Wisdom from a Serrated Knife

Dad was a scientist. To be precise, he was a rocket scientist. He loved us, but until we were able to hold a decent conversation with original-source proof, his love was limited to providing for us. My predominant memory of him is the back of his head, studying and writing. We knew not to bother him. But occasionally, he became involved in our lives through science. Sometimes it was physics, sometimes biology.

We baked our own bread. My French mother wasn’t about to bring cottony, tasteless, insubstantial white bread into the house–it couldn’t hold up to sauces, her powerful sandwiches or the rigors of French Toast. Our homemade bread had texture and a crust that eliminated the fear of gingivitis and replaced it with a fear of the scouring action of chewing a crust that would leave the roof of your mouth throbbing.

One afternoon, I was in the kitchen slicing the bread. It was minutes–fresh, and not given to slicing well. I was shredding more than cutting. My father came into the kitchen, observed what I was doing and said, mildly, “That knife is a saw. Less pressure. More action.” I quit pressing down on the knife. I used my upper arm to saw the serrated knife blade forward and back. Magically, the lesson in physics worked: the action allowed the serrated blade to do the work. Almost no downward pressure was necessary.

This principle, like “take care of the edges,” works well in daily application as well.

–Put pressure on yourself and the project disintegrates. Take some action and the project moves forward, almost by itself.

–Put pressure on your story to tell a lesson, and it becomes pedantic filler. Let the characters take action, and your story is memorable.

–Put pressure on your kids, and they fall apart, howling in protest. Put consequences into steady, reliable action, and hard downward pressure isn’t necessary. Action is far more powerful when it repeats consistently and predictably.

–Put pressure on your client, and they will crumble and vanish into client-dust. Put action in your promises and deliveries, and your clients will be firm and square, and just what you want to work with.

–Put pressure on your art, and it turns into a chore. Put action into your art, and it makes meaning in your life.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who prefers action to pressure.

16 thoughts on “Wisdom from a Serrated Knife

  1. “Our homemade bread had texture and a crust that eliminated the fear of gingivitis and replaced it with a fear of the scouring action of chewing a crust that would leave the roof of your mouth throbbing.”
    I love this sentence! You know when you are reading something, and it grabs you, so you have to stop and read it a couple time, and then you think, ‘I wish I wrote that!”? This was one of those moments for me.
    Thanks for blogging every day. You keep me motivated and inspired! =D

  2. Oh boy, you’re like a magnifying glas. Bring out all the details so clarely that we “weak eyed” can spot them too. Thanks alot, that last sentens there has to be written in my journal. Very useful post!

      • Quinn, you completely blew me away with this comment.

        “Say what?? Are you talking to me???”

        Believe me, the honor is all mine. You’re an amazing inspiration in your writing, artwork, creativity, ability to stay focused, and dedication to excellence. I truly enjoy the grace with which you write about yourself and your life. Really, I am in awe.

        Come to Hawaii. I’d love to have you do a workshop for us on island!

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