Fear and Loathing Unto Creativity

It’s been awhile. How have you been?

I’ve been writing songs. And I recently had the jarring experience of being really excited about them, recording a few quick demos, and then suddenly hating all the songs when I listened to the demos. It’s been a few weeks now, and I don’t hate my new songs anymore, so I wanted to try to figure out exactly what was going on there. I think I have, and it speaks to the nature of being simultaneously artistically creative and self-aware.

I’m pretty handy with making stuff out of nothing. I’ve turned blank tapes into movies, blank canvases into paintings, blinking, angry cursors into stories, and harmonic vibrations of the air into music. Some of this stuff I have made available for purchase, because I think it’s worth your time and at least as fair an exchange for your money as a cup of Starbucks coffee that you’re just going to pee out in a couple of hours, anyway. But some of it I just keep around the house or tucked away on a hard drive because I may like it, but I don’t think you need to be bothered with it. Why should I try to interest you in one of my paintings I did for fun when I have friends out there like Melissa Doron who do this stuff for real?

I am past the point where I feel that just because I made something, it is a valid artistic contribution to the world. My fear then, when I heard my new demos for the first time, was that this new batch of songs might be better left in the notebook. And that would suck, because I’m really itching to get a new album done. But then, I am also past the point where I would give up on an idea if it didn’t fall out of my head just right the first time. There is a lovely quote, attributed to English poet Robert Graves, that says “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” So I listened to my songs with a very careful ear, and I suddenly realized I didn’t hate this song or that one, I hated how this bridge seemed to come out of nowhere, so I moved the bridge, or I hated how strained my voice sounded in those verses, so I changed the key.

This is all basic stuff. Artistic Craft 101. But we mere mortals so often ascribe some sort of mysticism to Creativity (capital-C “Creativity!”), and we do ourselves a disservice. You put pen to paper or brush to canvas or finger to string over and over and over and over again, and your output gets better. Kurt Vonnegut’s prose always makes me want to give up writing prose because I can’t match its terse effortlessness. But Vonnegut freely spoke about his writing process, and I know that however it looks on the page, his prose was not effortless. And the casual poignancy of so many of Tom Waits’ lyrics feels less daunting to me when I hear Elizabeth Gilbert describe him stomping around a studio screaming at songs for not cooperating with him.

There’s a middle ground between flippant and precious, and that’s where our approach to our own work should probably live. We shouldn’t be so cavalier as to just immediately dump whatever we make out there into the world* and presume that just because we made it and it’s meaningful to us that it should be or will be meaningful to an audience. At the same time, there comes a point when you can work something to death and obsess over it beyond any reasonable limit. At that point, you either need to put it out there finally or move on, understanding that your creativity isn’t finite — this is likely not the only story you have it in you to tell, and ceaselessly spinning your wheels on one project may be depriving the world of something you’ve yet to undertake. I find that a hopeful thought.

Anyway, here’s one of the demos:

*I’m looking at you, self-published writers who don’t have your books beta read, edited, and proofread.

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