December 06, 2007

Artistic Creativity vs. Professional Commitments

"We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
- The Raging Id of Durden
Well...maybe so, but I get the feeling ol' Tyler never actually strapped on a guitar, and was never infected by the vicious fangs of the Rock Virus, though he faked it well. In my case, though, it zapped me good and proper, and at the most vulnerably fateful time- when I was defeated, weak, gullible, and desperate. I saw it coming, though, and even enjoyed letting it happen, and now, almost twelve years later, the brutal little bastard has only slightly loosened its grip on my terminally narcissistic soul. But so what? I was asked to offer my so-called "insights" into the psychologically dangerous and physically exhausting practice of "balancing artistic, creative passion with the mundane drudgery of everyday life," so we'd better get to it before I get too unbearably derivative. Come on backstage.
"I simulate love-making by beating a piece of wood with a metal wire on which it vibrates."
-Adam Clayton of U2
So, "The Balance." Anyone ever enslaved by the Creative Impulse has had to come to grips with this merciless reality. Whether it's carving out precious free time to empty your head of the swirling brilliance held back all day while you earn a paycheck, or struggling to stay inspired when your muse fucks off to Barbados with some other pretentious asshole, the problem of balancing obligations with release remains the same. For me, dealing with it involves a nebulous combination of discipline, collaboration, flexibility, and learning from my (and others') mistakes.

Baiting Inspiration
For the last decade, my primary creative outlet has been music, but I'm a word guy by training, with a lousy short-term memory to boot, so I always carry scratch paper around in case the universe decides to align in my favor. Anyone will tell you inspiration can't be forced, but it can be prepared for. As a night owl, it was natural to set aside 10pm to midnight (and often 'til 2 or 3am on weekends) for the sort of open-ended thinking that breeds the best ideas. I've learned to accept that I won't catch lightning every time, or even very often. When I do, though, it's usually a cumulative result of simply collecting and processing many, many stray ideas. Creativity’s such a feast-or-famine thing with me that I've really come to appreciate when it's around, and miss it when it's gone.
"I just can’t picture you doing that."
-An ex-girlfriend dismissing the idea of me playing onstage in a band.
Collaboration is Vital
The best way I've found to break creative blocks is working with a group. Roping in three other talented jokers and getting collectively, empathetically brilliant, definitely beats any individual achievement in my book. By now, I'm so used to bouncing semi-formed ideas off the other guys in the band- who invariably help flesh them out to bigger and better things- that I'd be musically lost without them. Practicing alone, though a necessity, is boring these days, because my band-mates have become my essential musical inspiration. Of course, with a group you run into the problem of other peoples' calendars, but that's the only real downside once everyone checks their egos at the door (itself no small thing) and gets down to business.

Get Flex-Time
Too many late nights spent in either setting, though, and you start to show up late to work, drooling all over the TPS reports and forgetting everything except band stuff. When eight or more hours of your day are sucked away by your job, it tends to make consistent creative output a rare luxury. The rent and bills never stop, though, and guitars, amps, recorders, and other gear is expensive (in this case, credit is good, folks). I've been fortunate enough to work at jobs where my employers were happy to offer flex-time or some other alternative to the 8-5 Zombie Death March, so taking a day off to prep for (or recover from) a gig here and there, or working after-hours to offset a bi-monthly trip into the studio was never a serious problem. It also didn't hurt that many of my colleagues have been enthusiastic and encouraging- almost as much as the Ever-Patient Friends & Family- which is handy when you need to put asses in seats or sell CDs. Even better, my current job (graphic/web design) is a creative position, so my brain is used to deadlines and usually set to receive inspiration from any source.

Blocks are Normal
An unexpected flip side showed up when I once found myself unemployed. The problem then became not only splitting time between my Chosen Expensive Hobby and my hunt for a new job, but also the idea that, with lots of new free time, I should be that much more creative, which proved untrue. As many more important and famous people have noted, when one's passion becomes one's job, it becomes tougher to whip oneself into a workable state of inspiration. Even so, that's only really a problem if you pressure yourself to constantly churn out material. Accepting fallow periods or writer’s block is nowhere near the worst or lowest point you'll encounter.
"You have to be sturdy. Being an artist is not for the faint-hearted and you have to be proud that you are what you are. You have to be a proud bum."
- Patti Smith (during an interview with me, actually, from 10/23/97)
Promotion: Get help!
The hardest part of the whole screaming deal, in my opinion, is the never-ending War To Make People Care. I'm naturally shy, and have never enjoyed applying for jobs or booking shows, though it's easier these days with so many web-based handy how-to's or other sites (which obviously run the gamut from mildly useful to a total waste of time). Groveling continually in front of disinterested nightclub owners, bartenders or promoters, who think you're Just Another Dude In A Shitty Band has always struck me as the most pathetically shameful degradation. I'm probably not the best person to give advice on how to get gigs or self-promote, but I do know that yes, it's who you know, and how much they can stand to be continually harassed, that counts. If you or your friends have got the time and endurance to pester the living hell out of people, then do it. Otherwise, well, rejection's a great inspiration, right?
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
-Hunter S. Thompson (who wasn't really talking about Teh Biz, of course)
Swine and Philistines
Which brings us to: Getting Over Criticism. It's a maturity thing, of course, to be able to tell the difference between appreciative, constructive appraisal, envious projection, and useless bullshit. Filtering it all is a mix of simply not letting it get to you and also realizing that once a creation leaves your head and spews out into the wide world, it will be judged and misinterpreted and mangled far beyond what you thought you'd made in the first place. It was pathetically easy for me to be a rock critic and bitch about music when I wasn't actually creating it, so I had to get over the entire range of criticism (90% of which was variations of "you guys SUCK!") once I put my own stuff on the line. Again, though, it was easier when three other guys backed me up, so we always sank or swam as a group, and no one person ever endured the shit-hammer alone. My point here is simply the same old hoary cliché of Don't Let Other People's Hang-ups Fuck With Your Art. If you like what you've made, then it's Good. If at some point you change your mind, you can always make something new and better; you're the creative one, right?

Indeed. Until you come to the Precipice, anyway. For us, that was the point where we would have to make the Big Push to turn our hobby into a career, turn our lives into shapeless blurs, and our relationships into melted slag. We looked over the cliff and saw that it was Ugly, and chose to retreat. If I recall correctly it was after being offered yet another really lopsided pay-to-play contract at a high-profile LA venue, and I believe my no-nonsense drummer's words were something like "Do you guys really want to put up with this shit again?"

It's Gotta Be Fun
In our callous, bootstrap-worshipping society, it's hard to avoid the fallacy that once you've burned up all your "youthful energy" and semi-innocent ignorance, you've either got to knuckle under and try to make your passion your career, or be content with indulging in expensive hobbies to balance the daily insanity of working for a living. In my case, logistics intervened; everyone in the band either finished school or moved away, so it was a lot tougher to even get together for rehearsals. When we do, though, it's like almost no time had passed at all (a benefit of biweekly practices during our first year together) and the rarity of rehearsals and gigs these days makes them that much more special for us to do, and for our friends to enjoy. See, unlike all those idiots in Fight Club, I knew at 19 I'd never be a world-conquering rock star. That wasn't my idea of creative success.
"People pay to see other people believe in themselves."-Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth
What's "success," then? The fact that the time spent was on good work with brilliant and talented friends: first (fun but amateur) band The Mojo Wire- four self-made demo albums, one compilation, and 23 shows over five years; second (fun and less amateur) band Honey White: 1 E.P. disc, 1 studio album, four self-produced live albums, and 28 shows in five more years. That balances out a lot of life’s more mundane bullshit, which is good enough for me.

Cross-posted: dkos (ku35).

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