a theme yet in what I’m concerned about in my life right now?

P.S. We’ve been asked at work to start writing a corporate blog. If you want to know what I sound like in salesman mode, you can go read my articles about the company and its products.

P.P.S. I circumnavigated Manhattan on my bike yesterday for the first time. It’s about 30 miles and most of it is a nice ride, as there’s a bike path that goes about 90% of the way around the island. Yesterday was the first time I tried to maneuver my way through the 40 blocks of Harlem where there’s no bike path – I found a way through, but it wasn’t pleasant and I’ll probably just turn around and avoid it in the future.

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