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Edits: 3
Updated: 29 May 2023

"Art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck)." Julia Cameron

I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda dismiss the tension people describe between making a film about something specific and its potential for broad appeal.[i]

Since hearing Miranda name specificity as a property common among impactful creative work, I started noticing other people making a similar observation.[ii][iii][iv][vii][viii]

This observation holds true for many things that have moved me. Now, I'm curious why.

Why might specificity continue to show up in work that affects me? Why had I instinctively accepted specificity to be in tension with appeal?

I’m motivated to sketch answers to these questions to see if "specificity" generalizes to the ideas I work with. And if so, I would like to hold myself accountable to being more specific in this work.

In short, I think specificity shows up in work that impacts me because specificity creates potential.

The potential for me, you, or anyone else receiving the work, to see and feel the message its creators are expressing through it. And with a coherent message embedded legibly within the work, all kinds of opportunities get unlocked.

We can:

  • See the idea
  • Hear the idea
  • Touch the idea
  • Ask questions about the idea
  • Sense how the idea makes us feel
  • Talk about the idea
  • Relate the idea to our experiences
  • Recognize opportunities to apply the idea
  • Remember the idea
  • Build on the idea

It’s notable to me how each of the potentialities listed above is open-ended. They do not suggest what happens next. Said another way: while specificity creates the potential for people to understand, experience, and talk about an idea, a specific idea does not have the ability to control the ways in which other people react to it. By definition, people can resonate with and build on a specific idea as easily as they can dismiss it as insignificant and declare it "wrong."

So what might contribute to the perception that specificity and wide appeal are mutually exclusive?

For one, I wonder if relatively few people have directly experienced the evolution of an idea specific enough to fit "inside" of a feeling in one person's body or small enough to fit inside of a single sentence in one person’s mind, to something that is resonant enough to become real. Real enough for people to to perceive the idea as a fixture of reality. And without many people experiencing this kind of evolution, the language to describe it and the knowledge to reproduce it is slow to develop and propogate. We do not walk around seeing the stories, needs, sentences, and feelings the ideas emerged form, we see whole objects and the impact they have on us.

As a result, we can mistakenly correlate an idea's potential impact with how big we perceive it to be and accordingly, choose to explore "big ideas." We are not practied at holding and working with small, specific ideas.

I also think that being specific creates visibility. And, as David Whyte puts it, "...when you’re visible, you can be seen, and when you can be seen, you can be touched, and when you can be touched, you can be hurt."

i. "We invariably found, first of all, with the research just into Colombian music and literature, the more specific we went, and we drilled down on those rhythms and those cultures, the more unique a story we were telling. But also, the more specific the concerns, the more relatable they are.” | Lin-Manuel Miranda in conversation with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment

ii. “To me the specific is the most universal. Because it’s so deeply rooted in your experience that you could be talking about your life and your lineage and the things you’ve overcome and somebody who’s from a completely different cultural perspective and different generation can resonate with that.” | John Batiste in conversation on The Broken Record

iii. “I think everyone wants to make something touchable, but most of us don’t out of fear of being laughable. I’m not saying I’m fearless.” | Jenny Zhang writing in How it Feels

iv. "Every sound is associated with a feeling you get. If a snare is banging (BOP!) that's gonna hit you, you know and just gonna make your neck snap. you feel that snare snap it's gonna make you neck snap." | Chad Hugo describing production and mapping sound to movement

v. “Dancing on a tightrope requires that one maintain an equilibrium from one moment to the next by recreating it at every step by means of new adjustments; it requires one to maintain a balance that is never permanently acquired; constant readjustments renews the balance while giving the impression of ‘keeping it’.” Michel de Certeau writing in the "The Practice of Everyday Life"

vi. E.g. The the minds of people who are working on the idea, the minds of people who are receiving and applying the idea, the social/organizations structure that supports the idea, etc.)

vii. "Art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck)." Julia Cameron

viii. "I think it's interesting to have also that balance between those really clear anchors that are so specific and can't be interpreted in any other way and then parts of it that feel more fluid and that are just open. And it's like, 'when you embrace my impurities and I feel clean again' like there's maybe a more obvious way to interpret that, but then it can blossom into a million different ways of thinking and I think I like having that balance because I think being specific as well makes it feel like it's something that you know I really lived and it is." Arlo Parks on Broken Record

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