There’s a great book called ‘The War Of Art’ (inspired by the ancient text by Sun Tzu ‘The Art Of War’), which focuses on the challenges of being creative. I first read it a couple years ago and glance at it regularly for inspiration. There are many examples within, including one description of a man having a terrible time on a golf course – his ball continues to get caught in the wind. He curses the wind and turns to the caddy for consoling. The caddy then tells him, in a Scottish accent, that he has to ‘play to the wind’ doesn’t he?
Brilliant observation. And that story, with its focus on changing direction, reminded me of a childhood memory.
When I was about eight or nine years old, my family went on a ski trip, where we stayed in a rented ski cabin. Shortly after arriving, my mother noticed a problem with the knob for the bathtub: it was stuck. No matter how hard you turned it in the direction of the arrow, it just wouldn’t go. My father, brother and I all tried it, none of us could get it to budge. Finally, my father irately looked up the number of a local plumbing and heating company, who promised to send someone over as soon as available.
Within the hour, a middle-aged man arrived, grimy tool box in hand. With a cigarette smell, cap, overalls, and his skin wrinkled and leathery, he looked as though he’d answered a casting call for a small town plumber. When asked what the problem was, my father told him we couldn’t turn on the water- the goddamn thing was stuck. The plumber surprised us all by asking: “Did ya try turnin’ it the other way?”
“Why the hell would we do that?” my father grumbled. “That makes no sense”
“Don’t be so sure ’bout that. That’s the first thing ya gotta do.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
This conversation caused me to take notice- I’d never seen anyone challenge my father’s authority before.
The plumber then went to work turning the knob. At first there was a mild struggle, then he effortlessly turned it in the opposite direction of the arrow. Water began pouring out like a mountain stream-the further you turned the knob, the hotter the water got. It was exactly what was supposed to happen, only to the left instead of the right. “There ya go” he said.
We were speechless.
The plumber got up to leave, picked up his still unopened toolbox, waved goodbye and headed towards the front door. Just before exiting, he turned around, looked straight at my father and said “If it don’t work one way, ya gotta try it the other way.” He shut the door behind him.
“The nerve of that guy!” my father exploded. It was the first of a series of rants to my mother about this ‘jerk.’ He remained in a foul mood for the rest of the day. It took hours before his temper went from ‘hot’ to ‘cold.’
With his Ivy League PhD and scores of scholastic honors bestowed upon him, my father always took pride in being ‘right.’ But he’d just been proven wrong by a bumpkinish plumber with a high school education (if that).
The plumber may have pissed off my father (something that admittedly wasn’t hard to do) and may have shown a bit of insensitivity. And it may have been irresponsible of the rental company to have a backwards shower knob in one of their properties. But that day, a valuable lesson had been learned: if moving in one direction isn’t working, try the opposite direction, even if it goes against conventional logic.
In the future, I’d encounter many other appliances and fixtures that had knobs, handles or levers installed backwards. But instead of getting mad, I’d simply think of this incident-it would be a big help in many tour buses, hotel rooms and dressing rooms. And this logic extends beyond showers, baths, sinks and light switches- it can be applied to life situations. For example, if you continue to reach out to someone for a job, a date, a gig, a favor etc…, and you’re not getting a response, try the opposite: let it go. If the situation is meant to happen, they’ll come to you. Similarly, if you’re unfulfilled in your day to day existence, try moving to a new city, one with a radically different culture and climate. You can always move back, but at least you’ll have tried something different.
Which brings us back to creativity: if your song isn’t working as an up-tempo tune, try it as a ballad (or vice versa); if the opening of your essay or chapter isn’t strong enough, try a completely different paragraph (maybe you’ve already written it further into your piece); if the rough cut of your film or documentary is getting jumbled, try shifting the entire storyline with a different focus. No matter what you do in life, you have to be open to the idea that what is being instructed to you or what seems the most obvious is not necessarily the right way.
What the plumber said that day may have been elementary in its simplicity and even grammatically incorrect. But it is timeless, invaluable wisdom. To this day I can hear his words in my head: “If it don’t work one way, ya gotta try it the other way.”