Jul 23rd 2015

The Ten Percent Rule

by Alan Skinner

After a career that has spanned threecontinents and has included television, theatre, freelance writing, corporate consultancy and even a decade as a senior executive in one of the world’sleading banks, Alan Skinner has now dedicated his efforts to writing full-time. Todate, he has three novels, a children’s picture-storybook and a play, Daisy Chain (which premiered in Melbourne in 2010) to his credit. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he was also co-inventor, designer and producer of Cinematique,a film-based board game launched in 2006.

Any person who has reached a reasonable age will probably have endured that unpleasant feeling, on waking after a satisfactory night of too much alcohol and an abundance of spirited conversation, of feeling embarrassed at things they remember saying and anxiety about what they cannot recall saying. It is strange how unreserved drivel - that most harmless of excesses - can induce such disproportionate dismay.

Of course, those well-practised in both convivial amounts of alcohol and unrestrained, spoken rubbish have observed that the embarrassment evaporates by moving as quickly as one can from the bosom of Morpheus back to the arms of Bacchus, thus proving to themselves that it is the absence of alcohol rather than the drivel that causes embarrassment.

Yet rather than be embarrassed, we should celebrate the nonsense and raise to a proper place of respect the bullshit of intellectual arguments and related streams of consciousness (or semi-consciousness, depending on the conviviality of the occasion) and free ourselves of unnecessary shame just because we think we have made a fool of ourselves. Perhaps we did, though it's a pretty sure bet that so did everyone else and they're probably too busy worried about how much of a fool they made of themselves to think twice about all the idiotic things you might have said.

I believe in the 90-10 rule: 90% of what we said might be worthless and complete nonsense, but 10% wasn't, and that 10% makes the 90% worthwhile. That 10% can endow a fuzzy idea with clarity, give form to a shapeless concept, or even provide the inspiration for something completely different. To a creative person, that 10% can be gold. Creativity needs constant nurturing, stimulation and fertilisation. It's not just bullshit, then; consider it mind manure.

It isn't a question of throwing reason and logic to the winds. It's a question of balance. Or, more appropriately, being willing to lose balance, to walk right to the end of the see-saw, not knowing whether the person sitting on the other end is going to jump off any second. A writer should think and imagine on the edge, not balanced in the middle. Ideas, thoughts and even feelings should be pushed to the limits, to the outer boundaries of commonsense and reason. For me, that's hard because I have developed a habit of being 'intelligent' about almost everything. Reason rules.

But reason rules only in its own realm. There's another realm that can only be reached by letting go of reasonable debate and seeing where it takes you.

People throw themselves from planes, trusting to not much more than a silk tablecloth to see them safely to earth. When I did it, I wasn't much worried about whether it was a reasonable thing to do. After all, it was only something I did, not something I said - and actions speak louder than words to everyone but a writer. I fret about the 'intelligence' of what I say and write, much to my occasional dismay. I need to go back and learn to throw myself into arguments with even less regard for the parachute.

We need constant stimulation to keep inventing and imagining, and hard challenges that test our ideas. We need to strut and puff, to go beyond the ordinary and the sensible, testing the limits of perception and imagination. Much of the territory we search is a wasteland, too arid and dry to support any sensible notion. But it's good to go there once in a while, at least as a day tourist.

It is easy to dismiss the monochrome notions of the bars and cafes lining the Left Bank or nestling in barrelled basements in Greenwich Village; or the local pub filled with artists, writers, musicians and philosophers, garrulous and outrageously free from the restraint of common sense and the courtesy of reason, as a romantic picture of creative life. Like all things iconic, the truth of them long ago became caricature, a turtle's shell that hides more than it shows. But they were the testing grounds, the intellectual laboratories where ideas where floated, shot down, occasionally exploded and sometimes conceived. There is no penalty for nonsense, only for stupidity. It can even help resurrect ideas tried and thrown away, or embryos of works that have lain half-formed for years. Now, there's a thought for the enterprising cafe entrepreneur: Cafe Lazarus, for dead and discarded ideas.

Will we seem pretentious sitting in our cafè? Most certainly. Will we actually be pretentious? There's no avoiding it. Will there be those who take themselves too seriously? Yes, too many. Does any of that matter? No. Because they are all part of the 90% and a small price to pay.

I spend far too much time alone, writing, guarding every minute of solitude with the avidity of Midas. There has to be more to the process, though. I have discovered that I miss - and need - the unfettered conversations and the excesses of ideas. The internet is no substitute; conversations there - tweets, blogs, postings - lack stamina, spontaneity and haven't the spark of face-to-face conversation and debate. And that's when it isn't being repetitive, nasty and uninformed. No, it's value lies elsewhere and I am grateful to it. But it can't do true personal, impassioned debate. Discussions can't spontaneously combust into conflagrations of wild, improbable insights and connections. And the bar is always closed.

Of course, finding others who'll put up with you being a complete ass with unsupportable and outlandish opinions is a bit of a problem. Friends and loved ones, no matter how dear you are to them, seldom have the stomach for it. Artists are too self-absorbed, and it only works with a group of people with equal measures of self-absorption or minimal levels of self-consciousness. To balanced, normal people, it would be like watching a bunch of egos thrown into an iron cage, battering each other until there's no one left to cry 'Enough!'. That's not a bad thing; if your ideas can't stand a good going-over in the pub they're hardly likely to survive the savagery of the public wilds.

With like souls, not only are we then in good company as seekers after truth – or, at least, a half-decent bon mot - but we can console ourselves with the fact that spouting nonsense (which is not at all the same as believing it) is a very old, if not honoured, tradition. As Cicero remarked, "There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not said it." At least we can protect ourselves from any lurking Ciceros by keeping our absurdities within the safety of equal absurdities.

Three cheers, then, for the 10%. If the price of finding inspiration or a tried and tested idea is a night of talking utter bollocks, it seems like a good deal to me. Provided I'm the one who walks away with the 10%, of course.

For Alan Skinner's twitter account, please click here.



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