My Name is Mud

3-thingsAlfred Hitchcock meticulously planned out every shot in his films long before he set foot on the set. Then he waddled on with precise storyboards, his angles, lenses, lighting directions all completely worked out.
Most artists aren’t so controlled. Many of us sit down to a blank page with only an inkling of what we will do with it. Then we lay down the first lines, the first words, the first notes and begin to play around. While some novelists plot out their stories on index cards and detailed notes, others enjoy discovering where the plot will twist as much as their readers.
There is a danger inherent in either approach.
For the Planner, there is the danger of staleness, of uninspired, mechanical execution. Hitch found shooting a film to be quite a bore— he was simply executing the comprehensive instructions he had already laid out for himself and his crew. His films, while beautiful and gripping always have a certain cool, artificial quality because of his iron grip, and he rarely got the best performances from his actors.
But for the Free Spirit, there is quite another danger: the descent into mud. You look out the window to see the sun shining and the road beckoning and stride out, a sandwich in your pocket and a breeze in your hair, off to look for adventure. But, at some point in the journey, a storm may brew. The sky darkens, the horizon disappears behind clouds, the road fills with potholes and puddles and you, still driven and unwitting, plod on. Eventually you collapse — dirty, wet, miserable and lost.

rooftopsWhen all of the colors of the spectrum merge, they form clear, pure white light. But when you combine all the colors in your paint box, you always get that same khaki brown.
Sometimes, particularly when I am painting, I will get a picture to a certain point and then, unhappy with the way it looks, I’ll go too far. I’ll deepen the shadows, I’ll strengthen the outlines, and then when I’m very desperate, I’ll introduce some garishly bright color to distract the eye, vermillion skies, chartreuse skin. It never works.
Painfully, it’s when I am doing a commission or making a present for someone that I am most likely to encounter this problem. Some part of my brain will not let go and sits in the background, whining and harping and firing suggestions. Instead of letting the piece takes its natural course, I try to twist it in a direction it doesn’t want to go and the results is mud.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in my career in advertising so many times. Because the process requires the approval and opinions of many people and compromise is often the watchword of the day, we slop a lot of mud. How often I’ve been working with a composer on the score of a TV spot only to have a client wade in with ‘issues’ and suggestions. Soon new layers of drums and strings and effects are thrown over the music until it is muffled under a blanket. The same happens with writing, as adjectives and claims get inserted at the last minute like tumors metastasizing on paragraphs that had been edited and polished until they were organic and easy on the ear. So often the reason is stated: ”Sure,you understand it the way you’ve written it, we understand it, but will the consumer understand it? Let’s emphasize the main points more strongly. “And so additional legs and wings and humps are sewn on to the monster, not because anyone’s gut instinct requires them but because of second guessing and lack of vision.
When Jack was in preschool, there was one teacher whose class always did the most amazing paintings. Each one was clear and sharp and intelligent, Picassos in a sea of muddy fingerpaints. I asked her what she taught her kids, what she said to keep their visions so pure. She replied, “I don’t tell them anything, really. I just know when to take their paper away.”