Mama and I are both avid followers of the “self-help” column by Oliver Burkeman, published in the Guardian newspaper. He is gloriously sceptical of the norms and facile platitudes that typify so much of what passes for self-help in most forms. He tends to find the effective but rather less cool-sounding things.
That said, the “Helsinki Bus Station Theory” is a pretty cool-sounding name for something (and not just because Helsinki is a cold place). Burkeman is highlighting the work of Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen.
Minkkinen’s theory, hereafter abbreviated to HBST, explains life in a creative theory thus (as explained by/quoted in Burkeman’s article):
There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.
This is such a vital reminder to anyone making their way in the world of creative work – be that the arts, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, or any other field for that matter. The fact of the matter is, if you want to be great and creative and innovative at anything you have to start with the basics. Any and every musician or songwriter, at some point, started by learning basic music theory. If they had any ambition at all, they probably started writing before they knew that stuff, or at least, shortly afterwards (and most often, it’ll be using the I, IV, V chords and not much else). Any and every mathematician started by learning basic arithmetic. Certainly if they had good teachers and a good education system, they were encouraged to start finding general rules that explained relationships between the numbers. Before long, you start learning and figuring out new relationships. But still, you’re retracing the steps of Arabic and Greek thinkers of millennia ago. If you do science, you first have to know and understand and, ideally, discover for yourself, some of the ideas that people before had already found. That’s the foundation of what’s new.
There’s a set of knowledge and of experience that forms the basis for the great artworks. I forget to whom it’s attributed, but there’s a saying that goes something like, “You need to understand the rules before you can break them.” There is also, of course, the fact that immense beauty and surprise can still be derived by sticking purely and rigidly to the rules (especially if you’re an artist). But you have to know the rules, understand them, and experience them, before you find out what you want to do with them especially. Which is why everyone starts off similar to someone else. Those first few stops, as Minkkinen says, are stops everyone has to visit anyway. Being similar at that stage isn’t a problem, it’s the basis for being different. Or rather, for being different and successful (or good – depending on how your definitions of good and successful coincide or not).
I’m not great at remembering this: when I make cover versions of songs, I always feel miffed if someone else had the same idea for a style to do it in that I did. But with my novel, it is most definitely something I keep in mind. I am still finding my voice as a novelist (I have some sense of it as a blog writer and as a short erotic story writer) so I am not concerned about whether it is “different” in various ways – I have confidence that the subject matter and my characters will give it an identity anyway, and I believe it will be good enough to hold its own. It doesn’t have to be unique or “different” in any groundbreaking or stand-alone sense, it can be itself, an early stop on a journey towards somewhere new.
As for my composing and songwriting, I am sure you could find ways in which things I do as part of my natural style that are in common with others’ work. I don’t care, because it’s the style that I’ve evolved and I think it’s possible to recognise the combination of factors as distinctive. I’ve been doing this for more than half my life now, so I am probably beyond those early stops!
Of course, it’s worth stating that it’s perfectly okay to stay on the asexual or celibate bus as well (as opposed to the fucking bus that Minkkinen suggests), if that’s what you’re into.