Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Art > Ego

I'm going to let you in on a secret. My songs aren't about me. Not really. I mean, they all draw from my own experiences, but the songs come from somewhere else. It's kind of like a broadcast signal, where my role might be compared to an antenna or a satellite dish with the ambition to be a lightning rod.

To me, music is one of the many forms that creative writing can take. Some ideas are better suited to screenplays, books or recipes, etc., but it all comes from the same place, and that place is a hell of a lot bigger than me. I can only take so much of the credit for anything that I create. When I'm in writing mode, the ideas seem to flow through me. It is a meditative state, where riffs, lyrics, and ideas materialize as if out of the ether. I just record them and scribble a lot of notes to myself. On some level, I just have to trust myself to know what I am doing.

Practice builds skill, which builds confidence. Paradoxically, superceding one's ego requires a certain degree of belief in yourself. If there is a trick to tightrope walking, that would probably be it. That and balance, which is the thing that binds the universe.

That isn't to say that there isn't conscious work involved in the writing process, but this usually comes before and after as opposed to during. Assembling riffs and chord progressions into a song requires a little bit of math. I know the basic shape and feel of the song before I start writing the lyrics, but then I try to let the song essentially tell me what it's about. 

The first line that pops into my head is seldom the first lyric of the song, and there is often a lot of rearranging and polishing that take place after a song has begun to reveal itself to me. I do not want to underemphasize the importance of revision. However, in the actual moment of writing, I find that I work best if I don't overthink it. That's what editing is for.


It took a long time before I could separate myself from my writing. By that, I mean that it took many years of calling myself a writer before I could take criticism of my work without taking it personally. In the eyes of my insecure ego, where my identity was wrapped up in this thing that I made, the screenplay or song or whatever was my baby, and I didn't want to hear anybody tell me that it was ugly, even if it was in fact a hideous beast. 

The thing is, I have come to recognize that creativity is not so much an intellectual endeavor as it is a basic receptivity to good ideas. Wherever they come from is almost beside the point, but those that truly resonate seem to come from something much bigger than the self, which is precisely how they can connect with so many people. Work out the basic idea, then shut off the compulsive editor and see what happens. If it sucks, don't worry about it, because it just means you recognize that you still have a lot more to learn. The biggest fools are those who think they know everything.

As an English teacher and a student of life, I have to remind everyone that whatever it is that you are writing, it does usually help to plan it first, if only to give yourself a map to where you're going. I can say from experience that my first novel wandered off into something completely different about a hundred pages in, such that the beginning would have needed major revision just to make sense out of where it was going, which I still wasn't sure about. I have also written some terrible screenplays using the seat-of-my-pants method. I find that it's far more suited to shorter forms, like blog posts, poems, and occasionally songs.

I also believe that revision is one of the things that makes writing a far more effective means of communication than speaking. When writing, you have the chance to do it over and polish it until it's exactly what you want to say (or you hit the deadline, whichever comes first). In conversation, we are not so fortunate. We all say stupid things sometimes. There is a reason why speeches are written and not improvised, and improv theatre is more about a quickness of wit rather than the quality of the material. I think that even my friends who do improv would attest to that. Then again, as I writer, perhaps I always took improv personally. There's that ego again.

No matter what I write, that is all it is. It is a thing that exists separately from me. You don't have to like it. I hope you do, because the whole point of communication is to convey meaning to others, plus I've probably spent a considerable amount of time editing it--but hey, if it's not your thing, I don't take it personally. Maybe it's for somebody else. I say this as someone who has told jokes in stand-up comedy sets that fell flat and performed music on stage while a contingent of the bar patrons only cheered when their team scored a point on the muted televisions. It also took me a while before I had control over my stagefright instead of the other way around. The key is in separating art from ego. A little bit of punk rock won't hurt you, either.

Don't get me wrong. I like to take credit for the work that I put into a project, as well as the countless other projects that preceded it, through which I gained the skill necessary to complete the task at hand. I know how hard I work, and I am proud of that. I also recognize that perfection is an unrealistic ideal, so I just do the best I can, which gets better the more I do it. This is true with any form of writing, as well as most things, really. No matter what it is, if you do the same thing every day, chances are that you're probably going to get better at it.   

This is what it means to fashion oneself into a receptive antenna. It takes practice and dedication to one's craft, and the broadcast signals will probably never come through a hundred percent, but I tend to think that the best artists are those who can see beyond the inherently limited perspective of their own egos. It is something to aspire to, anyway.  

It is your ego that compares you with others. It is your ego that takes it personally if someone doesn't like your work. It is who you allow yourself to become that determines how receptive you are to big ideas, as well as what you can do with them. I tend to believe that everyone is capable of genius, because it is not something to possess so much as it is something to channel. If the signal isn't coming through as we'd like it to, perhaps we need to dial in a different frequency.

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