Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Return of the Return of the Son of the Bride of the Idea Tree

A few more thoughts to follow up my post from last week.

Look for the second right answer... or trust the first.

One of my favorite "idea" persons is Roger von Oech of Creative Think. He's penned some really cool creative thinking books with great titles like A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. One of the techniques Roger teaches is to look for the "second right answer" (or third or fourth right answer). We can sometimes find a good answer to a problem or discover a great new idea that might be perfectly workable, and yet, if we don't continue searching at least a little bit further from there, we might miss out on what might be an even better answer or idea.

I agree that looking for "the second right answer" can be a great tool for many creative and problem-solving applications, and I often have to employ that when working on lyrics, where a general sense of what I'm trying to say will come first, and then a better way to say it comes later. However, I find that when I'm creating music, my instinct is usually to go with the first thing that struck me when I was playing around on an instrument. There's something mysterious about music and why it works to create enjoyment, and for me it's almost a Tao kind of thing where I trust to follow whatever the flow is when I'm in the mode of creating something. I may spend a lot of time crafting and honing whatever it was that first came out, or making some adjustments to it, but more often than not I will keep at least some essence of what it was that came out initially.

Sometimes, once I've got part of a song together and I'm recording a rough demo, I'll be brave and continue recording into whatever part of the song I didn't have finished yet, completely ad libbing the chords and/or vocal part. At the time I'll think, ah okay, I'll have to come up with something better for that part later... but when I listen back, it often turns out that there was something about where I happened to go that was quite interesting and useable, perhaps with a bit of work. I might not have recognized it so much while I was actually playing it, but listening back later can give a totally different perspective. (It seems that the bridges of songs are quite amenable to that kind of thing... You can create bridges of all shapes and sizes that will work just great to transport your ears safely from the second chorus to the third verse.) That perspective of time and being able to get outside of what you're doing can be very important to appreciating the work (or not). There's a great story Jerry Garcia used to tell about how he once pushed Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh down a flight of stairs after a concert (yes, Jerry Garcia did that!) because he was so upset at how bad the band had played. But when he and the band listened back to the tapes later, they liked that show so much that they actually released it as a live album.

"Write what you know" and/or "make stuff up".

The old adage about writing is to "write what you know" and I agree that's often very useful; Scott Adams worked for years in cubicle-lined companies before creating Dilbert; Kurt Vonnegut was actually at the Battle of the Bulge that he wrote about in Slaughterhouse Five; and Charles Dickens grew up and worked among the wide cross-section of humanity that he wrote so colorfully about. But then again, Robert Plant was in Morocco when he wrote the song "Kashmir" and most of the Beach Boys never surfed. So I would say that "make stuff up" is also a good motto for writers, perhaps especially for songwriters. I suppose it's easier to get away with making stuff up when writing a song because you're only talking about as many words as might equal about a half of one page of the average novel. Novelists have a much more detailed story to describe and they should probably have a better idea of what the details of their story are all about.

But very few "true stories" are anywhere near 100% as they really happened, so writing what you know can always be combined with making stuff up. I've done that several times... "There's a Monster in My House" was based on a true story... not from me, but from my wife when she was little... though how the song turns out is made up. "Hide and Go Seek with the Moon" was based on how my girls are avid "moon spotters", but that idea was embellished from there. A musical I wrote called A Week in the Life (think The Office with singing and dancing) was based almost entirely on the company where I used to work in customer service, and I used several of my colleagues there as the characters and a lot of dialogue from things I'd noted over the years. But since the day-to-day work in that kind of company doesn't typically involve what we normally think of as "plot", I had to create and embellish a few concurrent plots involving some situations there, some of which had occurred and some of which only sort of happened. By the time the show ran I estimated that it was about 70-75% true to life, and the rest was either completely made up or embellished in some way or other.

When writing songs for kids, how much you write about what you know (or knew, or observe about kids) and how much you make stuff up depends to some extent on what kind of perspective you're coming from as the singer... Are you singing as a kid talking about his own life, or singing as a kid talking to other kids or telling a story to another kid, or singing as an adult to a kid, or singing as a pirate or some other character that is enacting a story for kids? I think Justin Roberts is an absolute master at writing from a kid's perspective, and Frances England does that amazingly, too. It's great not only for kids, who can relate so well to it, but it also helps you as an adult to appreciate a kid's world better. But then making stuff up will probably work better for songs that are more character or story based, or just meant to be purely imaginative or absurd.

Ultimately, I don't know that it really matters all that much if you write from your direct experience or just make stuff up, as long as there's something interesting about it. As Ginger Hendrix said so well in a recent article she wrote about writing lyrics for kids' songs: "Maybe the criterion I'm reaching for is just the word authentic. Is the song authentic or was it written to lure cd-buying parents into feeling like they’re teaching their kids something? I don't know about you, but most days I feel like my kids end up teaching me a lot more than I manage to teach them."

But then, some great kids' songs have lyrics that are really about nothing more than teaching something to kids, sometimes even in a very generic or by-the-book way. For example, perhaps the most popular kids' song of all time has these lyrics: "A B C D E F G, H I J K L M N O P, Q R S T U V, W X Y Z. Now I know my ABC's. Next time won't you sing with me?" Not really the most artful or authentic lyrics ever, and it's totally trying to push a concept on kids... but hey, it's great for what it is and kids love it, so to me that's great kids' music. I almost wonder if the new indie kids rock aesthetic is putting too much emphasis on music and lyrics for kids needing to be oh so artfully hip and brilliant all the time... That's stuff that adults care more about, anyway, and then again, a lot of lyrics for adult songs are pretty silly and insipid and are pushing messages, and yet we still love a lot of those songs, so why should we care if some kids' songs are like that? If we're always looking down our noses at all of those so-beneath-my-level-of-cool Barney-esque kinds of songs, we might be missing out on giving our kids the next great simple and timeless learning anthems like "The Alphabet Song".

The Idea Dream Team = Columbus, Van Gogh, Judge Judy and Joan of Arc.

Roger von Oech talks about the roles of the creative person being the explorer, the artist, the judge and the warrior. First, the explorer has to go out and search for the raw materials that could make up an idea. Then the artist takes those materials and molds them into something. Then the judge looks at that "something" and determines whether it needs more work, needs to be thrown out, or is fit to go forward. And if the idea gets the okay from the judge, then the warrior takes it and fights for its success out in the world. It's not always a linear process like that... sometimes all of those roles are being enacted concurrently, and sometimes what the judge determines gives the artist a new direction which gives the explorer something new to discover, so the process can work backwards as well.

To me, the explorer is always discovering things, no matter where he travels or whether he stays put in his easy chair at home... And it's not the explorer's job to have any thought about what is to come from his discovery, but only to recognize that there is some potential in that moment of discovery. A song of mine for an upcoming album is called "How Big", which began with a feeling my "explorer" had while watching a YouTube video that zooms into a single atom from the far reaches of the universe. Another song called "Heartbeat (The Stethoscope Song)" began when my explorer smiled and laughed while my girls were playing with a toy stethoscope and listened not only to my heartbeat, but also to my nosebeat and elbowbeat, etc. And the feeling inspired by my one year-old (at the time) prying me from my busy work one day by saying, "Daddy... come play!" (with her eyes like Puss 'n' Boots from Shrek) led to a song by the same name.

Of course, many things that the explorer thinks are noteworthy don't even get past the artist, much less the judge. The artist takes all of those little nuggets of possibility and tries to turn them into something more tangible. Sometimes that works, and sometimes not. The artist often has to mangle and warp and twist the basic materials to create something he is happy with. Sometimes my artist will spend an undue amount of time trying to make something workable that just isn't... but that's to be expected, because he's good friends with the explorer and doesn't want the explorer to feel like his discovery wasn't at least given a good chance.

I think many artists can give too much weight to their judge. And then again, if you've seen any of the Americal Idol audition shows, you know that some people don't give their inner judge nearly enough power to stop them from embarrassing themselves on national television. I don't think I need to elaborate on what the judge is all about, only to say that there are times when you have to remind your judge that absolute perfection is not really a viable option in art, and that sometimes it is okay to let things through that are a little rough around the edges.

One thing to be really wary of is paying too much mind to anyone else's "judge" when they make a judgement about your work, especially when it's still in progress. I'm not a huge fan of creating artistic things by committee, and so I adhere to the advice I was given when looking for feedback on my first musical and handed out scripts to several people whose opinion I valued... The advice was to completely ignore individual criticisms. One person, even someone whose opinion I respect greatly, or even someone who is hugely successful in the same line of work, might really dislike some particular thing about my work, but if I change that aspect of the work to please only that person, I might have just changed something that everybody else but that person would have liked just fine. Everyone has particular tastes and preferences, and one person's opinion about something in particular should never supercede the artist's vision and inspiration for the work. But if you get what seems to be a general negative consensus about something from several different people, then it is worth looking into. It's still not necessarily worth changing, though... sometimes the artist just knows best about their own work... but it's certainly worth sending back to your explorer and artist to look into.

The ancient Greek sculptor Polyclitus once did an experiment where he worked on two sculptures simultaneously, one in his private workroom and one in the room where he often entertained guests. Whenever someone commented on the viewable sculpture, Polyclitus would change it as they suggested. When both sculptures were finished and showed to the public, the private one was declared a masterpiece and the public one considered an artistic disaster. When asked how the two sculptures could be so drastically different in quality, Polyclitus answered, "Because I made this one (the private one) and you made that one."

The bottom line is that my judge, and the judges of the people that I've chosen to work with, are hard enough to get past for my artist, but my work is my work because of the particular back-and-forth that my artist and judge have with each other. If I listened to recommendations of other people, some of my most popular songs wouldn't even have made it to the album or been finished in the first place, and my musical wouldn't have been produced, etc. Or, what was released would have been less of my work and more of a work by committee (which of course created the camel while trying to make a horse). Not to imply any bitterness or disaffection for people who have criticized my work, either during its creation or afterward... that's certainly not the case at all... but only to emphasize that everyone has their own opinions, and the ultimate opinion concerning the value of my work and whether it's worth creating is the one I have of it. Heck, ninety-nine out of a hundred people might dislike a movie or song or book, but there might have still been some real value for that one person for it to have been created and released. And that one person may be me, the one who created it, but sometimes, that's enough to justify its creation and existence.

In my Thinking Outside the Box assembly program, there's a point when I play a brief game of Simon Says with the kids, at which point I hold up a picture of Simon Cowell. That always gets a laugh, but I make a serious point afterwards that there are a lot of Simon Cowells in the world, and when you are trying to think creatively and come up with new ideas, sometimes you have to be strong and brave in the face of all the Simons that you might encounter. That's one of the main jobs of the warrior, to stand tall in the face of opposition and to keep your idea alive not only in the world but also in your own heart and mind. You could have an idea that you think is really great and tell it to your very best friend and suddenly they become a Simon and say, "That's not going to work." or "That's dumb!" And they very well might be right... but they might not be. You might really know best about how great that idea is and what its potential is. It's not worth getting upset with a Simon or taking offense, though, because they might not be able to see the idea in the same way that you do, and some people just aren't good about evaluating the worth of ideas... they need to see things in a finished and concrete form to be able to appreciate them. And they might not know that there could be something very valuable for you to experience and learn as you work with that idea. But the world is full of hugely successful things that were initially rejected... the first Harry Potter book was rejected by dozens of publishers... the Beatles were turned down by many labels... etc. So keep that in mind as you send your warrior out into the world, and make sure that they are well equipped with perseverance, strength, faith, determination and some really thick armor.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I've enjoyed sharing these thoughts with you, and I'll compile some more for another "Idea Tree" feature sometime down the road. Please share your own thoughts and stories about how your ideas have come to you and how they came to fruition (or not). I would love to reference some other artists' experiences for the next installment.


Anonymous said...


What a delight to be included in your Idea Tree! A lot of very useful thoughts here, and well put together.

Good luck to you and all your readers!

Eric Herman said...

Roger, I'm thrilled that you stopped by. Thank you so much for your comment and for your inspirational work.

Very best,