Thursday, October 21, 2010

I'm Guaranteed to Write More About This at Some Point

Last night, as I was finally getting around to cleaning the kitchen after far too long, I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR. Terry Gross was interviewing an actor named Jason Schwartzman, whom I don't know at all, although he's apparently been around for a while, and is currently starring in a show on...HBO? Maybe? About a writer turned private investigator.

Anyway, Jason Schwartzman seemed like a totally lovely guy, with really interesting things to say, but the thing that really got me was a story he told about writing the theme song for the...let's just call it the HBO show for the sake of convenience, okay? (Okay, I got over being lazy and went and looked it up--it's called Bored to Death.) Schwartzman's a musician as well as an actor, and he was asked to submit a song for consideration as the theme for the show. And he introduced this story with a good deal of embarrassment, confessing that he kind of hated telling it because it would "expose [him] as a sort of low-key liar."

And the story was that during the time he was supposed to be writing the song, he was finishing the filming of a movie, and he was so busy that he just wasn't writing the song at all. And every week, the folks at the show would e-mail him and ask how the song was coming, and every week, he would tell them it was really coming along, and he'd make up some detail of it to sort of prove he'd been working on it--the walking bass line, for instance, or some other element. And at the end of the movie, he knew he had to get the damn song written already, so--in order to make good on his promises--he went back through all the e-mails he'd written, and collected all the elements he'd made up to appease the show's producers. And then he wrote the song based on those elements. In ten minutes.

Ten minutes. Now, he can say he was "lying" about his progress on that song, and sure, he sort of was. But it seems to me this story also illustrates something mysterious and amazing about the creative process, about what our minds are doing when we think we're just procrastinating/not getting anything done.

Creative people seem to have a more-complicated-than-average relationship with procrastination and productivity, and it's hard to know sometimes if we're really wasting time, or if there's some sort of slow cooker thing going on at the back of our brains. Personally, I pretty much always leap to accusing myself of wasting time. But the truth is, if I jump into a project too fast, just because I need to prove to myself that I'm not wasting time, the results are often disastrous. And let's just say that disastrous results are not the most effective way to get yourself all fired up about the next creative project.

I've been going to acupuncture regularly for the last several years for some chronic health issues, and one of the results I've noticed is that I'm getting better at being able to tell when what I'm feeling is due to my energy being stuck, and when it's due to my energy being deficient. I'm still not 100 percent accurate--it's not so easy to tell the difference a lot of the time. But there are subtle clues, and I'm learning to read them, and that's useful, because if I know how my energy is unbalanced, there are things I can do to help re-balance it.

It seems to me that creative energy is probably the same--sometimes I just need to get moving on something to get myself unstuck, and other times, I really need to cut myself some slack and go relax, or stare at other people's art or writing, or go on a fun field trip or something to refuel. But--how to learn to tell the difference between stuck and deficient creative energy? I guess, for one thing, it's easy enough to sit down at my work table or try to write for awhile, to see whether I start to move into the productive space, or whether I start to feel anxious and antsy and miserable. The trick then, is to cut myself some slack when it's the latter--and, of course, to stop pushing myself before things go entirely pear shaped. (How much easier would my life be if I finally, once and for all, fully integrated the idea that the trick is usually to cut myself some slack? So much easier.)

It takes faith in the creative process to understand the slow cooker thing and how it works (and, let me be very clear--I don't always have it). It takes faith to keep from beating up on yourself for "procrastinating" because sometimes, the beating up on yourself is the thing that gets your creative energy all stuck in the first place. In other words, accusing yourself of procrastination might be just the mean-spirited thing that will prevent you from being the kind of super-productive artist who can compose a TV theme song on your brain's back burner while you're doing some other fabulous thing across the kitchen.


  1. Your story reminds me of a meditation "daylong" I attended at Spirit Rock. One of the leaders said that after meditating for years, his mind still wanders as much as it did when he first began.

    He's just learned to be compassionate to himself when he finds his mind wandering.

    I've never forgotten it. Such a beautiful, simple lesson.

  2. The other thing that happens: You make something (write something, whatever), and it gives you this high for a little while. And then it's almost as if you've never made or written a thing in your life before, and in any event, you know for certain you never will again. We're always beginners, and we're always coming smack up against the same old issues, time after time after time. The only thing for it is to keep on going, and to be compassionate when we're sure we'll never be able to keep on going. (Which is way easier to write than it is to practice.)

  3. One of the most clear-ringing sentiments I've ever heard is 'don't be afraid to be a beginner.' Amy, I loved your post, and if you never write another word about the slippery, difficultiferous workifucation that is "making stuff," I applaud what you did here. Creativity, hard. xox

  4. Thanks! And, re:"...if you never write another word...," whaddaya think the chances are that I can get myself to shut up about the subject of creativity? Slim to none, I'm thinking! Obsession-R-Us!

  5. This is such a great story & your explication so brilliant & on-the-mark. I'm sure that Jason Schwartzman told it in a way that hinted at the creative-brain-at-work behind the scenes, but you make it such a clear reminder/evidence of the awesome work of the subconscious. (Like here, I also see from your versions of our CNF questions, that you have a talent at taking what people say out loud & honing it to something really meaningful!)

  6. Andrea, you know what else I was thinking as I wrote this? "That's right lady, molasses!" :-)