A Gentle Nudge on Creativity and Craft

I thought I’d share some advice on making things that’s helped me over the years.

I find that, when I sit down with the intention of making a work, it’s helpful if I have a small idea in my mind that I’d like to try out. You know, a newly discovered tool that I haven’t yet put to use. Whether it be a small tool (i.e. I’d like to try using a bit of repetition in my lyrics) or a big tool (I’d like to write music that can be played at airports), I think having these in my mind helps me create what I want – or, at least, anything at all. Let me give you some examples about tools I recently discovered, and tools I have my eyes set on.

https://soundcloud.com/codysean/the-great-hollow?in=codysean/sets/my-music

At that time I had recently discovered a neat little scale called Hungarian minor, which has a distinctly Eastern-European flavor. It’s apparently used by Danny Elfman with intense frequency (yes, it’s that sound), but the particular piece that inspired me was an Erik Satie suite. Try using this scale without it sounding like sad Russian music…There’s a fun challenge!

Drunk, I sat at the piano, plunked out a minor chord – another tiny challenge for myself, as I don’t often write in minor keys – and chose to use this scale over the harmony. I improvised like this for a while, recorded it on my phone and came back to it in the morning – when I ended up finishing the writing of the piece.

Also, that B section has a nice little ostinato (same notes over changing chords) which was another new thing for me that was kept in mind.

You see, I believe it’s really about the playfulness that leads to good results. The sort of “Hmmm, I’ve never done this before. Let me give it a shot!” mentality. I suppose I was lucky enough that with this particular piece, a lot of my ideas just happened to work. Trust me, a lot of times…They don’t. Which is fine. Then I’ll come back and try the ideas again, and maybe they’ll work that time, and maybe they won’t! The important thing is to not get caught up with tunnel vision. Don’t bang your head against a wall saying “I have to use this scale and these chords and this song structure even if it kills me!” I don’t recommend that. I’m sure that’s worked for other people, but I find it leads me to forced/uninspired work that I never finish and if I do…It’s typically not very good.

Next is the subject of writing. I recently wrote my first fictional short story, which was really the “big idea” I had in my head the whole time. Earlier I had attempted one but found that my usual method of stream-of-consciousness-word-vomit-into-my-word-processor didn’t work and I grew frustrated and didn’t come back. Thankfully I was able to receive some help from a creative writing forum which gave me the ideas I needed to tackle this challenge more thoughtfully, and thus, after a rather painful pregnancy, a story was born.

The forum taught me to ask questions – a lot of questions – about my characters, my setting, their background, etc etc. After asking questions, making decisions and getting an outline, I was able to write more clearly and with plot points in the story. They go here at this time, there at this time, maybe they meet a person at this place who acts like this – and how does that scene play out? – along the way I can mention some background information and scene description to hopefully break up the pacing, yadda yadda.

This all still proved difficult. Whereas I was used to word vomiting, I found myself stopping constantly and thinking about my next words and who says what and all sorts of things. It was certainly the most amount of time I’ve spent writing that amount of words (~3600), and I had to make myself sit down and do it when I really didn’t want to, but I did it. I’m sure now that I’ve done it for the first time, certain aspects will be easier the next time.

As I read over my story for its final times, I noticed some of my prose was a bit choppy. A lot of my exposition ended up sounding like “blah blah blah blah blah, and, blah blah blah blah blah.” Now, I suppose many folks would fix this sort of thing in the editing stage and they’d revise their sentences like no tomorrow and agonize over the details, but I’m very much a student of the “Just get it the HELL out of the door!” school of thought. Sometimes, you just gotta let it go; move on to other works. I had spent enough time on this story. But now, going forward, I’m doing a couple things to alleviate this, admittedly perceived, problem. Because we’re all our own worst critics.

As I read, I try to pay more attention to how authors compose their sentences and paragraphs. How do their words flow? How do their words sound together? How do they connect their thoughts and variate their sentence length?

And secondly, I present a little challenge to myself to try and avoid this sort of thing. As I’m writing, I think “How can I write this a bit differently to avoid that little trap?” It’s nice. Funny enough, throughout the writing of this piece, I had this particular idea in my mind. These challenges force me out of a certain box…A box I can always come back to, if I so choose.

All of this, of course, requires studying! I once heard someone describe creativity as a bank account: You have to deposit enough in order to withdraw what you want. Listen to music! Really listen! Intently! Read! Intently! Think “Hey that’s a cool idea, what is that? I want to do that” and then try it. As you grow you’ll gain more and more tools in your toolkit that will eventually become second nature. I often see people say “I’m stuck! I keep writing the same sorts of things, the same chord progressions, the same kind of stories, all my characters act like this” and I tell them “Do something!” Go out to a bar, go listen to record you haven’t heard, watch a great movie, read a great book, play a video game, walk your dogs, whatever! It’s all out there, and it’s yours for the taking. Just remember, be gentle 🙂

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