If that headline make you want a video of The Rolling Stones performing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” then you can get what you want here. I’d like to propose that what you need is a blog post tying this philosophical principle to the creative process.
Imagine your goal is to write a novel that sweeps the reader along. You decide what you want is tight prose devoid of detail. You find yourself recalling that high school English class in which you were forced to read Faulkner, and suffered as he took three hundred words to describe a sunset. So you say you’ll emulate Hemingway, by stripping down your prose to pages of dialogue, losing any descriptive language.
What you likely will lose is your reader. Hemingway’s prose was tight. He pruned his prose insistently, once confessing to F. Scott Fitzgerald that he produced 91 pages of excrement for every one page of gold, and did his best to discard the waste material. But Papa’s labor filled his prose with detail. Here’s the opening to A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in the village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.
In three sentences, Hemingway has placed me squarely in a scene thick with tension, one in which idyllic beauty is upturned by potentially hostile intent. Had I assumed the only lesson I could learn from Hemingway was how to write pages of dialogue without the use of “he said” and “she said,” I would have failed to get my readers what they needed.
It is natural for us to fixate on a perceived solution to our problem, such that we close our mind to possibility. There may be other, better means to our true objective.
Father’s Day is again upon us. My wife and kids asked me what I wanted to do that day. I didn’t really know. What do I like? I asked myself. I like Tex-Mex food, I replied. Recently I heard of a Tex-Mex restaurant not too far away that is supposed to be pretty good, so I considered telling my family that I wanted us to go there. I was pretty sure that I would have a good time (I can’t speak for the three of them). But what if I just said, “You know, I like Tex-Mex food,” and left it at that. Perhaps instead they would create a fiesta on our deck, my son grilling steak and shrimp, my daughter making fresh guacamole, my wife serving me a margarita made with my favorite añejo tequila. That would be pretty nice as well. But that scenario couldn’t happen if I closed off the possibility with an insistence on a particular restaurant.
I received a call recently at my day job from a gentleman with a very specific–and impossible–want. Before immediately saying no, I asked what his goal was for this request. When he told me, I was pleased, because there were many things I could do for him that would, in my opinion, do even more to meet his needs. He declined my many offers. Well, he never formally declined any of them, because he didn’t actually listen to any of them. Every time I proposed a solution to his problem, he interrupted me, repeating his original want. Each repetition increased both in volume and belligerence. The conversation, thus, was fated to end with him disappointed in not getting what he wanted, and me disappointed he didn’t permit me to give him what he needed.
Mick Jagger is still seeking what he wants, and presumably getting what he needs. He killed recently as a guest host on Saturday Night Live, as spry and ironically witty as ever. Something tells me he remains open to possibility. I wish to do the same in my personal life, my professional life, and my creative life.