The Pain of Being Finite

A few months ago, as I was finishing up writing a bunch of new songs for the next Sci-Fi Romance record, we got some big news. We had another baby on the way. Then it turned out we had two babies on the way (Just goes to show, kids, the only 100% effective form of contraception is a cold, lonely bed). Since then, I’ve had to learn some hard lessons about being a human being who can only do so many things at once.

The Thompson Twins. Not actual twins.

When we got the news, here were some of the things I had going on:

  • The next SFR album
  • Bi-weekly solo performances around LA
  • A comic book script with a friend
  • A second job
  • Teaching myself how to draw
  • Weekly blog posts, and
  • A pretty healthy Angry Birds addiction

That’s on top of, you know, already having a family and full-time job and everything. My schedule was pretty full, and I had this idea that I needed to get the album taken care of FAST. When the twins arrive, I figured, studio time would be a luxury time-drain I just couldn’t afford. But our drummer, Kurt, was temporarily out of commission because he just welcomed a son into the world, too. (We’re a very fertile band, so if anybody out there is having problems conceiving, we are still technically looking for a bassist…) So I’d have to play drums on the record with that timetable, in addition to guitar, vocals, etc., and I’m a little rusty on the kit these days, what with (see above).

Due to the physical demands of growing twins, my wife’s energy level plummeted much more quickly than it had in the past while growing humans one at a time. That meant that I had to pick up a bunch of additional responsibilities around the house really, really fast, and let some of my normal ones slide. Our yard died, for instance, but I was able to save the avocado tree. I know you were worried.

I made my friend wait far too long for my pages on the comic book script. I reduced hours on my second job. I reduced the blog output. I started eating less and somehow gained weight, which is infuriating. I even reduced the Angry Birds time! But still, I thought, I could get the record done, ideally before Halloween.

Alas, I finally had to make the painful admission that I am finite. There is only so much blood I can wring out of a single day. And if I had proceeded with an attempt to make an album right now, it would not have been the album it should have been, the album that it wanted to be, or the album you guys deserve.

That was a hard, hard pill to swallow. I’ve burned the candle at both ends a lot, and always took pride in the ability to Get. Shit. Done. But it just wasn’t going to happen this time. This isn’t a woe-is-me post, though. Quite the opposite, if I can pull it off.

See, when I admitted to myself that recording the album would have to wait — probably until the Spring — this tremendous weight was lifted off of me, and I suddenly felt like I could get some perspective on the other stuff. The reason why every single thing on that list up there is on there at all is because there’s something I love about doing each of them, but together they had started to feel like an ankle weight. That’s bad.

The arts are supposed to be a release — a way of dealing with the world or with feelings that demand expression and can put the rest of your life into a context that makes more sense. They’re supposed to be rewarding. When they’re not, something is out of balance. I know, as someone who has been an independent artist for a long time now, that most of the pressure we feel is often self-generated. We wake up early or go to bed late so we can write, we cannibalize our lunch hours (if we have them) to work on our own projects, we try to reclaim commute times however we can with audiobooks or instructional podcasts. You name it.

There is such a thing as necessary artistic discipline, the time we have to put in on a daily basis to refine our craft. But there’s also such a thing as losing the forest for the trees. Sometimes we need a little break.

And that’s ok. So if you are, like me, an artist who has suddenly realized that artistic output has stopped adding value to your daily routine and made it harder to cope with, cut yourself some slack. You are still you, and the stories you need to tell will wait until you can best tell them. If they are so important that they demand telling, then you owe those stories the best you can offer them. And you on two hours of sleep isn’t ever the best you’ve got.

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.

Art: What’s the Point?

Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually become less cynical about art. To pursue a career, or even just a paying sideline in the arts requires a tremendous amount of self-confidence because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you, in good faith, ask someone else to believe in you and hand over cash for something you made that doesn’t actually do anything? We’re not building garage door openers here, after all.

But, as American Idol has been kind/malicious enough to point out, a whole lot of self-confidence is utterly misguided. My wife used to work as a talent scout for a modeling agency, and a woman approached her one night asking if they repped models with disabilities, because she thought her daughter would make a great spokesperson for something. The woman then plopped onto the table in front of her a photo of a child with no eyes. No. Eyes. And the mother said, without even a trace of irony, “Now tell me that face couldn’t sell mustard!”

Anakin Skywalker. A face only a Jedi could love.
“One last thing, Luke. Be sure to stock up on Funyuns!”

So yes, there are sometimes clear and loud disconnects between one’s perceived and actual prospects when it comes to employment in entertainment and the arts. But these days, I’m much more inclined to say “So what? God bless ’em.”

The world is, I can say without hesitation, a better place because Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is in it. But it is also a better place for all of our terrible, awkward YouTube videos.

For myself, I have two artistic goals (or rules, or guidelines, or whatever) and I think they are good ones.  They are:

1. Tell the truth
2. Don’t be boring

Maybe the first is more important than the second, but if you’re not at least attempting to abide by those two ideas, maybe it’s not really art you’re making. Maybe it’s play. But that’s fine, too.

The fundamental question we might ask ourselves when we start working on a story, song, painting, film, etc., is, “Why bother?” What will it contribute to someone else’s life or the larger discourse? Are we tackling this project for ourselves, or for others? Does the idea burning to get out of us want to communicate something unique and honest to the world, or simply…escape? Personally, I try to look beyond myself. I don’t want somebody to pop in music I made because it’ll make me feel better, but because I fervently hope it will make them feel better. Because of that personal disposition, I used to think that I didn’t want to be bothered with anything other people made that wasn’t trying to tell me something. Not so much anymore. Because it turns out the answers to those questions aren’t as important as I used to think.

I realized something:

As terrible as the world can be — and is, somewhere, at any given time — it is a better place if we are pumping it full of creative energy, whatever the result. Creativity is how our souls communicate. So who the hell is anybody to tell us we should ever quit, or give up, or worse than that, not try in the first place?

Do your thing.

I used to hate this. Now I have better things to do.