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Start in the Middle

Use the inversion technique for resolutions

The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day with more work to do. — Austin Kleon

It’s 2018. A new year. A new beginning.

Except, of course, there’s nothing that’s truly new about January 1st. It’s just an arbitrary date on a made-up calendar that we collectively call a new beginning.

Other cultures celebrate a new year on a different date, which is just as arbitrary.

So what if we approached January 1st not as the beginning, but the middle?

In the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite,” George Costanza decides to try the inverse of all of his best judgments. George lamented that “every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s all been wrong.”

“If every instinct you have is wrong,” Jerry advised him, “then the opposite would have to be right.” George takes this advice to heart. As a result, he starts flirting with a stranger by telling her he’s unemployed and lives with his parents. They end up dating.

George used the inversion technique — or doing the opposite of conventional wisdom.

This wouldn’t be the only time that Seinfeld used the inversion technique. An episode called “The Betrayal” ran in reverse, with one flashback after another.

In another episode, Jerry and Kramer switch personalities when they swap apartments. “Bizzaro World” introduced “bizzaro” characters who were polite, cultured and considerate, the opposite of the main characters.

The writers borrowed this concept from the 1950s comic book character Bizzaro, an opposite mirror image of Superman from the cube-shaped planet Htrae (Earth spelled backwards). The Bizzaro comic book author, in turn, was inspired by “the shadow” archetype, our unconscious opposites which Carl Jung called “the seat of creativity.”

The theme of inversion epitomized the entire Seinfeld philosophy, which stood the TV sitcom formula of the time on its head. In doing the opposite of everything that was supposed to make a show popular, Seinfeld became one of the most groundbreaking and successful sitcoms in television history, pulling in 40 million viewers a week to see what they would do next. The Writers Guild of America voted it the second best-written TV series ever, after The Sopranos (another series that inverted the rules with the premise of a mob boss seeing a therapist for his panic attacks).

While other shows revolved around a theme, Seinfeld was famously “a show about nothing,” obsessing over the trivial minutiae of life. On other shows the main characters were lovable and given sympathetic traits. On Seinfeld, the four main characters were unapologetic, self-centered narcissists. Most sitcoms ended with the characters having learned a valuable life lesson, complete with group hugs and laughter.

The Seinfeld writers’ motto was “no learning, no hugging” and the characters ended up worse off than when the episodes started, with some conflict or disaster implied just before the credits rolled. It’s classic inversion.

This didn’t happen by accident. An honors student at Queens College, Jerry Seinfeld approached his comedic art as a science. He viewed comedy with the logic that he applied in his geometry class. He analyzed other comics. He even wrote a 40-page paper about stand-up comedy for an independent study. In the Seinfeld discipline, a quality joke upheld the same structure as a theorem proof. A joke just had a silly twist at the end instead of a mathematical proof.

In her book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong explained how Seinfeld’s techniques of doing the opposite of conventional wisdom opened the door to TV’s golden age of great dramas and comedies.

After Seinfeld showed that viewers accepted flawed antiheroes, The Sopranos’ TV mobster Tony Soprano and Breaking Bad drug kingpin Walter White became household names as the stars of their critically acclaimed shows. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played the character of Elaine on Seinfeld, is now reunited with a writer from the show who works on her comedy Veep, where she plays an inept vice president, the opposite of the heroic political icons of The West Wing or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Armstrong said that Seinfeld’s philosophical legacy is “a great underdog story about creative freedom.” In other words, the creativity to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

Arriving at the middle

In creative writing there’s a term for starting in the middle. It’s called in media res, which in Latin means “into the middle of things.” You’ve seen this technique before, even if you didn’t know what it was called.

Think about Saturday Night Live. Every episode starts with a skit before the familiar routine of announcing “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” This is called a “cold open,” which is another version of starting with the middle.

Stephen King begins one of his most famous books, The Gunslinger, in media res with this famous description: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

As a writer, in media res is one of my go-to editing techniques. After I’ve written my first draft, I scan down to my fourth or fifth paragraph. Usually, that’s where my true beginning is located. So I simply copy that paragraph and paste it to the top of my story. That’s also the origin of this chapter. After creating a conventional outline, I used inversion thinking to move this chapter from the middle to the beginning.

“It is almost an ironclad rule: if you are writing a very long piece, the start of the second section of your first draft is the actual (beginning),” tweeted Megan McArdle, author of The Up Side of Down. “You’ve got to clear your throat for a while to hear your true voice.”

In media res has become a meme, a set-up for a joke about a main character in the middle of a humorous situation that starts a movie. “Record scratch Freeze frame” refers to a storytelling device in which a voice-over narrator explains how he or she arrived in their current predicament, explained Know Your Meme.

It inverts and plays with rules of storytelling by breaking the audience’s fourth wall and starting in the middle. This meme also became a parody format for tweets, which Buzzfeed chronicled in an article titled “22 Record-Scratch, Freeze-Frame Tweets That Are Just Really Funny.”

But long before Buzzfeed and Know Your Meme, the Roman poet Horace started his epic poetry The Iliad and The Odyssey in the middle of the journey. Horace was the person who coined the in media res technique as opposed to the conventional ab ovo (“from the egg”) starting point.

At the beginning of The Odyssey, Odysseus has already lost his crew and is being held captive. It’s the middle of his journey.

You can use the inversion technique right now.

Rather than starting a different New Year’s resolution, find a middle. Build on a success of something you already started or keep developing a habit.

As Austin Kleon wrote:

The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day with more work to do.

Today isn’t a new beginning.

Today is the middle.

Let’s get to work.

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