Inspiring Intimidation

Day 92 Week 14 Q2  Sunday, April 2, 2023

Yesterday I spent some time with a bunch of writers, an artist and a musician sitting outside, where else a library after the author of twenty-plus books gave a talk on writing. And noticed an interesting phenomenon: these talented individuals often thought their work was not so hot. Well, one of us thought her work was mostly great until she went to museums and thought it wasn’t. And the writers read a tremendous amount of other people’s work and then came away intimidated by the excellence of great writers. The musician-composer, me, was usually intimidated and inspired simultaneously.

Many creative people think they could always be doing a better job and experience others doing so, which causes one or the other, or both reactions.  We all know that many are better than we are, that we ourselves could and can do better, and that we are inspired, not paralyzed, by this. I call this inspired intimidation. We benefit from the external stimulus in that we are inspired and know that we will likely not get to where we want to.  

Will we get somewhere worth getting? Yes, we will because we are professionals. Will the excellent work pour out of us without any effort and be wonderful? Not likely. We all know that the greats spent much time working and reworking until they got it where they wanted it to be. I have seen at Juilliard great composers crossed out and written over notes, and the anger in the slashes and most pushing through the paper. My writer friends have seen great writers’ rewrites to get to great writing. Artists paint over parts of their canvasses. 

The creative urge may generate a flowing response where it almost feels like you are tuned into a radio station picking up the waves out of the ether and capturing the content. It rarely is captured in a form complete enough to show anyone, and I have spent a long time thinking if I only got better, then it would. The romantic notion of the state of flow capturing wonderful stuff ready to show to others is rarely, if ever, true. We may capture wonderful stuff, but it is not ready for prime time without much more work. 

It is a wonderful starting place, never a wonderful ending place, for we, or at least I, can not capture it without significantly distorting it and then having to go back to try to straighten things out. It is the working and reworking that sculpt the initial endeavor into something a lot better. Now my wife, who is also an artist, likes other artists’ early works better than their more true works because she feels they are closer to the first true impulses. Clearly, creators can also overwork their works. One of the mysteries is when to stop.

Many speech writers and musicians work very hard to sound extemporaneous, and I foolishly thought the goal was to become so good that I could sound carefree and perfect at will. To improvise so well that it did not sound improvised is still my goal to a very real extent. But I have also heard many great soloists play and record the same pieces multiple times and recognize large chunks of seemingly divinely inspired phrases reused and repeated over and over.  They clearly worked and reworked their solos. I am not saying they memorized how they play, although some do, which still feels like cheating. Much work goes into shaping, reshaping, rewriting, correcting, and improving. 

It is both inspiring and intimidating at the same time.