The Blank Slate, scarier than public speaking?

by Brian Hobby

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The empty page, inviting the first words…….

I think I find it scarier and more difficult than public speaking.

We’ve all been there, “I’d like a report on……” that comes from your manager, in my role as an engineer “I need to design something that………” or in my spare time as a community theatre tech “We’ve found a really good play, bit technically challenging though, thought you might have some ideas……”

Where do you start?

I know where I usually go – is there some prior art I can steal shamelessly from, ah reuse appropriately with permission. Works well for reports in large companies, usually someone has done it before and it at least gives you an approach. There’s lots of report writing advice out there as well that you can benefit from. But something that no one has done before, a clean unblemished sheet of paper waiting for your thoughts and ideas to flow across it’s surface? That’s intimidating!

Engineers generally have standards to work to, but they are what I term “current best accepted practice” and they are continually updated (slowly and deliberately) as technology changes and new materials are created for us to fiddle with and understand – concrete and electricity were new fangled things once. Where do these ideas come from?

I think it is my theatre technical design that gives me the most insight into ideas and the generation of something new and unique.

For me it goes like this, I get handed a script, I read it – several times usually, with a notepad by my side to jot down what passages make me feel; if I get glimpses of what I think may work on stage, note those too. Then put it all aside, let the subconscious work on it. I’m a great believer in letting the subconscious do it’s work, it’s not for nothing that we say “let’s sleep on it”.

I then discuss with the director and creative team what they have in their head as a vision of what they would like to see on stage, and what glimpses and thoughts have fleetingly occurred to me; then I re-read the script and make copious notes about lighting and sound; all in pencil as they will change! I generally find at this point I have lots of ideas as my subconscious has been brewing on it for sometime.

The rest is as with many things the 99% perspiration that  goes into many of our endeavours, the sheer grunt work of making it happen.

I find a similar process works for me in the reports and engineering space, do the initial reading / research / background, ask your subconscious some questions and park it for a while. Sometimes that can be be over lunch while I get away from my desk (you do get away from your desk I hope?) and do something else; if time permits it may be a few days. I usually find when I come back to the blank sheet it is crying out for my thoughts and ideas.

So yes a blank sheet is a very scary proposition for me, partly because I often have no idea where to start; and partly because I have no idea what journey it may take me on…….

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