Big Guys vs. Little Guys in the Creative Process


“So, tell me about your process,” might be the most ill-advised conversation starter for a fact-based, left-brain type to put to right-brain, artistic types. If the non-artist, with a tendency for left-brain thinking, unwittingly enters into such a conversation, they’ll know the mistake they’ve about halfway through the artist’s answer. The smart ones walk away. Would that be rude? Yes, but it might end the self-mutilation fantasies.

Failure is a fundamental part of the right-brain’s artistic and creative process, but it’s not a dead end sign. It’s an obstacle, a lane closure sign, or a road flare that’s been placed there by others as a result of their failure. Elite, professional athletes experience failure more often than they succeed, 90% of startup businesses fail in ten years, and financial risk takers fail more often than they succeed. One of the primary differences between failure in art, and these other areas, is that most people will never see the artists’ failures, and they won’t want to see them. Artistic failure often occurs on a flea-ridden couch inside a dilapidated trailer park, never to leave. The artistic process involves failed starts, bad ideas, and love, that no one, other than the other artist, can see, appreciate, or understand.

“How do I create a great works of art?” a left-brained, fact-oriented individual might ask. You create. Every artist is different of course, but in my experience, nothing beats experience. The true artist should spend significant time in the corner of their trailer park home creating.

Are right-brain, creative types creating great works of art? Yes we are, every single time we create. Our friends and family might try to convince us that the piece we’re currently working on is a pile of dung, but we won’t know that for some time, if ever. We suffer from delusional myopia. We might eventually be able to see that one piece is better than another one is, but that doesn’t decrease the love we have for the other pieces that no one will ever want to read. The trick to evolving from a writer to an artist involves knowing when to move on.   

Harsh critiques hurt. Every time a reader tells us the project we’ve spent months on (at the very least) is not what we thought it was, it damages our interior organs. We pour our heart and soul into these pieces, and most of them aren’t very good. The dividing line between writers and artists rises here. Writers who cannot handle harsh critiques should probably quit the current job they applied for, because it gave them more time to write, and choose a career. (A poor Quality Review report is much easier to fix than trying to fix the ones we love.) If, however, that stinging critique feeds the competitive juices to create more dung, better dung, and so much dung that they eventually have enough material to mix it with the other necessary ingredients required to make fertilizer, they might be able to one day create a flower.  

When a left-brain, non-artist asks an artist about their process, they only want to talk about the flowers. If they unwittingly pushes the conversation deeper, don’t feel sorry for them when they start screaming for someone to help them out of that deep, dark cavern lined with the artist’s failures. They asked the question.

“If we want to know the fundamental elements of a serial killer,” criminal psychologists suggest, “we study their initial crimes.” The same holds true for writers. If the conversation starter really wants to know the road map of the artistic path, they’ll let the artist talk about the initial, unpopular particulars of the process.   

In that deep dark cavern, we’ll find some pieces that might have some appeal, but we’ll find that the artist stubbornly sought some angle they considered original. The other angle involves a tired theme on historical figures that serves to further a reader’s adoration of the subject. When we decide to tackle an article on an historical figure, however, we search for a unique angle that we feel analyzes them in a manner few have before. Originality is almost impossible to achieve, but it should always be the goal. Even if we adore the figures, we prefer to analyze them in a critical manner. The theme of this critique is that if we criticize an accomplished individual, there is an inherent compliment in there that we considered them worthy of critique.

The difference between writers and artists is a subjective one, of course, and it is a complex argument, but it might be as simple writers report on Big Guys and artists find little guys doing little things more appealing. Most of the characters on this sight are so niche, that they have trouble finding a niche. When the brilliant Seinfeld hit the airwaves, numerous friends recommended the show to us. “You have got to watch this show. This show is so you that you might be ticked off that they stole your whole mindset.” When we finally broke down and watched the show, the effect was everything our friends thought it would be. We were almost depressed a couple of episodes in. The observations that Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and all of the other writers of Seinfeld made felt so familiar they almost felt familial. We enjoyed the material they displayed on Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm so much that it almost felt like they beat us to the punch. They were funnier than we are, of course, but their acute focus on the minutiae of life depressed us, because we thought that if we learned how to channel that affliction properly that could be us up there.

Writers capture Big Subjects of national and worldwide interest, but the focus of this site is on the little things that a little guy did on his way to the apothecary. When we’re watching one of the Big Guys, on one of the Big Network shows, interview a Big Subject who fascinates the world, for example, we obsess over the “staged walk” the production staff put together before the interview started. In the course of the interview, the production crew will cue the shot of the subject at work. We have no problem with that, as it displays the subject doing what they do. Yet, every interview segment interrupts their broadcast again with a shot of the man or woman of interest exiting their office and walking down the sidewalk. Why do we have to see this subject of interest walk away from his office, down a sidewalk? Who was the first producer to introduce this shot? What value does it bring to the broadcast? We can’t get past these quirks, and they distract us so much that we miss much of what the subject says following the staged walk, and in most cases, we’re not that interested in what the celebrity/news figure’s script says anyway.

We’re obsessed with these otherwise irrelevant forms of manipulation. Does the production crew believe that these staged walks might develop some sort of familiarity with the subject? “There he is walking out of his office on an otherwise average day, just like I do, and look Donna, he walks just like I do when I don’t know anyone is watching.”   

The eye-catching pieces on something familiar generate clicks, but most of the subjects that intrigue us are difficult to headline. Of the few eye-catching subjects we’ve covered, we’ve often found a less than traditional angle. Our M.O. for doing this abides by the rationale that it’s almost impossible to write anything new, different, or original. “Everything that you want to say has already been said, and that’s been said before too.”  

We analyze the other side, the less popular side, of what drives our ‘so niche they can’t find a niche’ characters to be so different. We prefer a critical view that attempts to analyze a subject from a more objective (some might say cynical) angle that scrutinizes the subject in a more comprehensive manner.

This guy that we’re talking to in our employer’s cafeteria obviously knows how to present us with his most photogenic side, we think while he jibber jabbers, but what’s in the other side? Is there another side? Is there a side that might surprise him if we dig deep enough? When we present this other side, we want to avoid being critical for the sole purpose of being critical. We all have less attractive sides, and some of us accidentally slip into the notion that the only noteworthy angle to cover is the negative. Quality coverage of the negative can be so exciting and provocative. It also has the feel of being more artistic, poignant, and meaningful. Yet, being negative for the sake of being negative can feel as tedious as focusing too much on the positives. If we do it right, the positive and negative characteristics of their other side, the less than photogenic side, should leak out in the course of the narrative. The presentation should feel comprehensive and organic.   

The characters we write about aren’t weird for the sake of being weird either. They’re not in visible pain, and they’re not manic-depressive. They’re just a little off. If we were to calculate them by degrees, with 90 degrees being the perfect angle, they might fall between 80 and 85 degrees. They’ve spent their lives a couple of degrees away from being normal, and we can see it when they accidentally flash their less than photogenic side. We consider it our job to capture that side, be it positive or negative.

If we met them on the street, we might consider them the most normal joe we’ve ever met. They have normal haircuts, a wage that permits them to purchase the latest fashionable clothing, and their company’s dental plan allows them to appear upper middle class with 2.5 kids in a two-bathroom house. They don’t say the wrong things either, for they’ve watched as much TV as we have. They know the bullet points we’ve established for identifying abnormal people, in other words, and they know how to assimilate. Those of us in the middle of the pack seek the fringe. Those on the fringe seek the middle of the pack, so no one considers us on the fringe looking in on the normal world. We want in, and an overwhelming percentage of us are not comfortable with exposing the eccentricities that have kept us on the outside looking in.

To find the insecure and overcompensating weird, we need to talk to them. We need to find a way to spend long hours with them, usually in an office space, sitting next to them, talking about our wives, our lives, and our lawn. Affectations of weird don’t comfort them. It sets off their spidey senses. So, we have to be weird too, and we are weird. We all have eccentricities, and when we share our eccentricities, they feel more comfortable sharing theirs. We take an “I give you me, so you’ll give me you” approach to our discussion.   

They’re guarded. They don’t know we’re writers patching together a quilt, because we don’t know that yet. We’re just talking to them. They’ve been mocked before, however, and if we are are going to have an enriching conversation with them, we are going to have to help them over their hurdles and through the multi-tiered mazes they’ve created for rubber neckers wanting to witness their eccentricities for comedy. This isn’t a Herculean task, however, because they love to talk about themselves. Most of us do. Most of us enjoy it so much that those in our familiar nucleus are no longer interested in our story. They’ve heard our stories so many times that we fear we might not be as interesting as we are. When fate puts us next to a curious person who is so interested in what we have to say, it’s exciting. We find ourselves saying things we wouldn’t even say in the comfort of our bedroom. Our spouses might cringe when we say such things, but we’ve had these thoughts bottled up for so long, and we’ve never had a person this interested before, and we don’t want to disappoint them for that would be disappointing.

Our subject might not know it, but we are carving them up, removing the extraneous fat from their testimonial, deleting the painstaking details involved in proving a point, deleting their tired repetition, and even deleting them from their story. It surprises them when we do that, for as embarrassing and revealing as their details were, at least they were their details, and they didn’t expect to see themselves deleted. They thought it was all about them. The talker has no problem laughing at themselves, of course, but to see their moment of crisis turned into a danceable number is just beyond the pale.

The difficulty involved in selling such strange, unconnected, and relatively unimportant pieces to the masses arrives soon after completion. “What do we do with this?” we ask after we’ve completed the numerous edits necessary. There’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. “What do we do with this?” ends up personifying the beauty of each standalone piece and resulting in their ultimate and final condemnation.  

While we’re in the midst of writing one of these pieces, we feel this might be the reason we ended up on this planet. We feel complete in a way we never have before. We think we’ve finally realized our purpose in life, and the extent of our talent, and we live on that artistic high for days. The bizarre experiences we’ve had with the subjects covered in these pieces have been so unique, and in some cases so profound, that we couldn’t believe that no one covered the subject before. After people laugh at the observations, they say one of two things, “I never thought of that before,” and “I don’t find the subject near as interesting as you do.”

They also ask, “What are you going to do with this?” We know, even before they ask that, that there is no book-length dissertation available. These are short pieces. There’s not nearly enough information or material for a book, and there’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. This ultimate “What do I do with this?” realization that our purpose in life, our raison d’etre, is nothing more than a (“B”) word prove quite painful.

The realization that we can be a (“B”) word, a blogger, is quite thrilling at first, until it becomes a condemnation. Over the course of a decade, and over 1,000 blogs, we might figure out how to master the art form that used to be called an essay, that others call narrative non-fiction, and most now call the blog. (The reader should not assume that I consider myself a master of this domain when I use the word, but that I’ve figured out how to communicate my thoughts in this form properly.) Once we achieve some level of satisfaction with the form, however, some of us start to think bigger. We assemble a greatest hits package of our best, most read blogs and send them over to a publisher. “What do you want me to do with this?” will be the theme of the door slamming shut in our faces, and don’t bother trying to fit your foot in that door, for it’s reinforced by the “No one wants to read a book of blogs!” sentiment that arose after its limitations were exposed by the path to losing 85 pounds and the funny things my cat did on Tuesday blogs. I’ve read reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon critique other authors of some of my favorite books condemn them by saying, “This reads like a blog.” They write that in the most negative way possible, and it feels like a tiny nail being driven into my spine.

***

I don’t know if it’s obvious by now, but I love writing these relatively inconsequential and irrelevant articles, and the fact that anyone (including you) might read one word I write sends warm and fuzzy messages to a very specific part of my brain that can lead to what they call a smile.

As proof of my unrequited passion, I now have an archive of over 1,000 blogs (some published, most shifted to the draft designation). As you read, go ahead and assume that I have obsessed over just about every word you read. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to figure out if ‘a’ or ‘the’ works best in a sentence, I’ve restructured some difficult passages numerous times, and I’ve completely overhauled most of the articles that I’ve published on this site. Some professional writers footnote an article with a note “Edited on [the date].” Are we supposed to do that? I wondered. If I were required to do that, just about every article on this site would have this notation.

Some writers believe we can over-edit an article. “Guilty!” I say with a raised hand. Some writers think that if we over-edit, we strip the spontaneous fun right out of an article. “Perhaps,” I say, “but I would rather strip the fun out of an article than have some fuzzy funny that the reader doesn’t understand because they’re not able to link the setup to the point, because they don’t know what is going on in my head.”  

I obsess over what I consider the fascinating and unique qualities of each piece. I love little more than tying such thoughts into a tight, cohesive, 1,500-2,000 word narrative, but most of these pieces are self-embodied dissertations. They’re blogs. So, enjoy them for what they are, as I apparently am not going to make one thin dime off them. Also, know, as you read this crass piece of self-promotion that I never wanted to write this. You forced it upon me with your stubborn refusal to read them. This post is on you!

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


Hyper-vigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. It’s less about what an artist does and more about who they are. If this is true, we could say that the final products of artists, their artistic creations, are less about some supernatural gift and more about a culmination of hyper-natural observations of the minutiae that others often miss that we call hyper-vigilance. Thus, in some cases, the final product of an artist’s vision is less about an artistic vision and more about using that product as a vehicle to reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become so obsessed with the small details of life that he become an artist?

What goes on in the mind of an artist? That question has plagued us since Leonardo da Vinci, and before him. Those who don’t understand the complexities and gradations of artistic creation love to think about an “aha moment”, such as an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Others think that brilliant artistic creation often requires one to mix the chemicals of their brain up with artificial enhancements, or that they ripped off the artists who preceded them. These theories combine some elements of truth with a measure of “There’s no way one man is that much more brilliant than I am” envy. As an aspiring artist, I can tell you that nothing informs the process more than failure, or trial and error. There are rarely “aha moments” that rip an artist out of a bathtub to lead them to type a passage half naked and dripping wet. What’s more common in my experience involves the search for an alternative, or a better way. Rather than intro a piece in the manner I’ve always done, maybe I should try introducing another way, maybe I should build to the conclusion a different way, and all of the gradual, almost imperceptible changes an artist makes along the road to their version of the “perfect” artistic creation. 

To the untrained eye, The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman. The Last Supper is nothing more than a depiction of the apostles having a meal with Jesus. We have some evidence of da Vinci’s process in his notebooks, but we don’t have his early artistic pieces. Due to the idea that they probably weren’t great, either da Vinci trashed them, or they’ve been lost to history in one way or another. These pieces would be interesting if, for no other reason, than to see the progress that led him to his masterpieces. Of the few da Vinci paintings that remain, we see a progression from his first paintings to The Mona Lisa. His paintings became more informed throughout his artistic career. This begs the chicken or the egg question, what came first Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic vision or the science behind the paintings? Put another way, did he pursue his innovative ways of attaining scientific knowledge to enhance his paintings, or did he use the paintings as a vehicle to display the knowledge he attained?

On that note, anytime I read a brilliant line I often wonder if the inspiration for the line dropped in the course of the author’s effort, or if the brilliant line was the whole reason for the book. Was the book an elongated attempt to verbally shade that brilliant line, in the manner da Vinci did his subjects, to make the brilliant line more prominent?  

Whatever the case was, the few works of his we still have are vehicles for the innovative knowledge he attained of science, the mathematics of optics, architecture, chemistry, and the finite details of anatomy. Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water flow, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to better inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography has. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae involved in da Vinci’s work, and there are paragraphs, pages, and in some cases entire chapters devoted to the minutiae involved in his process. In some places, I empathize with this charge that the book can be tedious, but after finishing the book, I don’t know how any future biographer on da Vinci could capture the essence of Leonardo da Vinci without the exhaustive detail about the man’s obsessive pursuit of detail. Focusing and obsessing on the finer details is who da Vinci was, and it is what separated him from all of the brilliant artists that preceded and followed him. 

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with the woman to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists. It leaves out all of these intricate and tedious details da Vinci used to bring the otherwise one-dimensional painting to life.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts the intense and laborious research da Vinci put into informing his works. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarefied level of distinction in the art world. 

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing a couple of paragraphs about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once, is the best paragraph in the book.) We can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail. 

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint. 

The idea that da Vinci’s works were a product of supernatural gift also implies that all an artist has to do is apply that gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details, this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research. This, I believe, suggests da Vinci’s final products were less about anything supernatural and more about an intense obsession to achieve something hyper-natural.  

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. As Isaacson points out, da Vinci turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider the piece finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who experiences artistic impulses understands, the idea that an artistic piece has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult for the artist to achieve for the artist than starting one.

What little we know about da Vinci, suggests that he had the luxury of never having to worry about money. If that’s the case, some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it. Due in part to the luxuries afforded him, and the apparent early recognition of his talent, most cynical searches for his motivation do not apply. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonard da Vinci implies, it’s difficult to find a motivation that drove the man to create the few works of his we now have other than the pure, passionate pursuit of artistic perfection. 

After reading through all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.

The Debilitating Fear of Failure


“The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the ones that stick take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers them the moment we enter a room, and some people will, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick
Pastor Steven Furtick

“Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars. An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet. At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance. These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see any benefit to them.

Most of those liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground so forgivable that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to receive any pain. Thanks to these and other technological advances, fewer children get hurt on playgrounds, fewer playground manufacturers get sued, and everyone is much happier. There is one casualty, however, the pain of failure.

No one wants to see a child cry, and we should do everything we can to prevent it, but pain teaches us.

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker complimented me on the agility and nimbleness I displayed to avoid hitting the ground. “It could be that,” I returned, “or it could be said that only someone so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to avoid it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion. I also touched a parked car, and then I touched the ground again. Among the lessons I learned is that pain hurts. Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting. This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls everyone will be looking, some will be concerned, and most will be laughing. I thought I corrected my trajectory a number of times, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they have no association with them. These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right. The point is, no matter how we deal with these moments of failure, we usually end up having to deal with them alone. 

The point is that the lessons learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns. The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that any benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him? How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about 1 percent of what he wrote was usable. Think about that, 1 percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea. The other 99 percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards. Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

“Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing. We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published. Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away. Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”. Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable. Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature. Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess. Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work. We hear their highlight reels. We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners. Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind. Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved. We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber. “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked. Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was so close to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation. Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands. How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously? As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner. It’s a step in the process of crafting original works. When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough, the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different … if they have any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however. At that point, the artist becomes obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea. Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad. Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good. At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right. When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off? How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with? How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind? How many different guitar structures did Cobain and company work through, until he arrived at something usable? How many Nevermind lifted music or lyrics from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists? What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions? How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on? If Cobain were alive to answer the question, would he acknowledge that Nevermind is a 1% highlight reel of about a decade of work? Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide. That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us. The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or whatever your blank canvas is, remember that all of those geniuses —who so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create. You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because the only thing you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml