Mind the Knees

Whenever I’m crafting a linear argument — writing a blog post, a presentation, a book — I must remind myself to work on the project’s knees. By this I mean the joints that connect the main ideas so you can follow along.

I learned about knees from Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach. This work is structured in four acts which play out over five hours, without an intermission. The acts are connected by five “knee plays,” musical interludes with a common motif that frames the work as a coherent whole. Besides adding context and continuity, Einstein’s knee plays also serve an important pragmatic function: they give the stage crew enough time to change sets between acts.

When I’m writing or creating a presentation, I have a series of ideas I want to convey. These ideas make sense to me as a whole, but the connections between them may not be obvious to you. Part of my job entails crafting graceful joints that allow you to follow me as I shift directions, without feeling “led.” If I do a good job, the connections between ideas will seem natural to you.

This is not easy to do. For one thing, I’m focused on identifying the right structure at the beginning of these projects: outlining the main concepts. Once I know the main points I want to make, I look for compelling ways to present them: stories, metaphors, points of clarification. At this point, I’m so immersed in the work that the connections seem obvious to me. I must work to pull back and consider how the ideas connect from the perspective of someone approaching this construct for the first time.

Glass talks about “the ‘knee’ referring to the joining function that humans’ anatomical knees perform.” I like the anatomical analogy; it makes me think of these parts of the work as the junctures where the work “bends” in a different direction. This shift must happen in ways that serve both the argument and the audience; different directions, serving a whole; flexible, but staying within a limited range of motion.

I often know from the start where the knees should go within the structure of the work, but I don’t usually have a good sense of how substantial they should be. If they’re too elaborate, you may feel patronized or suspect foul play. If they’re too sparse, you’ll find the ideas disjointed and incoherent. Finding a balance between these two extremes is challenging.

I have a few hacks I use to help me mind the knees, and they all involve getting a fresh perspective on the work. The first hack is to step away from the project for a time (perhaps a week or two) and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Doing this often reveals gaps in the argument. Another hack is to read the work out loud; shifting media from the written word to spoken words helps highlight the points in the structure where more connecting tissue is needed. Finally, I also find it helpful to show drafts of the work to other people. Although I usually don’t mention it explicitly, one of the things I’m looking for in their reaction is how well the ideas connect.

Minding the knees cannot be an afterthought; identifying the right set of ideas and developing them in compelling ways is not enough. If the ideas don’t connect gracefully, the piece falls apart. I write this as a note to self: don’t leave the minding of the knees to the last moment.