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.

Regina Spektor, Orson Welles, and Fear in Creativity

My little boy wants to marry Regina Spektor. He’s five. I had to make a poster of Regina to hang on his wall so he could gaze at her as he falls asleep. It’s adorable, and I cannot tell you how pleased I am it’s not Taylor Swift he’s in love with. So the upcoming release of Regina’s new album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, has been big news at our house. I checked out a pre-release stream of the new record, where she yelps, breathes quite frighteningly, does a few silly accents, and sings a drunken trumpet fanfare. On previous records, she barked like a seal, sang in at least three languages, and used lip-smacking sounds as percussion. So she’s not afraid to experiment.

And then I found out from this NPR interview that she doesn’t write songs down, content to remember what she remembers, letting the rest flutter back out into the ether. In 2005, she wrote the song “Fidelity” at 3:30 in the morning, then played it a few hours later in her first ever NPR interview, not sure when she started playing it if she would remember it all.

These things are stunning to me because of their utter fearlessness.

I share a feeling common among many songwriters — that each song I write will be my last. Or, at least my last good one. The thought, then, of letting a good song flutter away is terrifying. Hell, if I bang out a drumbeat I really like on the steering wheel, I grab for a digital recorder.

This all got me thinking about art in general, and how important fearlessness is to it. And more specifically, being unafraid to experiment and fail. When I started playing music, I was introduced to the idea of “the woodshed.” You go out to the woodshed, metaphorically, to practice.  No one can hear you, it doesn’t matter if you screw up, and you do the work. As a writer, I love the similar concept of “the drawer.” The drawer is where you put the stuff you write that sucks. It’s ok you wrote it, it’s ok it sucks, and it’s ok to put it in the drawer so nobody can ever see it. I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the drawer.

There’s a big push right now to “Make Good Art.” The only way I know how to make good art is to make a lot of art. The more you make and the more things you try, the better you get and the less precious each subsequent thing becomes. The less precious something is, the easier it is to stick it in the drawer if that’s where it belongs or beat it and bang on it and change it until it qualifies as “good.” It doesn’t matter if it’s good, though, really. It matters that you do it. You think it might be a good idea to bark like a seal on your accessible, mainstream record? Try it. Maybe it’ll sell 50,000 copies in its first week. Or maybe it will hardly sell at all.

Orson Welles made a lot of radio in the 1930s. A lot. And today, we remember one hour of it. But it was a great hour. There are lots of fears that stand in our way as people who want to make things that don’t strictly need to exist.  Hell with it.  Orson Welles also said this, in his outstanding documentary F for Fake:

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Go on singing.

(And Regina, next time you’re in LA, drop me a line. I was told to let you know you have a standing invitation to come to a picnic in our backyard.)