On Pound-Foolish Creativity
Most New Year’s resolutions fail because their stated aim isn’t the real aim.
If you are feeling down about yourself, and you say to someone else that you want to improve your life in some way, the most likely response is “That’s a great idea! I hope it works out!” or words to that effect. That is a nice response, of course; it validates the merits of your idea. And that’s where things can break down on actually doing the resolution, because your brain just got validated without having to do the thing you said you’d do. You got love and admiration for saying you’d do it, and if you’re looking for love and admiration, it’s way easier to get it by talking about the thing than doing the thing.
When those resolutions involve creative endeavors, there’s a follow-up trap: becoming good at playing with creative tools versus actually creating. It’s very much the difference between enjoying inflatable pool chairs and swimming; they’re both fine and they involve the same space, but the actions you take to be good at each – skilled lounging and skilled swimming – are different.
This is how you get loads of people who love saying they’re working on a book versus people who write books. There are a lot more of the former than the latter, and it’s easy to think the former are bad at accomplishing their goals. They’re actually fantastic at accomplishing their goals; they just unwittingly have different goals.
I found all this out when I finished the book I told people I’d been writing. They were more surprised than anything else, and processing that taught me loads about how stated intentions can be about a totally different emotional validation the whole time.
Why am I mentioning all this now?
Because I’ve gotten back into creating music after many years. I was no great shakes back when, but I produced stuff evocative enough that it was reworked by a friend’s band (they now do acclaimed microtonal math rock) and the drummer of which went on to the Smashing Pumpkins. I made a 23-minute suite in law school (it was better than my grades) and a semi-autobiographical double album in 2012.
But writing articles made me money and I ran out of musical ideas, so I shelved music. Now that my day job has me writing a lot more words, being creative in ways that don’t require words is a lot more appealing, so for that and many other reasons I determined early during COVID-19 to cash out of one hobby and pay for a real music setup.
Once you start researching that, though, it bogs down quickly. Infinite YouTube videos, forum threads, and tweets show how studio software or instrument A is obviously better than B; double infinite videos rebut them. And when you know that some people want to play with creative tools more than create, you know just how much of a trap it all is. Some reviewers seem like they make so many videos that there’s no possible way they’re making albums. They’ve monetized something they’re good at — awesome for them — but that’s not the same as helping an aspiring doer learn how to do.
So I did what a lot more of us should do a lot more often: I paid for expertise. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (certainly better than that time I reconstituted a mashed potato mix with white grape peach juice. Yes, the dorm room sink had gunky water and I had no other food, but…yeah).
Last Thanksgiving, a producer I had no connection to, Alina Smith, followed me on Twitter out of the blue. It turns out that she’s a full-blown doer – born in Russia, she worked her way into Nashville’s country scene, then met a budding star named Elli Moore, formed a pop production group with her called LYRE, and they’ve produced and written on various #1 works. Alina also makes great production tutorial videos like this one that showed me it was feasible to catch up to 2020 music-making from where I was.
So when LYRE advertised Skype consultation sessions during COVID-19, I jumped at the chance. And while the price initially surprised me (because I had no concept of what it should cost), I quickly realized how much I would save in the long run. Getting advice on what I should buy from people that use it to make successful songs — swimmers, not pool loungers — meant I would skip paying for useless things.
And they gave me so much more than that, not just in practical tips but in emotional support: understanding me as a person and validating that I was capable. To silence your inner critic, you need a doer to tell you that you can do it, rather than a talker to tell you that you can talk it. Their belief in me has penetrated my psyche in a way that years of “Yeah, that sounds good!” from friends never could, because they indisputably know what they’re talking about. And I’m not in their genres, but they understood me, doer-to-aspiring-doer. So what things I did know resonated with them and they helped me build on them.
Since that consultation last month, I’ve made two songs — one completely new and one that had stalled since I started in 2016 – taking as much of their advice as possible. Across the board, with a variety of people, they’ve easily been the best-received out of everything I’ve done. (They’re at my Soundcloud page if you’re interested.) Considering that they’re a 5/4 piece where the entire mix revolves midway through and a dubstep-nee-krautrock xylophone spree, there was, to put it mildly, no guarantee of that. But I paid the experts who know things and do things to teach me how to do things, and that was worth infinitely more than getting free advice on playing around with things.
Whatever you’re thinking of doing, remember that there are multiple actual goals within people who state the same goal you have. Figure out who wants to swim versus who wants to lounge in the pool, and then pay the swimmers what they’re worth; it will pay dividends rapidly. There’s a lot of penny-wise, pound-foolish creativity in the world – buying a series of shanties rather than one sturdy house – and I’m here to tell you from recent experience that making real investments in your creativity can make all the difference.
Also, seriously just go out and get food rather than using white grape peach juice in a mashed potato mix. It tasted good for about two seconds, then the aftertaste set in.