I once heard Quincy Jones discuss the art of composing. He said something to the effect that until he could impose a creative constraint on himself, he had no freedom to compose. In the case of his film score for In Cold Blood, all kinds of possibilities emerged once he committed to centering the music around two string basses, musical representations of the two killers at the center of the story.
Noam Chomsky, in broader terms but also in resonance with Jones’s reflection on composing, has observed that the rules of syntax are what unleash the creative potential of human language, the means by which we think. It’s a familiar paradox: Where anything is possible, creativity shuts down, but when the range of possibility narrows, we face choices and engage our imagination. Furthermore, the narrower our choices, the further we can push within the range of options.
To speak about art in terms of tradeoffs acknowledges this reality. For instance, a choice that nonfiction writers entertain (now more openly than ever) is whether or not to embellish their stories with fictionalized details.
Let’s set aside any moral objections one might have with such embellishment, and for the sake of discussion let’s assume that the fictionalized details would have no bearing on the larger meaning at stake in the story and also that the reader will not be able to discern truth from fiction.
What are the tradeoffs?
Embellishing by way of fictionalized details gives the writer more options. For instance, she gains access to sharper contrasts and smoother transitions. The embellishments allow her to solve problems that the truthful details of the story might disallow.
What might she be trading away? One answer is that sometimes the more interesting aspects of a story lurk behind inconvenient details.
For example, when I sat down to write my memoir about playing drums, I faced an inconvenient aspect of the story: Though my band had achieved significant success, I myself was not a quite a rock star. Should I skew the story by rounding myself up to rock star? Should I overstate the story’s disappointing end to create a crash and burn narrative?
Only by staying within the constraints of the story’s reality did I push myself to realize that the story of becoming a near rock star was unexpected and full of details that might be new to readers. In my life as a drummer, I regularly imagined stardom. Sometimes the show-biz planets aligned to convince me I had made it, when in fact I had not. My favorite details of the book were those that captured the sense of being in showbiz purgatory, neither damned to failure nor granted access to full-blown glory. And telling that story would not have been possible had I skewed the facts to ease my initial storytelling anxieties.
And mulling those anxieties slowed the start of my writing. Only when I realized that I wanted to tell the truth, with all of its storytelling complications, did I find the freedom to write.
Quincy Jones comes through again.