The Story Economy Blog

Making Things Up is Good Work if You Can Get It

I was an English major nerd, so writing papers was, you know, fun.

It was fun because I got to make stuff up.

There was always this moment after I had read the book or poem or essay, when it was time to let the little piece of inspiration drop into my head, claim it as my idea and then just go with it.

That moment was both scary and freeing: it was creative power and neck-sticking-out, all blended into one.

I remember this feeling vividly because it’s still exactly what I do now. My method is shockingly unchanged in 20 years.

I make things up.

I don’t mean I lie or fabricate or twist around facts. I mean, I look at everything before me, wait for that little piece of inspiration to come from that place where inspiration comes (what I call The Swirl), decide to embrace it, and then put everything I have behind it. It’s just like the old days: creative power and neck-sticking-out, all blended into one. Except now, people’s livelihoods are swept up into it—mine and my clients’.

In the past year, I’ve been called upon to make up more stuff than ever. Really, really cool stuff, like content strategies and brand voices and marketing plans and book proposals and storyboards. As I wrote about last week, I’ve expanded from the world of the one-dimensional deliverable (editor: here is your article, stripped of a point of view, layered with expert quotes and science, and boiled down into consumer-friendly chunks) to the strategy-driven, idea-based deliverable (business owner:here is your marketing strategy/here is what your story is about/here is the scope of what this project is).

But this is what no one in the strategy business wants to say aloud: strategy is just a fancy word for made up.

3,500 Calories Does Not Equal One Strategy

When I say it’s made up, I mean that it’s not a repeatable metric. It relies on gut and inspiration and on being quiet long enough to let the ideas come into your head.

It’s so different than the metrics of our lives and culture. So, I know that if I eat 500 less calories every day for a week, I will lose a pound. Because 3,500 calories equals a pound. I know that if I drive 74 miles an hour, I will make it to that certain spot on Interstate I-71 in 26 minutes. Nate Silver knew that if he created exactly the right algorithm, he’d call the election just right. The people at Google know . . . well, everything.

Sometimes I get the feeling that everyone else who does what I do (storytelling in one form or another, and the strategy behind it) has learned some better way than waiting for ideas to plop into their head. I feel like maybe they’ve tapped into some creativity algorithm.

Or maybe everyone who lives with the creative process day in and day out feels like they are making it up, too. Maybe the most successful creative director on Madison Avenue waits for inspiration to plop into her head the exact same way that I do.

I put something out to my Facebook friends this week, basically asking, “Hey, creative people, are we all just making things up?”

The overwhelming response was, “Um, yeah.”

So I feel better that I’m not in it alone. But still, a powerful love and fear dynamic tugs at me. I love making things up for people, because it’s a chance to connect them with something raw and show them something cool about their business. I love the shaping of ideas into things.

But these moments of terror come, too: because what if I’m molding the wrong shape?¬† What if I didn’t get the whole picture of it before I seized on the inspiration?

There’s this disconnect between creativity and the desire to get the whole picture. On one hand, you really need to know as much as possible about a brand or a person or an idea before you start making things up about it. But on the other hand, if you know too much, it’s paralyzing. You talk yourself out of everything because you see every angle of how it might be wrong.

One of my Facebook friends pointed out that limitations are a real asset: when the universe limits your resources, you’re driven to discover answers (or strategies) that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I find this comforting.

But I also find my hyper-consciousness comforting. I mean, you can’t be hyper-conscious in the moment of creating. Like too much information, too much thinking is paralyzing.

But being hyper-conscious of how the flow happens and what it looks and feels like—while it might make me a little crazy, I think it’s what keeps me in check. It’s what makes me respect the process. And if you don’t respect the process, nothing you’ve made up is worth anything. There’s the repeatable metric.

So, here’s to the grand flow that lets us make stuff up.

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