The Agony and Ecstasy of Durable Creating

Daisy and I have been drawing pictures on the iPad before she goes to bed at night. She loves to turn off all the lights and set the background to black on the Fingerpaint app, so the bright lines of our drawings are the only illumination in the room. My mind wanders as we make our digital fingerpaintings. Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t it wild, how the tips of our fingers can create an image as they glide across the sensitive screen? Could we have imagined even a few years ago how easily we might save, send, or manipulate our work with a click of a setting or a single touch?

And then it goes further. How is this technological ease changing art? How might it be changing the process of creating?

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When I first experienced the magic of ProTools and Finale (popular musical recording and notation software) in a music studio, I became inspired by the idea of how prolific the old musical masters might have been with the speed and ease of our modern recording tools. How many more symphonies might have been composed? How many more sonatas created, if the time- and labor-intensive process of painstakingly hand-written notation could have been circumvented with these incredible programs?

I extrapolated. Not to suggest that I’m in the same category as the musical masters or anything, but if I had use of these at home, surely I’d be much more productive, too, right? How fortunate I am to live in an era where I can go buy, say, a Fostex 8-track recorder, or an MBox, or a laptop computer with GarageBand on it, and get right down to crankin’ out music to the best of my ability, right?

Oh wait. Oh yeah. I did buy all those things. And I barely figured out how to use any of them. They didn’t make it easier or faster to write great music. If anything, they sat perched on the gear bench near my piano with a vaguely accusatory energy, making me feel like a loser that I wasn’t using them to write more often. And when a song did appear, it tended NOT to arrive when I was poised and ready, perfectly plugged in at the keyboard. It came while I was driving. Or working out. Or folding laundry. Inspiration has a persistent habit of showing up whenever it damn well pleases. And for whatever reason – maybe it’s a test of will, dedication – it seems to come at markedly inconvenient times.
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Several times I’ve come across an interesting suggestion as to the distinction between spiritual and physical creating. It asserts that in the spiritual realm, things can be created instantaneously, effortlessly, but they don’t last. . . like cloud forms or sand drawings, creations dissipate almost as quickly as they are conjured up. The earthly realm, in contrast, is a much harder and slower place to make things, but here they last a very long time. So before and after our lives, as we float in whatever existence that may be, we are teased by the possibility of durable creating. It’s this desire for lasting effect that then inspires us to be born into these artist bodies and to create things. It’s this faint, vague memory of our mission that drives us forward through the difficult moments.

I think about this too, in our iPad drawing sessions. Technology has made it easy to capture compelling images on our phones, to record songs in our bedrooms, to sculpt in SketchUp. In many ways, technology has allowed our reach to exceed the grasp of our skills or forethought. We are able to avoid investing money and time into the supplies and services that used to be required – the film, darkroom chemicals, recording engineer, materials – to merely try something. So, with less risk, we fling things around and see what sticks. We play – and in our play, sometimes come up with great stuff. The hows of process fade as we are able to skip to the final product more quickly and independently. We may create a kick-ass work, but have little idea of how we got it that way.

I like the joy, the serendipity of creating without boundaries (perhaps with flashbacks to some spiritual type of creating), but it’s made me impatient. Crafting a song with care and thought feels harder, slower, lately. I find myself wondering how I might produce it with certain rhythm loops or backing vocals to gear it toward a specific music market, before the song is even finished. If a song doesn’t feel like it’s coming together right away, I feel more willing to abandon it.

I’m working on shifting. When everything feels like an effort, I’m trying to remember to ask:  What feels easy? What sounds good? Where might my desire be leading me to something better, if I’d only let it?

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Notes to myself:

1. Remember that there is a value in the fruits of struggle as much as in the swift, easy gifts of grace.  Even if you don’t know yet what it is.

2. Have fun with the toys, but don’t put off creating because you don’t have a certain one yet.   It may not make a big difference in your process.  Or a tiny little difference.

3. Consider that the plodding, hardest, slowest part of a project might be the part that ensures it will endure.

4. Be happy when you get lucky. (And be brave and persistent if you decide to figure out why.)

5. There is no substitute, no technological shortcut, for solid skillful work, for technique, for pure muscle-memory saving your ass when everything else falls apart.   In an opportune moment, your years of practice and discipline will show up for you in ways for which you will be incredibly thankful.

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