Dig Deep

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ve come across two works recently that got me thinking about the importance of analysis in creativity.

The first was a passage from Steven Hyden’s 2018 book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. The book explores, among other things, cultural aspects of the time period (primarily the late 1960s through the 1980s) that gave us the music genre known as “classic rock.” Hyden puts the lie to the oft-quoted myth that half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. He cites 1981, when there were 2.4 million new marriages and 1.2 million divorces. While 1.2 million was half the number of marriages that occurred that year, in fact it was only 2% of total existing marriages. Statistics don’t lie, but they are often misreported.

The second work was an article from FiveThirtyEight that analyzed the reporting of U.S. employment statistics. The article demonstrated that while the federal government reported an unemployment rate of 3.6% for April, 2019, a deeper analysis of the data produced a more realistic unemployment rate of 6.9% (and this doesn’t even touch on the quality of the jobs that do exist).

Photograph of the Grand Canyon in Arizona
Remember, no depth = no Grand Canyon

These are both examples of creativity, not in making up something that didn’t exist before, but in demonstrating a truth that wasn’t obvious at first glance. This kind of in-depth analysis is relevant to all creative activities. One reason I prefer novels over short stories is the opportunity to dig deeper into a particular story or character (I’m not knocking short stories, they play an important role in literature, it’s just a different experience).

We see this in movies, also. When Francis Ford Coppola agreed to direct The Godfather Part III, the studio wanted a movie focused on a new, young Godfather. Coppola felt there was more to tell about the trilogy’s central character Michael Corleone, completing the character arc begun in the first Godfather film. I think The Godfather Part III is a highly underrated film for that reason. Actors also employ a “dig deep” approach. To prepare for his role in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis read about oil tycoon Edward Doheny, studied photographs and letters from oil workers of the time, and listened to audio recordings from the late 1800s and early 1900s to develop his character’s voice. There’s good reason Day-Lewis’ performance was so compelling, and why it’s so hard to imagine anyone else in that role.

I’ve experienced this with my own writing. A novel I’m working on currently is a project I first conceived of years ago. Only after a lot of time thinking about the story and characters, preparing an outline, and making several false starts, was I finally ready to move forward. I needed a deeper understanding of the character arcs and the tone of the story before I could seriously begin the writing process.

Photo of typed, printed, draft manuscript
My own creative work – a first draft I couldn’t complete for years until I sufficiently analyzed the story and characters

Life is short and we often feel pressed for time in the day-to-day busyness of life. It can be easy to churn out content for its own sake. Some of that work might even find commercial success, but will it have any lasting significance? You and your audience will get more out of your work if you take time to give it depth. The most enduring creative work doesn’t come from glossing over subject matter, but engaging in deep thoughts on your intent and the real truths on which your work is founded.

Give your characters, your phrasing, your cinematography, or your canvas, the analysis they deserve. Dig deep into your work. You’ll be a more effective artist, and you’ll have no regrets later that you didn’t do your best.

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