The first song I ever wrote was composed of three sad-sounding chords and overuse of the phrase “bring me down.” I was fourteen. I stood in front of my bedroom mirror with my guitar and sang it with ultra-serious conviction.
It was a terrible song. And I was a terrible little musician.
Even worse, I didn’t have the taste to recognize that, for the first few years of creating things, we have it all wrong: we’ll copy our influences and find value in our art simply because it’s something we created out of that mysterious thin air. But the challenge comes in creating something that people want to experience themselves and aren’t left cold for having done so.
Good artists accept those first few creative years for what they are: a period of failures that teach valuable lessons and skills. But I was—and in many ways, still am—a bad artist.
. . .
Your goal as a creator shouldn’t be to please everyone with what you create. Though you should strive to please someone.
I accept that my interest in writing instrumental progressive metal music might not strike everyone’s chord. And I accept that my interest in Cosmic Horror might not be everyone’s first choice for light Sunday afternoon reading. But that doesn’t excuse me from putting in the work to create something worth consuming (unless I’m solely creating things for my own consumption). It’ll be flawed and built with busted up parts, but those busted up parts can’t be there because of laziness or pretentiousness. The work has to be done—and done well—through copious amounts of edits and hard questions.
At the end of the day, art is a product. It’s there to enrich people’s lives. And what people want most is a product that is both rare and valuable. So, our job as creators of any type should be to aim for creations that exceed the majority of products with middling rarity and value. So, how does one go about making art that’s rare and valuable? It begins by ignoring your ego and involving others in your work.
The idea of the lone artist who flees from civilized society, holes himself up in an attic, and creates a masterpiece is a romantic idea that doesn’t hold up. While this can perhaps lead to productive first drafts, brilliant art in its final form is rarely created in a vacuum.
Mike Birbiglia, stand-up comic and filmmaker, has a particularly vulnerable yet effective method for improving his craft. While working on his screenplay for Don’t Think Twice, he regularly invited all of his friends—all writers and comedians themselves—over for a pizza dinner. While his guests ate, Mike read his screenplay aloud and welcomed honest feedback. While brutal and maybe a bit demoralizing, he later said of those sessions, “Worst case scenario: in the end, everybody gets pizza.”
Alone, you’re only so good. There are many like you, and many more who are better than you. But add another creator to your mix, and suddenly your single source quality is doubled. Your chance of making fatal mistakes is lessened. Accountability is enforced. A creator who chooses to collaborate is one that smothers ego and ensures quality. And in the end, your creations win for it.
But before you invite all of your friends over for pizza to read your latest screenplay, think hard about who you’re seeking feedback from. As a creator, it might be in your best interest to surround yourself with those who are apathetic towards your creations and don’t mind telling you when your new short story just isn’t doing anything for them. After all, one of the greatest pleasures you can experience as a creator is to stir those who are difficult to stir.
. . .
On a recent trip to my hometown, I found a folder that held all my old creations: music sheets, short stories, and drawings. At the top of the stack, I found the chord sheet to that first song I wrote. Below that, held together with rusty staples, I found my old 91 page novella about a rugged spy out to stop the bad dudes and their Very Evil Plan. At the header of each chapter, I’d hand drawn the corresponding chapter number along with a snappy chapter title, e.g. Absolution, Sacrifice, Retribution. Thrilling stuff.
I realized that what seemed so powerful to me at fourteen was actually just bad art. But what a joy it is to finally see that improvements have been made after all.