In my last blog post I joined Edgar Allen Poe in extolling the virtues of foreseeing the end point of a story before one begins to write. It’s a good theory: imagine the desired effect, the tone, the elements you will create to achieve your denouement, then weave them together intelligently, inexorably to successful conclusion.
It’s also true that this may never work for you. It’s even possible that it never worked for Poe himself, as some writers suggest his essay, The Philosophy of Compostition was “tongue in cheek,” written in response to critics of his poem, The Raven. Whether he was describing his actual writing technique, an ideal to reach for, or poking at his critics pretending to delineate a “scientific method” for his creativity doesn’t really matter.
The truth is that there never has been and never will be one path to artistic accomplishment that works for everyone. Moreover, there’s not even one path that works for the same person time and time again. This is necessary to keep art forever fresh, unpredictable, exciting, and elusive.
Sometimes when I’m frustrated with the lack of progress I’m making on a song, I find I wish that results could be more “guaranteed.” If I work hard enough, long enough, follow the process or method that produced my last song, why don’t I get the same desired result?
Inspiration is nice when it comes, and sometimes it’s the spark for a great new song. Sometimes it leads to a dead end. Worst of all, it’s totally unpredictable as to when and if it will ever come. Creative artists need something more dependable than that. Fortunately there is an approach that I can recommend.
The approach is simple and requires really only two things: discipline and awareness. Discipline is needed to sit down when you may not feel like it; to keep going when you feel uninspired; to stick with it when some nameless force is urging you to go watch TV or play a video game. Awareness is necessary so you are prepared to grasp that moment when, from out of nowhere, you hear a chord, a turn of phrase, or a melodic fragment that catches your attention, and you suddenly have something to work with that sparks excitement. Then everything changes.
Creative artists know the feeling when something exists that did not exist a moment ago. New possibilities may flow in abundance, or they may merely trickle along, but at least you have a piece of material, a musical molecule, that can be the basis of new life. But you’ve got to be working on it and paying close attention for this to happen.
Inventors, scientists, and artists over millennia have known this truth: success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. And the largest part of the exertion required is mental. Write the end first if you like; set up chord sequences, or write the lyrics first — whatever keeps you working. But be alert, awake, and aware; make sure you recognize the moments of real spark that will become the seed of success. They may be elusive, but they are essential.