For a while, I was a visual artist. Well, sort of. I mean, I made money from it. But as you may know, I am a big advocate of specializing, and I realized that I had a better chance of being outstanding in my field by focusing on writing instead of visual art.
But I did learn some lessons from my visual art mentors, and one really cool thing someone taught me is that the color I choose is most interesting where it intersects with another color. Just knowing the right color to use is not the clever, interesting thing. Rather, interesting is when I am unsure what the two colors will do when they interact. (Here’s a great set of paintings that illustrate this idea.)
The same is true for writing. The interesting part of writing is not the part of the piece where you know exactly where it’s going. The interesting part is when you get to an unplanned moment in a paragraph and you surprise yourself by what you write next. It’s the moment of uncertainty, when you have to look inside yourself to keep going, and pull out something you didn’t know you had before.
When I taught writing at Boston University, it took most of the semester to get students to get to that moment. Most people are scared to get there.
That’s why most people do not appear to be as interesting as they really are.
We each have spots in our lives where two colors are coming together and we’re not sure what will happen. That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.
A while back I wrote about Moira Gunn, and how she is good at interviewing people because she can find what’s interesting about them. She interviews scientists, and she is a pro at finding the quirky, unexpected moment within the topic of their science.
You can do this with any subject. I do it with careers. Every week, for my column in the Boston Globe, I interview someone about their career. The beginning of the conversation is always the part they expect—where they tell me what they know about themselves and their career. There is not room for a real conversation. I just take notes.
And then I don’t use them. Because then I try to ask questions to get to what they don’t know. What are they trying to figure out? And we have a conversation about how people do that. And that is the part I use. Because that is the part that is interesting.
So look, interesting does not come from greatness. Interesting comes from conflict. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is true of everything—not just families. So talk with people about the issues and problems you’re struggling with. That is how to be interesting. You don’t have to describe your life as if it were all struggle, with all the drama of Russian literature. But find that small moment when two of your own colors collide, and point it out to make interesting conversation.