Great pieces are inevitable.
Let me explain what I mean by first explaining what I don’t mean.
I don’t mean that if a composer, artist, or writer sits down and creates something that it’s certain to be a masterpiece. Oh, if only that were true.
No, I mean all great pieces have a sense of inevitability. It begins, takes the listener through an experience, and then ends exactly the way it’s supposed to. Voila. To quote Salieri from Amadeus, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment.”
Great pieces of art, literature, or music seem effortless, natural, or logical, as if they were conceived that way from the very beginning of their inception. But if you ask the composer how the piece was born, you’re more likely to get an answer like “I beat my head against the wall for seven months.”
The greatness of the best artists, composers, and authors discourages many from trying to create their own work. “I could never create anything that perfect,” they say. “Every time I try to write, it’s never any good.” I wish I could play like that. I wish I could compose like that. I wish I could paint like that. I wish I could sculpt like that.
Not everyone can create art that will change the world, but to stop trying because the first efforts are less than wonderful is the wrong approach. Would-be creators must realize that when we read a marvelous novel or hear an amazing symphony, we are experiencing the final product. We are spared having to read the passages or hear the harmonies that didn’t make the final cut. And because we experience a great work from beginning to end, people might naturally think it was written from beginning to end.
But there’s tons of errors and mistakes and loose ends and rabbit holes and dead ends during the creation of a work. And the beginning is rarely where the piece actually started. Before there’s a finished product, there’s a buttload of editing, rewriting, and throwing out the trash. Only Mozart (here we go with Amadeus again) wrote music “as if he were just taking dictation.” The rest of us mortals write our first draft and then put ourselves through an emotional wringer: “well that sucks…that’s bad…this might work…that’s awful…I have no original ideas…I peaked when I was 14…what if I took this and moved it here?…then maybe I could salvage that…but if I do that, then this will have to…” etc.
Over the last year, I’ve written some silly poems for my kids a la Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. It’s a lot of fun and quite rewarding. I like my finished creations, but I’m telling you they don’t come easy. It took me a long time to identify exactly why a good poem is so satisfying, but I figured it out: it’s because it’s inevitable. Success of a poem often hinges on economy of material. The last word of a poem not only completes a thought or idea, but is a natural consequence of a rhyme set up earlier. Only that word could satisfactorily end the piece. Displace one word and there would be diminishment.
If you read one of my poems, you might think I’m a terrific poet. I assure you I am not. Well, maybe I am! I don’t know. If you measure my worth as a poet by how naturally poetry comes to me, then I am a disaster. But if I’m measured by the quality of the finished product, then maybe I’m not terrible. In any case, don’t think for a second that I can sit down and write a few lines and poof there’s a poem. My process is laborious and painful. I constantly refer to the rhyming dictionary. I can’t toss off rhymes in freestyle rap like Lin-Manuel Miranda. My mind’s not that quick. It takes a while.
But even Miranda has to work at it. His early sketches of HAMILTON are filled with corrections and missteps. That show is the result of years of development, rewrites, and workshopping. There are whole songs, awesome ones, that had to be cut because they didn’t move the story along. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, but they don’t come out of his head ready for the publisher; they will be rewritten and reworked, and a lot of them will be thrown out completely.
And when he writes, even he doesn’t know where his story will go! He originally imagined his novel Misery would be shorter, but to his surprise his protagonist Sheldon turned out to be more resourceful and determined than he (both the character and the author!) originally thought.
The secret to being a creator is to create. Getting started is the hard part. The only way to do it is to make yourself do it.
When I compose a musical passage, I usually have a pretty good idea where in the piece it’s going to happen. But sometimes while I’m struggling to figure it out I realize it would be better somewhere else. When writing poems, if I have two rhyming words there’s usually a logical antecedent/consequent order. BUT…sometimes it occurs to me that an idea is clearer (or funnier) if I reverse the order. I think these “a-ha” moments could be mistaken for inspiration, but they only reveal themselves as a result of concentrated effort.
Frank Ticheli wrote that composing sometimes feels like the music reveals itself, as if it directs where it needs to go and the composer is simply following its natural inclination. When that happens, it is indeed a marvelous thing because the resulting product will likely feel natural, logical, or inevitable. The final piece was there the whole time, just waiting to be discovered.
So it may be inevitable that a piece turns out the way it does. It’s only in retrospect that we realize where in fact the final destination was, and that all the wrong turns we took were necessary to find it. The final product might appear as a straight line, but the journey is anything but.
This essay, which I hope made a coherent point, probably took you 5-10 minutes to read. It took me many hours in eight sessions to write. It takes great artists months, even years to write works that take minutes to consume. So if yours isn’t perfect right off the bat, you’re in good company.