Move the Piano First

For much of my life, I resisted with extreme prejudice the notion of planning or structuring any creative endeavour before just diving into it. To me, that shit was for everyone else. Everyone born my natural talent. My creative genius.

I laboured for years under the belief that to pick something apart before I’d even begun was tantamount to shooting babies in the womb. I saw it as a sign of weakness and of fear and of a general unwillingness to trust the wisdom of the universe. I didn’t want to disturb my Muse. I didn’t want to reduce the awesome, life-changing work I was trying to do to formulaic, hack work – the sort of shit anybody could come up with.

So I resolved that, unlike all the others, I just didn’t need structure. That’s not the way I rolled. I was “creative” – giving myself constraints would only hurt me, and by extension my masterful work. I would fly by the seat of my pants, maintain constant forward momentum, and refuse to get bogged down with so called “structure.”

In case you haven’t guessed by now, that didn’t exactly work out for me.

No thread

It wasn’t that my work was bad. Some of it was even quite good. But it was all, without exception, sloppy and ill-conceived.

Everything I put my hand to was littered with promising moments – a poignant turn of phrase here, a wicked guitar break there – but there was no thread, nothing tying any of it together. I was the musical and literary equivalent of a chef who desperately throws random ingredients into a pan and hopes for the best. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I thought that my outlook made me radical and unique. Fortunately, time is a healer, and I see now that it was simpler than that – I was less a radical and more just an idiot. An idiot with a lot of potential, but an idiot nonetheless.

I had noble intentions – I wanted to be somebody who really lays it on the line for their art, who digs down into his soul and creates really deep, thoughtful, cathartic work – but deep down I knew they couldn’t save me. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to be radical and unique, if it makes you lose sight of actually being any good.

Fortunately, something came along that stopped me from scrabbling around on my knees in the dark. I took the brave decision to confront the one thing I was most afraid of – structure.

Move the piano first

If you were helping somebody move house, and in their living room they had a 200kg piano, when would it make sense to lift that into the truck? First thing in the morning, whilst you’re fresh, or last thing in the afternoon, once you’re exhausted from moving all their other crap?

The right answer is first thing, obviously, when your muscles are at their freshest. But there’s another reason besides – it’s easier to put the piano into the truck when it’s empty. If you wait until you’ve filled the truck with all the boxes and other stuff, and then try to put the piano in, then you’re going to struggle. But put the piano in, and suddenly you’ve got something you can fit everything else around.

And this analogy, in a round-about way, explains how I started to see structure as something that could actually help me, rather than something scary and evil.

The paradox of choice

You think you want freedom. You think you want choices. And you do, but only to a point.

When you get that first hit of inspiration-juice, that first little glimpse into what cool thing you might want to create, be it a romance novel or a horror film or a rose garden, it’s hard not to get caught up in that delicious feeling that anything and everything is possible.

You stroll around the idea-space, exploring this nook and that cranny, reveling in all the things that could be. “That might be nice.” “I’ll try that.” “Ooh, if I do that, I can also do this…”

Unfortunately, that honeymoon period doesn’t last.

Soon, what seemed like an artist’s wet-dream becomes a living nightmare. And there’s a simple reason. It’s called “The Paradox of Choice.” Barry Schwartz wrote a whole book on it in 2004. For our purposes, however, all you need to understand is this: that to a point, autonomy and freedom of choice increase our well-being. But once you go past that point, you don’t just get a diminishing rate of returns. Your well-being actually decreases.

You feel lost. You feel blocked. You feel stupid. I know I did.

Structure to the rescue

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Or rather, what do you when you can perceive so many possibile options it feels impossible to pick one? Well, let’s pretend you wanted to write a love story.

You’ve had the idea for years, you just never put pen to paper. You know your characters – your lead couple – and you’ve got a few ideas about how it all fits together. You think about planning and structuring it, but you want to be as free as possible in case the Muse gives you a dynamite idea – you don’t want to feel hemmed in – and so you decide to just get started.

Day one. You’ve got your coffee. You sit down at your desk. You start typing. A couple of hours later and you’ve got a couple of chapters written. It feels good. Day two. Three more chapters. You think of something you’ll have to go back and fix later, but that doesn’t bother you – you’re making great progress! Day three is a hair trickier – it’s the first time you sit there unsure of what should happen next. But you barrel through anyway, making something up you can always change later, thinking that hopefully tomorrow you’ll have your mojo back. Day four is actually even more difficult. You hit another wall. Still, you persist. But when day five finds you coming up completely blank, you decide to take a break. You put your pages in a drawer and promise yourself you’ll revisit them in a week or two.

And you never look at it again. But what happened? What was the problem?

The problem was that, in not wanting to limit your creativity, you gave yourself more freedom than you could handle. Since anything could happen, you had no way of judging what should happen.

Let’s try it a different way.

The essential few vs. the trivial many

Back to basics. What were you trying to do before it went off the rails? Write a story. Okay, fine. But can we narrow it down any more than that? Oh, look, yes, we can – you wanted to write a love story. Okay. So… let’s find out what makes a love story a love story.

According to my hero Shawn Coyne, of Story Grid fame, a love story has 6 obligatory scenes – 6 moments that must occur somewhere in your story, or else it will not “work” as a love story. Here they are:

  • The lovers meet
  • First kiss/intimate connection
  • Confession of love
  • The lovers break up
  • Proof of love
  • The lovers reunite

Those 6 moments are the “essential few” of a love story. Nail them, and whilst the rest of it won’t write itself, it will be a damn sight easier to make choices with the most important parts of the story in place.

If instead you focus on the trivial many – what day of the week it is in chapter 7, the name of your leading lady’s hairdresser, whether her father came the French part of Switzerland or the German part – you will go round in circles until you tear your hair out, tear up your manuscript, or both.

Far from making you feel hemmed in and “uncreative”, my guess is that focusing on those 6 moments until they were really cooking would find you writing the best damn stuff of your life.

Structure is freedom

That’s the uncomfortable truth. That’s the thing I resisted for so many years. That’s the thing for which I am now frantically playing catch-up.

Structure – the appropriate amount, of course – is most definitely freedom. It makes you more creative, not less. It makes life easier, not harder. It makes what you’re doing more fun, not less.

And at its very simplest, structure is nothing more than what I described a moment ago – doing the more important things before the less important things. Ignoring the trivial many to focus on the essential few. Moving the piano first.

You’re free to do it the other way round. I won’t stop you. But I will warn you against it. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll run yourself in circles for years, wondering why everything has to be so difficult, and why no matter how many hours you put in, your work just never seems to get any better. Why not save yourself the bother, and skip straight to the part where the effort you put in does make a difference, because you’re putting it into the right places?

Nail the essential few, and the trivial many will fall into place.

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