May 21, 2021

What wants to be written?


A friend of mine who teaches a painting class always tells his students:

When you love it, stop. Don’t keep adding extra strokes to the canvas after you’ve reached that point, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

It’s a simple but powerful piece of advice.

But it got me thinking. What about the reverse? What happens when an artist’s emotional response to the work goes in the opposite direction?

Because sometimes you hate the damn thing. Sometimes the piece you’re creating bothers the hell out of you and you just want to scrap it and move on to something else. In this situation, my advice would be the opposite of my painter friend:

When you hate it, persist. Channel your hostility in service of making the work better. See if you can push through the resistance, come out clean on the other side and turn the hate into love.

It won’t work every time, but occasionally it’s worth following the executional path in spite of your feelings, trusting that it might be worthwhile it in the end.

One of the songs on my new record was like this. It was a warm and jazzy tune with a catchy melody and upbeat rhythm. Singing the first sixty seconds of the song filled my soul with joy.

But for some reason, whenever it came time to play the chorus, my energy plummeted. The song lost momentum and spark. The chord progression felt uninspiring and flat. And I just wanted it to be over.

That’s not the inner experience an artist should have while performing their work.

It was time to take my own advice. When you hate it, persist, right?

And so, after humming the song to myself all day, I came home from work, marched right into my studio with vigor and purpose, and announced to myself, alright song, we can do better than this, so show me what you want to become, and together we can pivot towards something we both love. Let’s go.

For the next hour, I played around with my underwhelming chorus. Experimented with numerous rhythms, melodies, chord variations and vocal intonations. Eventually, I found this highly emotive major seventh suspended chord, one of my favorite sounds in the world, by the way, and it changed the entire posture of the song.

Suddenly the chorus shifted from mundane to memorable. There was an immediate sensation of excitement that wasn’t there before. The song had found its true home. It told me what it needed, I listened, and now it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.

This is the kind of moment that’s available to you when persist. Next time you find yourself hating what you’re making, don’t give up on yourself.

Even though it’s negative energy, it’s still energy. Which means it can be channeled into something beautiful.

Wonder what wants to be written, and watch what happens.

Are you willing to stand in the fire of difficult feelings?