The Mystery Box

Note: This is a piece I published for the site work.life.creativity earlier this week.

A plain, ordinary box. With magic inside. (Image from BoingBoing)J.J. Abrams loves boxes. As a kid he would take things apart, telephones, TVs, what have you. For a TED talk he gave a few years ago, he brought in a Kleenex box he had dismantled just to look at how it was constructed, the scoring, the printer registration, etc. In his talk he spoke about this magic mystery box he got from Lou Tannen’s magic shop when he was a kid. [Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 18:02. Transcript available here.] 30 years later, he still hasn’t opened it. That’s a lot of restraint for an eager, energetic guy who ripped apart a Kleenex box in a hotel room the night before his talk.

J.J. Abrams talking about his mystery box. (Image from tim.girvin.com)

Personally, I’m not sure I would have had that much self-control with such a great magic box. I probably would’ve ripped the thing open as soon as I got home. Or sooner. But what’s important here is the idea of mystery, peeling away layers slowly until one arrives at the core of the thing they’re looking at. Or the core is never found. To use a worn-out cliche, I think many times with things in our lives the journey is far more important than the destination. Slowly unveiling mysteries and living off that suspense seems to be what has driven Abrams, informing his life and his work. Aren’t his shows Lost and Alias exactly that, all about mysterious, seemingly un-knowable things that are only revealed (or further obscured) bit by bit, layer by layer? Whether you like his work or not, it’s still compelling.

Do we have to have all the answers?

Sometimes you never get to the core, but I think that’s OK. Sometimes it’s better to not have the answer handed to you. What would be the fun in that? There’s no opportunity to explore for yourself, to use your imagination and be full of wonder about the possibilities that may exist. If we had all the answers, what would compel us to dream big? You can probably think of someone (perhaps yourself!) who failed to act because they didn’t bother to consider what possibilities existed.

My takeaway

For me the biggest takeaway from Abrams’ talk is this: how can I inject what I do with suspense and mystery? Abrams talks how films like Jaws and Alien build suspense and sometimes don’t even show what the big scary thing is. And sometimes the real gold is in the small, quiet moments between the big momentous ones.

That’s what that makes great movies, books, films, artworks compelling. Even when things seem plain as day, there’s always a little more to it than just that. What can you leave “unsaid” to be more compelling?

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