I had an interesting conversation with someone last night about being different.
This someone is a designer, who creates websites for, among others, photographers. Lots of photographers.
“And so they all say this,” my companion said. “They say they view photography as an art, and they want a site that reflects that. So we design something for them that is unique, right? Something artistic, something out of the box? Different?”
And then what happens? I asked.
“Well,” long sigh, “they’ll get the design. And then, they’ll come back and say, ‘yeah…actually, we just really want our site to look like X famous photographer’s site.’”
His gaze clouded.
“If we push back, explain why this design will help distinguish them and make them NOT look like all the rest, then suddenly a “branding expert” friend will appear and back up the client and say that, yeah, what the client really needs is a site that looks just like X famous photographer’s site.”
At this point, he put his head in his hands, and made the sound one makes after one too many frustrating clients.
Twice by my high school peers, I was voted “Most Changed.” Once during my sophomore year, and again just a couple of years ago, at my high school reunion. Both times, it made me happy, then uncomfortable.
The first time, I had recently gone from a dork like everybody else, all elbows and Cole Haan loafers, to suddenly having boyfriends. It shocked everyone. Especially since said boyfriends weren’t my fellow dorky brethren, but jocky, cocky guys (who all dumped me, but that’s another story). If Rachel Leigh Cook had been a conservative Christian wearing tapered khakis from the Gap instead of being a shy, secretly cool/sexy artist, then you might say my story was a little like She’s All That.
The second time, well, ten years had passed since I saw all those people. And it was lovely! Seriously. But I had bright red hair and was wearing a loud outfit, and everyone I saw was like…whoa! What happened? Where are your Cole Haans? You live in Austin? Are you a liberal? I felt like a unicorn.
Then I was voted “Most Changed” again at the reunion, by my old peers, and couldn’t help but think: “I need to do a better job of communicating who I really am.”
Anyway, just like when I was fifteen, I also thought: “yay! Recognition!” (Isn’t that sad? Twenty freaking eight and still needing the popular kids to like you?) and then almost immediately I was like, “WAIT. You’re making fun of me, aren’t you! Fuck! I fell for it.”
Therein lies the rub: Needing approval ≠ being different.
The reason all those photographers want to look like their more famous peers even though they want to be seen as unique and interesting isn’t so surprising, when you think about it. They (like 15 year-old, 28 year-old, and most likely 76 year-old me) crave that pat on the back, that reassuring “YAY! You’re doing it right!” approval. But approval comes with a price.
I worry that the Internet is slowly making visual and textual automatons of us, or more specifically, me. Trends subconsciously enter my brain, and then my creative output is just like everybody else’s, and sometimes I think the only way to fight that is to forcibly prevent the Internet from getting into my computer, a la Jonathan Franzen.
So I started making this list, because things have been super writer’s blocky for me lately. This happens either when I start caring too much about what the recipient (my client, my editor, you) thinks, or when I experience the occasional wash of apathy that drains the color out of everything I do. So when I crave freshness, to create something different, what exactly do I mean by that? And how to accomplish it?
Here are some ideas I had.
8 Ways to Be Different:
1. WELCOME BOREDOM BACK INTO YOUR LIFE. Being the one person in a public space without a smart phone automatically makes you the most interesting one. I know a guy named Evan who works at the Natural Gardener, grows things, plays French horn, sings, plays ukulele, looks you in the eye when you talk to him…and doesn’t own a cell phone! Not, “doesn’t own a smart phone” – we’re talking NO cellular device of any kind.
I don’t know what Evan does when he’s bored, but whatever it is, it’s not happening on a phone. When he gets bored, he probably goes and does something awesome. Everybody loves Evan.
2. TAKE COMFORT IN BEING THE SAME. I subscribe to the Austin Kleon School that artists, all of them, steal things. Ideas, techniques, identities. By admitting that we’re all basically made of the same stuff, it forces you to focus instead on mastering skills. Which maybe anyone can do, but few have the patience for.
3. REMEMBER THE FEELING YOU HAD WHEN YOU SAW SOMETHING THAT BLEW YOUR MIND. For me, it was discovering Hyperbole and a Half all those years ago. I opened up the site and thought…whoa. I’ve never seen anything like this! Maybe there was a whole underworld of Paintbrush comics out there, but wherever they were, I hadn’t seen them.
So if, like my friend’s photographer clients above, being creatively different is a fear thing, think back to your personal creative paradigm shifters and the way they made you feel.
4. READ THIS BOOK.
5. GO OUTSIDE FOR LONG, EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME and don’t Tweet it. Let those memories be your secret stash. (Every writer needs a secret stash.) I totally violate this rule all the time. But I’m getting better.
6. ABSORB INFORMATION/ART IN SINGULAR WAYS. I.e., in ways that don’t allow you to get distracted, like the good ol’ newspaper. My designer friend with all those photographers cited a super interesting-sounding story about brain research, and the depth of knowledge that sinks in when you read things on paper vs. online. (If you are out there designer friend, send me the link to that!) From your deep knowledge comes richer output.
7. GET INSPIRED BY EVERYONE HERE.
8. KISS YOUR THOUGHTS GOOD-BYE. Easier said than done. But when I need to clear all the BS away, and start channeling the ghost of creativity, nothing works like a good mind-quieting meditation. And you all know my favorite place for that.
If all else fails, you could always cannonball on top of a manatee and most certainly achieve notoriety, if not creative freshness! (Though I’m not sure I’d recommend that.)