How to Keep it Simple and Real

Bill Evans at Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland 7/13/1978
Image credit: Brian McMillen / Wikipedia

“It’s better to do something simple which is real … It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing.” (Bill Evans)

Back at the end of 2014, Jonathan Mayhew drew my attention to The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. Here’s one of the things Evans said about developing a talent:

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

When I say you should take a specific moment to write down a particular thing you know, I’m suggesting something similar. When writing, don’t try to “approximate the entire problem”; instead, “take a small part of it and be real and true about it”. A paper consists of roughly 40 paragraphs, of, roughly, eight different kinds. Each of these forty parts can be “attacked” at an “elementary level”. If you keep in mind that you are, ultimately, saying something that is true, you can set yourself the problem of representing that truth in prose.

Appreciate the finitude of the problem. You have to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words in exactly 27 minutes. Together they should support or elaborate one thing you know. That’s what you want to become good at. And if you write each of these paragraphs as simply and truly as you can, then you will have something to build on, both in terms of finishing a paper and in terms of the developing your writing skills.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

This makes an important point that struck me forcefully a few years ago. Too many people don’t realize that they have to approach the problem of writing in a way that lets them enjoy it. My goal is to help people enjoy their writing, not just “get it done”.

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