Creativity As Additive Or Subtractive?


Usually when I’m working on something—a piece of music, a piece of writing, a salad—I’m thinking about what I can add to it to make it better. For a long time my default stance was thinking that I didn’t have enough raw material. So I would compensate by putting in too much, and the predictable result was that the project didn’t breathe enough and its individual elements didn’t have sufficient space to resonate. We can illustrate the perils of putting in too much with a salad. Less is always more with a salad. If you only have greens and strawberries, that’s a good salad. If you have greens and parmesan and apple, that’s also a good salad. But if you combine greens, strawberries, parmesan, apple, carrots, and red peppers together something is lost because there are too many ingredients. The fruit and veggies work fine on their own, but don’t necessarily harmonize en masse. So be frugal with what you add. The same thing goes with a salad dressing. An oil and an acid is perfect, maybe with a little coarse sea salt and pepper added on top. If you want to add other thickeners (mustard) and sweeteners (honey), that can work, but again, less is more. If you’re not careful, you’ll soon have a bunch of flavors competing with and cancelling out one another, soaked in a cloying dressing trying to be too many things. The lesson? Keep your salads simpler than you think they should be (and always slightly underdressed). Every ingredient should be there for a reason and given the space to do its thing. It has taken me a while to hold back on my salads and not put in too much. Less is more.   

Similar principles apply to making music or writing. Contrary to my longstanding belief that I didn’t have enough raw material, it’s more often the case that I have too much, and now I understand the importance of scaling down. If you have an interesting idea, play with it instead of adding to it. Find the part of it that sounds like a genesis. To illustrate, I had an interesting experience recently while playing keyboard. I was searching for some kind of melody-chord hook that I could get behind, but nothing was catching my ear. (I may have never been a melody person.) Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself I found my hands playing around large intervals, flamming so that the left hand was a grace note preceding the right. The more I flammed the intervals the more they struck me as the star of the piece, which got me excited. Maybe my assumption that a proper piece has to consist of a certain quantity of raw material had prevented me from hearing something compelling right under my hands?    

In addition to playing with what you have instead of adding to it, the most powerful technique of all is subtractive—simply remove anything that isn’t essential. I began thinking more about subtraction a few years ago while reading Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (which I wrote about here) in which he writes: “The most robust contribution to knowledge is removing what we think is wrong—subtractive epistemology.” Subtraction is a necessity with writing, especially when there are word count limitations. I often overshoot word limits by several thousand words—because surely I don’t have enough raw material—and then pare back what I thought would be impossible to shorten. It’s laborious, yet fun, because I get to keep asking: Is this really important? If it’s not important, cut it. (The Japanese house cleaning maven, Mari Kondo, asks a related question to help her determine whether or not to keep an item: Does this bring me joy? If not, goodbye old socks.) Once you’ve cut some material, go back and do it a few more rounds of cutting. As with the salad, it’s surprising how little you need to make things pop. In writing and music and salad-making, removing material makes what you have clearer, relaxes the pacing, and gives everything space. 

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