A friend of mine and I got to talking the other day about Netflix's new version of Lost In Space, itself a sci-fi version of Swiss Family Robinson. We were both bowled over by the sheer amount of money splashed across the screen, but also by the general tone of the whole thing — the renewed emphasis on survival and understanding their strange new world, all things that got lost the last time they (re)made this material.
What stood out most, though, was my friend's comment: "I didn't know I wanted this."
I think sometimes that's one of my favorite things to hear when it comes to a creative work — that some creator, to use baseball parlance, hit one where they ain't. We "know" we want more Star Wars movies, I guess, but we (okay: I) didn't really know we (again: I) wanted something like John Wick, or Dom Casmurro, or God's Bits Of Wood. I had to blunder across them, or overcome my initial indifference to them, only to discover they were like pieces of me I didn't know I was missing.
One of the pieces of advice I am constantly giving other creative folks is not to embubble themselves: read nonfiction, read fiction from places you don't know anything about; watch movies that don't look like they have anything to offer you at first. Don't wait for things to come to you; take the first step towards them instead.
Constant readers know I direct advice like this at creative types because they are the ones who need it the most. I don't mind it as much if Joe or Jane Comicbook settles for a treadmill of Star Wars and Marvel/DC-tainments. Some of that stuff's very good, and I do think the baseline quality for disposable entertainment in our day and age is significantly better than it used to be by almost any measure. But if you're creating new things, you want your intake to be correspondingly broader and riskier by default. You don't want it to be governed solely by "Will I enjoy this?"; you want the watchword to be "What can I learn from this?"
When it comes to the "I didn't know I wanted this" factor, it's almost always accompanied by another set of realizations. If I didn't know I wanted this, what else am I missing out on? I was not wholly unaware of, for instance, African novelists when I read God's Bits Of Wood; I'd read and enjoyed greatly Buchi Emecheta's The Joys Of Motherhood in college, among other things. But those realizations had dropped down to the level of a yeah, yeah, I know about that stuff, and it was good to be reawakened to storytelling possibilities that on some level I needed to know existed.
My takeaway with all this: Whenever I get the feeling that I didn't know I wanted something, I try to listen down into it and see what directions it's telling me to go in. With John Wick, I realized there were still plenty of wrinkles left in the "underworld of hitmen" concept, and by that token most anything that seemed tired could be reinvented with fresh eyes. With Dom Casmurro, it was in how the unreliable narrator, never my favorite mode of storytelling, could be made relatable, and the substance of a truly wrenching story, not just a cutesy metafictional game. And so on.
That feeling, then, is a signpost towards things worth assimilating.
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