Okay here’s the thing. There will be times when your gut tells you that the work you are doing is bad. Not up to your standards. Beneath you. Ordinary. And in those times, your gut, your feelings, your doubts, could very well be your work’s worst enemy. Little nagging liars. Fueled by a messed-up ego and the anxiety of a looming deadline. And you should not listen to them.
Here’s a recent story that turned into an ah-ha moment.
I was doing some work for a songwriting workshop. The assignment was to take an intro that we had worked on the week before and turn it onto the bare bones of a song. Lyrics. Chord changes. A nearly fully formed piece, or at least something that we could talk about and make whole.
This is different from the way I had constructed songs previously. Usually, I started with the idea, and found some music that worked with it emotionally, I allowed my emotions to dictate the way the work flowed out of me.
The first phase of this creative process was to put off the creative process for three or four days. (Even though it was on my to-do list in my “work” notebook — the peach-colored one.) I just wasn’t feeling it. I was waiting for lightning to strike. I wrote some partial thoughts in my “daily pages” notebook (the bronze and grey one). I thought about the theme of the song. But I was not feeling strongly about any ideas I had. Then, with a couple of days before the class, I turned the little heater in my studio on and dug in. After a few hours of hard work in temperatures so cold my guitar went out of tune four times, I turned one of the intros I had into some chord changes. Which I vaguely felt were awful. Loathsome. Dreck.
I still was not feeling it.
The sun had gone down and I could not feel my toes, so I retreated to my warm kitchen with my “song” notebook (the silver and dayglo green one with the stickers) full of my own weird brand of musical notations, a head full of chords, and a couple of not even partially formed lyrics. After everyone had gone to sleep and the dog was starting to settle, I opened my notebook and began writing some lyrics. And throughout the process, I felt these lyrics were just plain bad. Childish. Amateurish. I was having trouble finding the right words for the chorus. Switching back and forth between the rhyming dictionary and the thesaurus. I hated everything I wrote. It felt hopeless. I had a fragment of a chord progression that I was trying to mash together with some pieces of ideas and lyrics that barely rhymed.
I went to bed frustrated. But just before drifting off to sleep my brain pieced together a string of words that seemed to work as a melody. This allowed me to sleep, feeling that I at least had a way forward. But I awoke the next morning irked by the fact that I had solved the song problem before going to sleep but could not remember the solution. I probably dreamed it. This was really getting under my skin.
It was now two hours before class, so I switched on the heater in the studio, went back to the warm kitchen while the temperature got bearable out there, made some coffee and started writing more lyrics. That I hated. I felt that what I was writing was too simple. Too on-the-nose. Too derivative. We were getting down to the wire. I did not have time to take a walk and clear my head.
I was not feeling it.
With an hour to go before class, I moved out to the still-chilly studio with my half-assed lyrics and began to lay down a recording with the music. I changed the tempo of the song twice. I added a few changes to the chorus to make the music fit the words. After about a half hour of work and about three re-tunings of my guitar, it hit me.
This was… good.
It still needed work, for sure, but I liked the way the simple lyrics were playing with the less-simple music to makes something new and different. And I was liking my new chorus, which I had partially discarded and re-written from the night before.
In class, my (awesome) instructor provided a few things to think about in order to complete the song and make it even better. Which I will do for next week.
So, to recap:
- Procrastination—not feeling it.
- Idea — not feeling it.
- Chord changes — not feeling it.
- Lyrics—not feeling it.
- Revised lyrics—not feeling it.
- Embryonic song 20 minutes before class—feeling it.
If there was ever proof that one needs to trust the process and ignore one’s feelings, this is it.
Author, Anne Lamotte talks about this phenomenon in her book on writing, “Bird by Bird,” in which she emplores first-time writers to just get over themselves and write a “shitty first draft.” You have to push your feelings down and start somewhere because if you don’t, you may not start at all. It’s an important part of the process. A lot of creative people get hung up on the fact that most of the work they do is not brilliant and perfect as it flows out of their pens or paintbrushes.
You have to push your feelings down and start somewhere because if you don’t, you may not start at all.
In his book, “The Process,” marketing and strategy guru Seth Godin talks about a successful New Yorker Cartoonist named Drew Dernavich who revealed his secret to having so many cartoons published: his rejection pile of cartoon ideas is close to 15x taller than his acceptance pile. As Seth puts it, “Drew is not a genius, he just has more paper.”
Think about this. If Dernavich was a baseball player, where elite batters typically only get a hit one out of every three at-bats, his batting average would be .066 which would not even earn him a spot as water boy on a minor league team. Yet, he is at the top of the creative game.
Writers like Lamotte and artists like Dernavich don’t let their feelings interfere with their success. They push through the bad feelings about their bad ideas and shitty drafts and they create. At some point, the garbage turns to something good that can be shaped and polished into something great. That’s how the process works.
So my advice to creative folks is this: Forget feelings. Don’t listen to those little liars. I know that doing shitty work makes you feel bad. I’ve been there a million times (not an exaggeration). Don’t let your feelings get in the way. Just create. Do the work. Over and over and over. You’ll get there.
Grant Sanders is a father, husband, dog trainer, short-order cook, cold-weather swimmer, electric piano and tenor guitar restorer, jump rope enthusiast, podcaster, ad industry veteran, and the founder/lead of SAND. Which, it so happens, operates under a creative and strategic agency model that expands and contracts to meet the needs of various clients. It’s built to work speedily and is tailor-made for a global viral apocalypse, interestingly.