Just don’t do it in front of me!
Look, everyone (at least everyone on PBS) espouses that lack of self-consciousness. But they don’t really mean it. Not really. Because we all know that if you actually start doing anything like no one’s watching–and someone’s watching? The men in the white coats are surely on the way.
Many of us refuse to let ourselves have the time we absolutely need to ‘be creative’ because, frankly, it does sound ridiculous and pretentious. Every time I sit down to ‘think’ I still hear my uncle’s voice, “You call this a job?
So for most people, that line is just another phrase like “Speak your mind!” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”; nice thoughts that show up on cheap greeting cards, but no one expects (or even desire) people to actually do.
But still. What does one do if your job actually depends on living with that lack of self-consciousness?
As Rog and I were discussing last week, I recently watched ‘You Can’t Take It With You’. For those of you who poor souls who have not had the same benefits of cultured upbringing as I (Bill Kennedy’s Showtime Movies in Detroit during the 70’s), here’s a brief synopsis:
It’s a drawing room comedy by Frank Capra set in Depression-Era New York and stars many of the same people as ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. There are two families: The Vanderhof’s led by Lionel Barrymore (the evil ‘Potter’ in IAWL) who believe only in doing what they enjoy doing and the Kirby’s: rich bankers who need to purchase the Vanderhof’s house in order to complete a huge merger.
Naturally, each family has a kid, and those two are in love. Hilarity ensues trying to bring their families together. (And yes, you’ve seen this before in a dozen crappy re-makes, but as Jan Hammer so famously said about Jeff Beck, ‘It ain’t a cliché if you invented it!) If you like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, you’ll also enjoy this one. It’s much funnier and far less dark (Face it, despite the great ending IAWL is basically one big George Bailey rant.)
Anyhoo, there’s a setup scene in the living room where the various members of the Vanderhof family are each pursuing their favourite hobbies simultaneously—just as the Kirby’s show up unexpectedly. One daughter is practicing ballet with her Russian wrestler/teacher. They are accompanied on a vibraphone by her husband. The wife is painting a portrait of the uncle dressed as an ancient greek discus thrower. Another uncle is testing (indoors) an improved design for fireworks. The old man is playing darts (he contemplates aiming for various characters’ backsides. My kinda guy. :D)
These people lack any shred of self-consciousness. They are all wildly happy. It’s true that the quality of everything they do can be summed up by the ballet teacher: “It Stinks!” But ya know? They could care less. And I envy every one of them completely.
I believe that almost no art is really ‘created’. What usually happens is that some accident comes by and you go ‘wow, that sounds pretty cool’ and you go with it. The ‘creativity’ comes in:
a) recognising the moment when it flies by and then
b) doing something with it
But you have to either wait for those moments or generate them. Lots of composers (including Beethoven) walk in the woods hoping to hear bird song. People who work on deadline generate them using many well-known techniques, from throwing dice to using Brian Eno’s famous deck of cards to taking drugs to stringing yer guitar upside down. They are all techniques to generate randomness–either random events or random perceptions of normal events.
I tend to favour acting like the Vanderhofs–in private, of course. I take great pains to go as nuts as possible and encourage as many mistakes and accidents as possible. And I make sure I expose myself to stuff that gets a rise out of me. The point is, I have to make myself do different things because my default mode is to keep playing and writing the I’ve always done. I need to work (if dancing naked from a chandelier can be described as ‘work’) this way in order to bring forth the random.
After a number of ‘wives’, children and various other ‘relationships’, I know that every important relation I’ve had has encouraged me to try to ‘let go’. Over and over they assure me that it’s ‘OK’. I never believe them. So again, I never do any creative work in front of others for two reasons:
1. I am simply not a Vanderhof. To this day, I struggle to give myself permission to block out ‘creative time’. Many of us refuse to let ourselves have the time we absolutely need to ‘be creative’ because, frankly, it does sound ridiculous and pretentious. Every time I sit down to ‘think’ I still hear my uncle’s voice, “You call this a job? I think part of what made Beethoven great was his apparent ability to say, “Walking in the woods is as important as copying parts or meeting with a publisher.” ”
2. The people who want me to ‘let go’ would never do so themselves. They always love to watch you make a fool of yerself. Notice however that they are always the ones who want to hold the camera, but not be in the shot, if you take my meaning. They are only too happy to egg others on to do outrageous things.
The question then remains, if one is that self-conscious, how can one even be a performer? The answer is obvious to people who are entertainers and apparently completely elusive to those who are not. But here it is: control. Creativity may be about letting go, but for guys like me, performance is about control. A performer is perfectly happy when they are in control–or at least mostly in control. (Ya gotta leave some variability in there to spice things up!)
So, at least for me, there are two very different phases in art:
1. The creative phase, which is characterised by acting as nutty and unpredictable as possible in order to shake myself out of any stale patterns and let in truly new ideas.
2. The control phase, where I’ve incorporated the new ideas into my DNA and now can make them do my bidding.
To carry that DNA metaphor a bit further, the first phase is about letting myself be infected by stuff in the wider world that I’m normally closed off from. I not only expose myself to it, I let it alter my genome a bit. The second phase is where I re-assert control of the new me–but now with added features.
I just realised how kinda creepy, sci-fi this may sound. 😀 But I actually like this metaphor. There is a ‘danger’ in going a bit nuts in order to let random ideas in–you never know what may ‘stick’. There are lots of times when I’ve become enamoured of a particular musical idea (an ear worm if you will) only to realise later that it was complete rubbish and had no usefulness for what I was trying to do. Too late! I was infected! I’d then spend months trying to get rid of that idea so that I could start over.
And that, not behaving like a moron, is the real danger of this creative process. We spend so much of our lives learning our craft–and thus, inadvertently closing ourselves off to ideas that are not part of our routine. So we have to work like crazy in order to let ourselves be ‘infected’ by the novel. Most of the time, no matter how hard we try, we’re still stuck in the same ruts as always. And then when we do let the foreign body in, we’re never really sure what it will do to us as artists. We struggle against the very mutations we’re so desperate to experience.
So to recap: It’s tough acting like a fool. But in my business, it’s regularly necessary to act like a fool. But then, even after we get ourselves to act like fools, we still resist applying the creative effects we’ve struggled so mightily to get to. And if that weren’t enough to make a guy want to put on a shirt and tie and sell insurance? Even after we learn to let in those new ideas, often we get more than we bargained for. What’s that line Scarecrow says in The Dark Knight? “I promised you this stuff would take you places. I never said they’d be places you’d want to go.”
The creative process is a real pisser sometimes. 😀
As tough as it may be to act ‘unrepressed’, the ‘courage’ is not so much in acting like a fool; that’s just the opening round. The real challenge is being open to that complete cycle of change, knowing full well that it’s necessary and unpredictable.