I come back often to how useful it is to get out of your bubble, to read things that kick you into a different circle than the one you're accustomed to playing in. For me, one of those outer circles was economics, a subject I normally associated with nodding off in class.
Then along came Paul Krugman, whose books, columns, and blogging changed all that. He wasn't coming down from the mount to give a sermon; he was a bright, engaging, curious fellow who just happened to know his field thoroughly and also knew how to communicate it with great wit and style. It's hard not to learn from a guy like that.
This time around, it isn't economics I learned from Krugman, but some things about his research methodology, for which he has four rules:
1. Listen to the Gentiles
2. Question the question
3. Dare to be silly
4. Simplify, simplify
If you read the linked page you'll see how he discusses each of these in detail, as they apply to his field of study. But I want to go through each of these rules and see how they could be applied to creative work, in big part because I think they work just as well in that field. I'll be talking about each of these rules in a separate post, so let's start from the top.
By "Listen to the Gentiles", Krugman meant this: "Pay attention to what intelligent people are saying, even if they do not have your customs or speak your analytical language." To my mind there's three possible ways to parse this:
1. Listen to what other creators in your medium have to say, even if they're not in your venue
If you're an SF writer, go listen to some non-SF writers and see what they have to say about their craft. Even if you don't like their books, they might have something to say about the way they work that removes a particular difficulty for you. It wasn't until I saw Dostoevsky's notebooks that I got over my hang-up about not keeping detailed notes for my projects, even the shorter ones. If a genius like him couldn't keep it all in his head, there was no point in pretending I ought to.
2. Listen to what other creators in other media have to say
This one is tougher but still useful. I've learned at least as much from comic artists, photographers, filmmakers, and architects as I have from other writers. But the curiosity has to be there. It's too easy to assume the only reason to be curious about comics, photography, movies, or architecture — or dance, or music, or journalism, or any number of other things — is to consume the end results and not because the person behind them has something to teach you.
On this note, I'm surprised by the number of people who don't even listen to other people in their general wheelhouse. To wit: the artists I've bumped into who seemed befuddled by the idea that a museum might actually have something to offer them other than pictures hanging on a wall. The concepts of curation, or meeting like-minded folks, or half a hundred other experiences that one goes to a museum to have, never came up.
3. Listen to what experts in any field have to say
To wit: Paul Krugman. The way such people work is at least as important as the field they work in, and you can end up learning a lot about how to approach a subject. Not just their subject, but yours as well. Curiosity, insight, skepticism, ingenuity are not exclusive to any one field alone, and the more you see them at work in other places the easier it is to see how to get it to work in your own domain. This goes hand-in-hand with broadening one's curiosity generally.
This goes back into a proposition I think I will be supporting through the rest of my discussion about these four rules. If there's any one way for creations to become all the more interesting, all the less dependent on the recycling of previous and current generations of material, it's for creators themselves to become all the more curious, all the more omnivorous, all the more aware of just how big and multifaceted their world really is.
Other Lives Of The Mind