Saturday, March 12, 2011

Angels with sticks

Forgive me being obsessed; I'm still thinking about the phenomenon of creative people not getting started. I'm haunted by the thought of a vast garden of creative potential, with most of it wilting and dying — only a few scattered spots here and there getting watered and bursting forth with bright flowers.

If we tend our garden just a little bit better, we could have many more flowers.

Now, it's perfectly okay if people don't want to create anything. Not everyone is an artist by nature, and that's fine. What troubles me is the people who do want to create, who feel called to some very specific form of artistry, but who find themselves blocked, unable to start doing the work that they want to do.

They're left perpetually frustrated, in a state of suspense. And it can't be good for one's health or happiness to be simultaneously pulled by something and held back from it.

At the same time, we all lose the value of whatever it was the artist was impelled to — and failed to — create. It's not that the world really needs more songs, more movies, or more novels. What the world need is more of the fruits of authentic inspiration. These are the things that are so powerful, so necessary, that the muses or angels (or whoever they are) are willing to intrude in some poor human's life and poke him with a stick until he creates the thing they demand.

Think of the angel whose job it is to hold the stick and poke, poke, poke the artist. Angels are not sadistic torturers by nature; they don't really want to cause pain. We can be sure that the creations that they are hoping to birth are truly valuable and would more than make up for the artist's temporary discomfort. But it only works if we, the artists, are able to follow through and actually create the work.

There are many potential pitfalls. The artist might not have the vocabulary to express the message. The artist might fail to grasp the message clearly, and lose most of it in the translation. But the most common pitfall, I'm afraid, is that the artist just doesn't do anything. He thinks he can't succeed, so he doesn't even try.

What I'm looking for is leverage — some way to intervene to make this creative process just a little smoother and more efficient. It should be better for everyone. Less poking for the angels, less pain for the artists, more flowers in our garden.

And the solution has to be something more than just asking artists to employ extra willpower and determination. Being an artist is hard enough without pushing even harder. In fact, my gut feeling is that the answer, if there is one, must involve making things easier.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dump your Grand Brilliant Scheme

Last month I blogged about my participation in the February Album Writing Month challenge at On the 9th day of the challenge, I observed that four out of five people who signed up hadn't written a single song, a startlingly high percentage of no-shows. At the end of the challenge, 19 days later, only a few more people had ventured past the starting line. The month ended with more than 77% of members missing in action, less than 23% actively participating.

Every time I run through these sobering numbers, I have to emphasize that signing up for the FAWM challenge was completely voluntary, and the great majority signed up after February 1st. So this wasn't a situation where someone thought it was a good idea a few months ago and then forgot all about it. People who signed up knew they had to get started pretty much right away.

The good news is that there was a surge of activity toward the end of the month, and almost half of those who actually got started ended up being declared "winners" because they'd posted at least 14 songs.

The grim news from FAWM's statistics: If you don't get started sooner, you aren't likely to get started later.

(It's even worse than the stats look. Most of the improvement in FAWM's averages came from people who joined late in the month with an immediate burst of activity, not from people switching into gear after sitting idle.)

Putting things off is a habit that gains momentum. It's a pattern that gets harder and harder to break.

Be honest with yourself today: If you still haven't taken the first step in your Grand Brilliant Scheme, you probably will never take that step. Your Grand Brilliant Scheme is already as good as dead. It's inexorably being sucked into that black hole, and you don't have the leverage to pull it back out.

There's a good reason to be brutally honest. Opportunity is knocking: an opportunity to do something much less Grand and much less Brilliant than your Grand Brilliant Scheme. But this new opportunity has a trump card: It's something you can take action on. Something you can actually get started on today. In other words, it's real.

Take that new opportunity, however modest it may seem, and let your long-postponed G.B.S. spiral into its black hole.

We all have a bad habit of discounting the value of today's immediate opportunities, and exaggerating the value of things that are out of our reach. We also overstate the value of ideas and take for granted the value that comes from action. There are plenty of great ideas — but the only ideas that matter are the ones you can actually do something with.

New rule of thumb: If you can't start on something today, it's not a creative project; it's just a daydream. It's fine to have daydreams — but your creative life should be filled with action, not just a fantasy of maybe someday.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Whose style?

A quick question for songwriters and recording artists: Do you own your musical style?

If not you, who owns it? Who gets to decide whether your music is styled correctly? Who do you have to answer to?

Of course, as a professional you sometimes have to do music that isn't in your own style, if that's what the job requires. But, when that job is done and you return to your own style, are you as easy, confident, and comfortable as you are in your own home?

If not -- if you find yourself looking over your shoulder as you make music, if you feel self-conscious, if you're eager to please -- then you just might have some ownin' to do.