SETTLING INTO ORBIT: PART II
FINDING THAT FINE LINE WHERE FUNCTION AND FRIVOLITY MEET
by Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
A necessary tension glues inspiration in orbit around more practical forces. The wildness of originality and the safety of strict reasoning each attract and repel, creating a continual dynamic of subtle conflict.
Creativity naturally functions as a rebellious element to order, logic and standardization. It tends to linger on the fringes and in the dark corners and asserts itself at unpredictable moments. "If you read between the lines, thereís a lot of grist there for our writing," suggests Del Deterling, a long-time editor for Progressive Farmer, referring to the American Agricultural Editorís Association professional development workshops. Indeed, how often does the really good stuff in our own stories hide there?
BEYOND THE BASICS
By necessity, creativity involves bringing the "I" of our own insight, perspective and ingenuity into our work and requires boldness and originality. But we canít be too blatant or intrusive that we jeopardize the dignity of the reader or ourselves.
Elmer Kelton, author of 39 Western novels, applauds fellow writer Tony Hillerman for mastering a distinctive but unobtrusive tone. "His style doesnít get in the way, but itís there," Kelton says. "Heís very smooth." Are we toying with the reader just a little bit? Maybe. But is it the kind of play that inspires the readerís confidence and enjoyment?
How do we achieve that careful balancing act? Contempt, either for facts or for the freshness of critical thinking, translates into contempt for the reader.
A thinly veiled contempt plagues modern media, suggests Paula LaRocque, assistant managing editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News. The culprit: too much formula. Regardless of the modern infatuation with meaningless information and mindless entertainment, a "thinking" writer is always better than one who is formulaic, she contends.
"Writing is so close to thinking that you canít separate the two," she says. "The sad thing is we exercise our creativity so little. We are our own censors. We use an idea in a conversation with a friend, but it doesnít find its way into the story. We donít realize thatís the freedom of the writer. Weíre so caught up in the news we donít recognize it. Itís part of creativity to satisfy your own creative bent."
Self-censoring, however, might help creative types from getting carried away. Primitive language, for example, was short and strong, more about needs gratified than lofty ideals, LaRocque says. In modern terms, it was less vague and "lower on the ladder of abstraction."
Becoming defensive about the importance of our creativity doesnít make it more relevant or effective, just as overstating something, or repeating it, doesnít make it truer or more convincing. LaRocque disputes the journalistic myth that facts are dull, and people are always interesting. Turn that around. Arenít people always interesting, though we donít always dig deep enough to find whatís truly unique about them, and facts always dull unless we make the effort to put them in a relevant and moving context?
Putting facts first might feel confining or frustrating for creative types, but forces far better writing. We can be playfully creative with language, images and organization, for example, but can we be intuitive, paradoxical and ironic when observing and describing modern people, issues and events?
"There are not that many bad story ideas, but a lot of them are not well-executed," LaRocque says.
She recounts a metro columnist with the Dallas Morning News, Steve Blow, who used his art for telling the same old story in a new way. Once, Blow used clever wordplay to liven up an annual IRS list of untraceable names. Another time he put a letter in his mailbox and, with the permission of the postal service, followed it on its journey. In pursuing that story, he ended up at the dead-letter office, from which he printed some of the sad and humorous unclaimed correspondence.
In an approach similar to following a letter through the mail, Farm Journal Contributing Editor Pam Henderson wrote a piece on identity preservation last year titled "The Great Divide." In it, she followed a kernel of corn from the tasseled rows in the field through the modern grain handling system.
Details also create a sensual and vivid experience, she adds. "Author Jonis Agee, who spoke once at an agricultural editorís meeting, talked about writing so that people are smelling and tasting," she says. "I think about texture. There are ways to make things have more texture by using description."
She also tries to reveal the character and personality of her sources by describing their actions and mannerisms. "Some people lend themselves particularly well to that," she says. "Thatís the kind of writing I like to read, so thatís the way I write."
Designing an advertisement or promotional campaign is a similar process of absorption, refinement and expression. "To describe the way we approach being inspirational vs. fact-driven, I can very broadly paraphrase Bill Bernbach, leader of the creative revolution of the 1960s, who praised poets for turning facts into ideas," says Mike Campbell, vice preĚident/creative director for Miller Meester. "That is probably the best description I can think of for what the advertising creative process is all about."
"We get a lot of input before ever putting pen to paper or, rather, manipulating the mouse," he continues. "We try to absorb as many facts about the product, marketplace and customer as we can. Then, the creative process kicks in, and nobody, not artists or philosophers, have satisfactorily explained the process."
Apparently, a key to this alchemy is what Campbell describes as "assimilating, incorporating and internalizing," so that the result is "not just knowledge but an understanding."
"What we consider creative is work that is interesting, fresh and simple," he says. "To be very honest about it, we are more craftspeople than artists."
An example of the creative process at work in his agency is the five-year campaign for Raptor, a BASF soybean herbicide. "We used a very imaginative campaign that encouraged and allowed the customer to involve their imagination, as well as their logic," he says. "The term Raptor brings to mind different things, perhaps predatory birds or imaginative dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. It dawned upon us that the eye of a big bird and a big reptile is similar, so we developed a brand icon of a large eyeball and the operative phrase, ĎHungry for Weeds.í When you combine the words and image, you get the message of a very powerful presence."
The assimilation process, which promotes context and critical thinking, takes time. This can conflict with the modern quest for profit, productivity and efficiency.
"By default, creativity in our profession has been dealt severe blows by modern technology. All other functions involved in the gathering and publication of information have been tremendously accelerated," observes long-time professional communicator Fred Myers. "Mediaís management, caught up in the wave to make their operations more efficient and profitable, has unwittingly forced upon creativity the same shrinking parameters. The time needed by writers, reporters, photographers and graphic designers to fully develop thoughts, concepts, ideas and execution has been severely reduced and sometimes almost eliminated. Even worse, because creativity cannot be quantified, it often has little or no standing in the organizational priority list; and therefore, gets relatively little support in terms of investment of time, money and even talent."
Myers wonders if an increasing orientation to productivity and profit colors even our concept of creativity. Is the focus on product out of balance with devotion to the process?
"Agriculture is a magnificent industry that encompasses humanityís aspirations and passions against a backdrop of natureís wonders," he observes.
Adhering playful inspiration and ingenuity to the source that grounds it is both intensely personal and an industry-wide challenge. The result of finding that place? Flying purposely in orbit. AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.