Over the years, when I’ve written or spoken about art and creativity, I’ve frequently used William Gibson to illustrate something I suspect might be a key component in a lot of great art: not really knowing what the hell you’re doing.
When Gibson wrote Neuromancer, he didn’t have that much published writing experience and he was dogged with insecurities about his writing and the fear that his ideas might not be compelling enough. This led him to a kind of kitchen-sink mentality where he threw everything into his manuscript that he could dream up. The resulting style of dense, rapid-fire, slang-laden prose, dropped product names and hardware descriptions, and lots of visceral, white-knuckle action ended up inspiring an entire genre in cyberpunk.
Within his insecurity and kitchen sink approach, Gibson looked to computer jargon (and other types of jargon and slang) as his poetry, to give his prose a more grounded, real-world grit. He didn’t have a clue what any of it actually meant, he just liked the sounds of it. He hung out in bars in Vancouver frequented by drug dealers, EMTs, and other specialized groups. He eavesdropped on their conversations and ported their language directly into his prose (e.g. the concept of “flatlining,” dying, while being “jacked in” to cyberspace, came from hearing EMTs talking about it as a term for heart failure). As he has said in interviews, he tried to take things he saw in the current-day world and imagine how they might evolve in the near future.
So, basically nagging insecurities and the desire to cut and paste the world around him into a believable near-future ended up creating one of the more significant and influential pieces of late 20th century literature.
My takeaway from all this — one that has had a significant impact on my own creative life–is that creating art is probably best done when you’re a little out of your depth, feeling your way through the dark, and when you give yourself license to not know what the hell you’re doing.
As another great artist of the 20th century, David Bowie, put it:
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel like your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”