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.

The New Gatekeepers

Democracy has come to creativity, and capitalism has come to overwhelm democracy.

I am, of course, talking about the Amazon review scandal that has come to light, revealing that as many as 1/3 of all reviews on Amazon were bought and paid for. This is a catastrophe for everyone involved — musicians, writers, consumers, and Amazon.com. The essential problem with this system is found in this comment by Stanford professor Robert Sutton: “Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard.”

That’s fine. That’s the voice in the back of our heads that tells us we have something meaningful to contribute to the world-at-large. This is a good voice and it should be cultivated because it’s right — we do have something meaningful to contribute to the world-at-large. Every single one of us. What we may not each have, though, is something meaningful to contribute to consumers. Only the consumers themselves can tell us that, and that mechanism is being actively subverted.

The good news is, we can do something about this. We’re the new gatekeepers, after all.

Dude, not cool. 400 people on Amazon told me this box
was full of 5-star awesome.

But first, here’s why this is not a victimless “crime.” How, in fact, it victimizes everybody it touches.

Authors paying for comments: You’re being robbed, and you’re being fooled if you believe this is “marketing.” It is not. There is an implicit (and explicit, if you ask the Federal Trade Commission, or Sony, who had to pay $1.5 million after writing its own fake reviews) agreement between marketers and their audience that the audience will be able to tell the difference between marketing (“spin”) and peer-to-peer communication. But the larger fact is that you are denying yourself the self-knowledge that is necessary for meaningful art to take place. Everybody wants their ego massaged (I do), but the people I know and have been a lifelong fan of who are tremendous writers are always terrified they suck. F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure. It is, in my experience, the people who are most convinced of their greatness that actually kinda stink a lot. Buying 5-star reviews won’t tell you what you need to know in order to grow as a writer or musician. Plus, you will likely spend more, and quickly, than you will ever see in returns.
Authors not paying for comments: Those of us playing the game “the right way” suffer because when we do land a genuinely positive review — even a glowing one — it is immediately suspect and likely to be disregarded. Now that Amazon is under fire for this egregious exploitation of its system, changes are likely to come, and they are not likely to make it easier for real people to offer legitimate reviews of works.
Consumers: This is pretty obvious. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Consumers who roll the dice on independent, self-published music, stories, or books are not likely to do it again if the quality they receive is evidently terrible. It used to be that agents, editors, and publishers performed the essential gatekeeping function of saving us from things that, by and large, are fundamentally not worth our time. Those people still exist, but they’ve been circumvented. This is probably for the best. Their gate was narrow and excluded things that millions of people in various niches would find essential and moving. But that doesn’t mean that anybody wants to be duped.
What do we do?!?! Review things! I cannot tell you how important it is to independent artists to get reviews on their product pages (especially on iTunes, where you can disappear in a hurry). That’s why this whole pay-for-reviews thing exists. So please, if you are enjoying something — an album, EP, novel, short story — produced by somebody outside the mainstream, take a few minutes and post how it’s affected you.  I know it can be awkward to jump into the fray, but your support has real, and often immediate, results. I’m putting my money where my mouth is and reviewing a bunch of music on Amazon right now.
And to fellow artists and writers, I’ll just add that, look, your book probably doesn’t deserve five stars. You probably haven’t written The Great Gatsby. My new record may not deserve five stars. But I’d be quite happy with four. I think as creators, maybe we should adjust our expectations. 
Should you want to offer a review of the new Sci-Fi Romance album, The Ghost of John Henry, you can do so at iTunes or Amazon. Just saying.

A New Bag for Old Tricks: I Attempt an Audiobook

The other night I set up mic, mixer, and preamp to record a couple of demos of new songs, and I figured, “Hey, why not try to make an audiobook?” It seemed easy enough. It’s been awhile, but I’ve been paid actual money in the past for voice over work and I know how to read, so what could go wrong?

It’s me. Making an audiobook. While the neighbors
blast “Brick House.”

Audible.com, to which I have been addicted for several years now, has set up the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), and since I’ve been writing a lot of prose of late, just released a short story digitally for the first time, and will have at least one novel coming out in the next year, I figured the short story would be a good candidate for a kind of dry run. The ACX allows authors to either upload their own performances of their work in audiobook format, or allows authors, producers, and voice talent to connect for projects. It’s pretty great.

Here are lessons I learned from my attempt at making an audiobook:

1. Read too fast is both easy, and bad. I speak fairly slowly (I’m from the South), but read aloud just fast enough to scramble words together when I’m not paying enough attention.
2. It’s exhausting. On the ACX site, they have a video with pointers for people trying this for the first time, and the guy on the video says “This is grueling work.”  So, like a dummy, I scoffed and thought “Grueling? Come on.”  Ok, it’s not grueling…I’m going to save that classification for perilous physical labor…but it is far more draining than I expected.
3. You gotta commit to voices, or leave them at home. About 90% of the audiobooks I listen to have the performers doing some kind of voices for different characters, though some are only very slight modulations of their regular reading voices. You gotta make up your mind BEFORE you sit down what your voices are going to be, not by the seat-of-your-pants.
4. Singing into a microphone and reading into a microphone = way different. It even felt far different from acting, since with a script you’ll prepare intentions for each line, etc. But even with a short story — let alone a full-length novel, you have to find a different way in.
5. Warm-ups are important. I always, always do vocal warm-ups before I sing. Why I thought I could get away with not doing it before recording an audiobook, I don’t know. I’ve got 25 minutes of lip-smacking reminding me to not cut corners, now.
6. Your neighbor’s party? Yeah, you’ll be able to hear it. I love my neighbors. They’re the best. But “Brick House” and “Rolling in the Deep” do not make a very good soundtrack for my short story.

So in the end, I was right: attempting my new short story was a good dry run. But it’s a dry run that’s going to stay locked away in an archive folder on my computer. Now I need to do it again…but for real, this time.

I guess it goes to show, even though I’ve done lots of things *like* this, I’d never really done it before, and it was nice to be able to dip my toes in before committing to eight hours or however long a short novel will eventually take.

Anyway, you can check out my story, The Lennox Kid, here for Kindle, and please leave a review if you’re so inclined.