The Scarecrow only needed a brain.
The Tin Man only needed a heart. The Cowardly Lion only needed courage. And Dorothy, well she only needed to believe in herself to get back home.
Wisdom. Compassion. Courage. Faith.
Seek out and obtain these noble qualities and you have all the tools you will ever need to get to the place you want to go in this life.
(But you already possess these tools. You always did. They were hidden in your heart)
Ah, the irony. I love it. It’s just that something about that list feels…incomplete.
Ballad of The Frustrated Artist
I think there should have been one other character in The Wizard Of Oz to complete the package. We’ll call them…the Frustrated Artist. (Yeah, that’s it) And there’s just this one thing they wish they could find to make them whole.
Mother Nature has it. A Buddhist monk has it. Miles Davis had it.
They say Miles used to pay his men extra NOT to rehearse before the gig, in an effort to extract something great from them; something outside the constraints of their knowledge and experience that could happen only when they got pushed beyond the limits of their comfort zone.
He would sit on a groove, sometimes one chord for long periods of time waiting until something happened. Something unexpected. Something original. Something spontaneous. That moment when someone steps out on a limb and takes a musical left turn. And then it happens…the spark of creation. Possibilities.
Every serious artist, regardless of their discipline, is ultimately seeking something more out of their craft. Something different. Something that transcends all that came before them. How to be awesome. That’s the quest.
Staring Into The Creative Abyss
And every artist too, knows that empty feeling of staring at a blank page, a blank canvas, a blank white board, or holding a guitar or sitting at the piano when the music doesn’t come. The melody escapes them. The lyrics just don’t tell the story…yet. The well has run dry. The Muse is nowhere to be found.
But if she’s put in the time, the practice and the years to have built up the kind of creative callouses that come from doing the work and experiencing that empty well enough times before, then she also knows that sense of elation that comes when she finally experiences a breakthrough.
Inspiration takes hold. Here come the rains again. The floodgates of creativity open up.
Recently, on a writing session with a young artist I was producing, we were working on an idea she had on the piano that was a piece of a song we had worked on the previous session. It was a good idea that just needed to get fleshed out to turn it into a complete song.
She was just learning the piano so her facility wasn’t there yet. And as a guitar player by trade, it’s tough sometimes for me to call out chords I come up with when the other person doesn’t really have the chops to translate them onto the piano. And this needed to be a piano song.
So it was a bit of a grind. Creative pergutory. Waiting and hoping something good will materialize. You go round and round with ideas but they don’t seem to lead you anywhere.
“Don’t you hate that? Uncomfortable silence.” ~ Pulp Fiction
How To Make It Rain When There’s Nothing But Blue Skies
Experience teaches you that some days it’s just not there. The rains don’t come. That hit song may not get written tonight. Maybe nothing gets written tonight. You learn that there comes a point where it’s time to let it go. Move on to something else. Maybe even call the session.
But then that same experience also teaches you something else.
It’s what you need to get through that one last excruciating final revision of your great American novel; now five or six iterations beyond the one where you swore you had absolutely nothing left to give. Nothing to add. Nothing to subtract.
You are a creative void.
But then…you’re in the shower one day, weeks later. An idea comes. It’s that one final edit, it’s changing that “and” to a “but” in the closing sentence that brings it all home. The angels sing. Suddenly you feel a sense of inner peace. It’s really complete. And you get the book deal. (and the village rejoices!)
So about that time in our session my mind begins to wander. She’s still fidgeting with this idea. My hands are playing guitar but I’m thinking about a new blog idea. Then out of the blue, maybe out of frustration, she begins to fiddle with a few chords. She repeats them. Three chords in a different key. They’ve got nothing to do with the song we were working on. Something about them reminds me of a hymn. My mind snaps back to the moment.
The Muse Never Calls Ahead to Announce Their Arrival
“Hey, what’s that you just played?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” she replies.
“Those last three chords. Let’s work on that.”
“But that’s nothing. I was just fooling around. Really?”
She had these lyrics she was trying to plug into the other idea but it was a bit of a square peg in the round hole. She started humming melody ideas to this one and then it hit me.
“Hey, use the chorus idea from those lyrics and sing them to that melody you were just humming. Like this.” I give her the rhythm of the phrasing.
She sings the words. She bops her head. She starts to smile.
“Now sing the next line you’ve got there,” I say.
She does and suddenly a real solid chorus materializes out of thin air and we’re onto something that feels like a really great song.
We both smile.
There’s Something Happening Here But You Don’t Know What It Is
I remember seeing an interview years ago with Lionel Ritchie about how he approaches songwriting and he said he always focused on the chorus first. And once he found that, everything else would fall into place.
We then set out to work on the verses. She already had the lyrics on paper. Now they had a place to be. Context. The verses came effortlessly. Yet five minutes before, when we were stranded in that creative desert, had I gone with my initial thought to call the session, none of this would have happened. We quickly threw down a live take with just guitar and vocal to preserve the idea. Then we called it a night.
I wandered upstairs, tired but satiated. Nothing can top that moment when the idea comes through. When you suddenly dial in that frequency and the Gods smile down. You passed the test.
That’s why I do this.
A river meanders on its serpentine course, born of the raindrops from mountaintops, on its tireless journey to finally meet one day with its destiny, the ocean. Slowly, patiently, it carves its own unique signature deeper and deeper into the Earth.
Until several million years later, a canyon is born of stone, so vast in its breadth, depth and beauty that a million men working day and night over the course of a lifetime, with the most powerful machinery and knowledge, could never hope to achieve what nature can do with but the simple passage of water…and time.
Amazing things come through us in myriad forms of inspiration and creativity. But we can’t summon them at will, try as we may. We can practice the craft. We can work to improve ourselves. But they come in their own time in their own way.
We just have to be there to catch the spark…