marinate to excellorate

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In response to the last Maven Game on “factiness,” Marina Krakovsky pointed me to Adam Gopnik’s essay collection Paris to the Moon.

Gopnik explains the difference in how Americans and the French see facts. I found it relevant to The Situation.

Not this Situation.

This Situation.

This post offers the Gopnik excerpt with some context. Thanks Marina!


Nobody knows how the sausage gets made, and nobody wants to know. That is, unless they’re an aspiring sausage-stuffer.

I’m talking creativity-sausage, of course. I can’t get enough of seeing that sausage get stuffed. (Tweet that.)

Here’s what I’ve learned about creativity: With practice and a little aptitude, anyone can create competently. Greatness requires more.

Nothing great gets made in one go. A piece of work has to sit and stew in its juices to become great. It has to marinate.

Depending on what you’re making, marination can take many forms. It just calls for patience and an open mind. Creating with the goal of greatness tends to erode patience and close minds, so it’s a bit of a balancing act.

The scariest and most exciting aspect of creative work is:

All greatness requires is one transcendent moment.

Frankenstein’s draft may have arms, legs, and a head. Without a bolt of lightning, you’re not editing, you’re performing an autopsy.

This is terrifying because you’re powerless to make that bolt of lightning strike. You can’t just will it to happen. You have to walk out into the storm, stick your pen in the air, and wait. You might end up all wet, but if there’s a flash out of the blue, watch out. One insight can make all the difference.

To the audience, these flashes feel inevitable, as though the entire work were an equation solved with one stroke of a pen.

Creators understand how ephemeral these flashes are, flaring in the darkness when least expected. And, if not grabbed immediately, lost, the work forever less than it might have been. (This is why writers get grumpy when they’re interrupted.)

Let’s look at an example of creative inspiration we all know: Star Wars. What makes the original trilogy great? What elevates it above Logan’s Run or Battlestar Galactica? A handful of moments in each film, that’s all.

Luke turning off his targeting computer during the Death Star trench run.

Han getting frozen in carbonite (“I know”).

“No, I am your father.”

Plenty of movies feature people chasing other people with ray guns. These moments and a few others elevate the Star Wars trilogy from genre piece to work of art.

For most of The Force Awakens, I wasn’t convinced. Then, this happened.

“This is a great movie,” I decided.

It felt to me like the whole film had been building to that moment. Like they’d made the movie just to achieve it.

Nope. As it turns out, Abrams added it during re-shoots. In the screenplay, Rei just replies, “You’re a monster!”

Abrams is a good director and a great producer. In his projects, he demonstrates the ability to let go of his ego. He remains open to the best ideas, wherever they originate. Above all, he knows how to let a work marinate and develop into the fullest expression of its potential. This is what a great producer does. (For books, read “publisher” or “editor.”)

I’ve discovered signs of extensive marination in every film in my personal canon.

In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer coined Roy Batty’s most memorable lines. Hauer’s collaborative approach must have annoyed Ridley Scott during a difficult shoot. If Scott hadn’t been as patient, all those moments might have been lost, in time, like tears in rain.

Ever wonder why Timothy Dalton walked away from the Bond franchise? The crappy screenplay for GoldenEye. It was the first original Bond film without Fleming source material, and it stank.

Dalton forgot that a screenplay is just an outline, a stage for collaboration. At some point on set, with Pierce Brosnan in the role of 007, a young gaffer had a flash of inspiration:

“What if the runway ends in a sheer drop? What if Bond gets pulled out of his plane? What if he has to ride a motorcycle after it? What if he has to climb back into the plane—in freefall—and pull out of the dive at the last possible second?”

“The Russian base is underneath a dam, not on a mountain,” replied the director. “Go back to gaffing, Stevie.”

Then producer Barbara Broccoli spoke up.

“Hold on a second—I love this idea. Let’s just say they take an elevator from the dam to a nearby mountaintop, no big deal. What’s your name, gaffer?”

“Stevie. Stevie Spielberg.”

“No,” she said. “From now on, you will be Steven Spielberg. Have you ever considered directing?”

(You think the timeline doesn’t work? Remember, Steven Spielberg produced Back to the Future. That means he built a time machine out of a DeLorean.)

Did you see GoldenEye when it was in theaters? Have you ever heard an audience cheer like they did during that ridiculous scene?

Poor Timothy Dalton didn’t have faith in marination. Few of us do. No matter how many times we learn the same lesson, we manage to forget it. We always feel sure our first idea is our best idea, or at least that it’s as good as it’s going to get.

We have to remind ourselves over and over how greatness is achieved: slowly, painfully, with plenty of tears.

Read the original screenplay for Star Wars. How the hell did that sophomoric mess become, well, Star Wars?

Read this interview with Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz. You can measure Kurtz’s involvement in the films. Watch the drop in quality between ESB and Jedi. Watch what happened with the “prequel” trilogy. (Better yet, don’t.)

On the set of American Graffiti, Lucas declared that he didn’t have time to direct. He said he’d do it in the editing room. Without Kurtz to force Lucas to marinate on Star Wars, what you get is The Phantom Menace.

(Watch a brilliant deconstruction of how the Star Wars prequels got “made” here. To create great work, do the opposite of whatever Lucas was doing there.)

You may be thinking that films are huge, collaborative efforts that need hundreds of people. Books are different. Nowadays, if you’re good, you just write them and put them out there on Amazon. Who needs agents, editors, or publishers?

Read Go Set a Watchman. It isn’t a sequel. It’s just an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, one that deserved to stay in a drawer.

Collaboration matters. Creative work of any scale needs input from collaborators, and it needs time to marinate.

For every masterpiece that comes together, far more good works come close. You see the potential simmering, never culminating. Whenever I read an almost-great book or see an almost-great film, I wish that an Abrams, a Kurtz, or a Maxwell Perkins had been there to slow things down and give things time to gel.

“This needs to bake more. Let’s get more eyes on this. What else could we try in this spot?”

We never sit with our creative tasks long enough. Even science says so! Whatever you’re working on, put it aside today. Let it breathe and then go back to it fresh. Share it with a trusted reader and listen to what they have to say. Open your mind to new possibilities.

If what you’re working on feels like it’s as good as it’s going to get, you’re just getting started.