The Key Ingredient

A friend of mine whose house was ruined in the recent flooding of Houston has been hard pressed to make decisions about redecorating. She knew what palette she wanted but, as anyone who has decorated recently knows, the choices even within a single color group are myriad. So she looked as swatches and remained undecided. Then she made what she thought was an unrelated decision; she decided to replace the front door and picked one out; it came in colors, only one of which was in her palette. It was only then that she realized that the front door color would dictate her color choices, at least in three major rooms, and so she could not go forward with her paint selection until the door arrived and she could actually see what the key color in her newly-painted home would be.

Another person in the same situation had exactly the same problem. The choices were too many to consider all at once; the result was a very frustrating indecision. With the help of her daughters, however, she managed to solve the problem by deciding to use a theme throughout the house. That decision allowed her to paint and decorate each room individually, with the whole being tied together thematically. Other choices immediately fell into place.

A writer I know had all the pieces of his book except the beginning; he couldn’t figure out what the beginning should be—at least not until he looked around in the small-town all-night diner where he was having a cup of coffee. That place and its patrons immediately became the beginning of his novel.

The same phenomenon applies to visual work. Some of my abstract photographic work takes the form of grids. The assembly of a grid is complex process which on most days is fairly difficult. However, I have found that somewhere within this process is a single image that will bring everything together, or at least provide a direction for the remainder of the grid.

And it applies to performing arts. Often when actors are developing their characters, the results will be incomplete until the actor “accidentally” discovers that one thing that, like the key image in my grid example, will bring the whole thing together, tying research to imagination and allowing the full creation of the character.

What we are talking about is the key ingredient, and it seems that every creative process requires one. Sometimes it’s a major thing, but more often it is one tiny detail that causes all the other pieces to fall into place, triggering the project’s final shape. It’s the image that enables the director to move forward with the film, stage play, or musical. It’s the chord change or musical phrase that pushes the musical composition. It’s the juxtaposition of words that propels the poem toward completion.

The problem with key ingredients is that they are almost always “discovered,” arrived at seemingly by accident. Sometimes artists are slow to recognize that every project needs one. Others recognize that every project needs a key ingredient, but have no idea how to find one.

I wish I could say that I have a sure-fire way to locate the key ingredient every time. But, alas, I cannot. The best I can do is to suggest that we, as artists, need to recognize that such things exist and can aid the creative process tremendously. Beyond that, I can only suggest that we stay open to all possibilities and allow serendipity do its work.

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Date: Monday, 23. October 2017 0:29
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