Let’s play a little game. If I ask you to compare your brain to the focal length of a camera, would you say you tend to focus on images:
A) Way out in the distance
B) Somewhere in the middle ground
C) Right under your nose

In her book, “The Creative Habit,” Twyla Tharp discusses the concept of Creative DNA: the way we’re hardwired to view the world and the activities we pursue as a result. It’s a fascinating concept that can be used to inform the way we approach creative challenges.
Let’s take a quick look at the three “perspectives” Tharp outlines:
The Big Picture

Image by Ansel Adams

Do you see the world as a vast expanse? Perched on your mountain top, do you view everything and everyone from a distance? Tharp uses Ansel Adams as an example of a “distance” thinker. He took great, wide shots, packing the sky, the mountains and the ground into one tiny frame.
The Middle Distance

Image by Dorothea Lange via Wikimedia Commons

Are you both the observer and the observed? Tharp feels Jerome Robbins (choreographer and co-director of West Side Story) best defines a middle distance thinker:
“This way of seeing the world [consists of] controlling events from behind the scenes or above, but not so distant that you cannot maintain contact with the action on stage….Jets watch Sharks, Sharks watch Jets, girls watch boys, boys watch girls.”
The middle distance is about watching things unfold as they happen. Big events don’t happen offstage. The action occurs right there, right in front of you.
Close Up

Creative Commons Image by Vinoth Chandar

Do you press your nose up to the glass in order to get a better view? Tharp points to Raymond Chandler’s obsessive use of detail in his hardboiled detective fiction.
Here’s an excerpt from “The Big Sleep”:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

For Chandler, the story lives in the smallest details.
So, What’s Yours?
Determining your focal length can be an incredibly useful tool: if you know that your tendency is to see the bigger picture, then you already have a game plan when tackling a project. You know what to look for and you know how to look for it. And–big sigh–it lets you off of the hook if you feel like you should focus on the details because others are able to do it so well. Maybe that’s not your lens. You don’t have to be Jerome Robbins and Raymond Chandler at the same time. You just need to determine which one floats your creative boat.
One way to figure out your focal length is to look at how you approached creative tasks as a child. In elementary school, my stories started as lists (what the character was wearing, what her bedroom looked like) that grew into thematic adventures. As a teenager, I loved making collages: ripping images out of magazines, pasting them onto posters, creating my own vision of something bigger out of teensy, tiny pieces.
Applying the concept of focal length, I can see that my own style of working consists of taking the small, ripped up pieces of a landscape (zooming in) and finding a way to put them back together again, to create something thematically bigger (zooming out, Ansel Adams style).
I love exploring the universal: risk, change, adventure, awareness, our relationships with each other and with ourselves. But I struggle to write a thing until I’ve found something tiny: a detail, a hook. It is through this little keyhole that I find the images I need to create something bigger. I zoom in to better understand the way things (and people) are connected.
I recently saw a fantastic play, “Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon” that summarized this perspective in stunningly simple terms: “How do you manage to reconcile the infinitely banal with the infinitely essential?” That is the question my creative brain strives to answer.
Tharps’s concept can help you hone in on your own creative style. Maybe you prefer sweeping themes to specifics. Maybe the teeny tiny details trump the universal. Or, perhaps you take a more immediate approach, fixated on that which is unfolding right in front of you, out in the middle distance.
What’s your focal length? Can you easily determine whether it’s distant, middle or close? Or does it take a bit of digging? Do you think this awareness can help you more effectively tackle creative (or even non-creative) projects at work and at home?

FP Update: Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your thoughts! I’m in Hawaii for a few days but I can’t wait to read all of your comments and say hello. It may just take me a bit longer than usual. Mahalo for your patience!
Related Posts:
Think Small
Steal Like an Artist
The Art We Leave Behind