May 222015

Nut graf: I already know I’m not as good as the masters, but does it really matter?

I can't compare myself with somebody else until I've been through his trash.

I can’t compare myself with somebody else until I’ve been through his trash.

Of course I fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. It’s an occupational disease that any creator in good standing can tell you about.

There’s always going to be someone who can kick my tail. I get that. I’ll never be as good as John Steinbeck or Miles Davis. It’s just not in the cards even with those extra aces I keep in my shirt pocket.

But someone called this to my attention. Self-comparison isn’t a fair fight anyway. I can compare myself to the other writer or musician across town, but I haven’t surfed his dumpster lately.

Any creator who enjoys even a bit of success is going to generate a lot of hot garbage. Might even have a commercial account with the local waste haulers for all I know.

Let’s say you went back in time and you’re in Havana or Key West or wherever Ernest Hemingway was working. You see his trash can and, looking both ways — ratting through someone’s garbage late at night looks pretty suspicious — and you go through it.

What would you find?

Besides the whiskey bottles and cigarette butts you’ll find pages and pages of handwritten or typed work. This is a real find, right? You read through them and realize you could do better than that. Maybe the whiskey bottles are a clue here.

What you see on the open market is the best of Hemingway’s best. Many drafts. Much fine tuning. Polished beyond polished. Even his worst published work is awe-inspiring. But the stuff in his dumpster? Not so much.

Kind of changes the equation, huh?

That’s the fallacy of self-comparison. I only see my rival’s or virtual mentor’s best work.

With mine, I see all of it. The good, the bad, the butt-ugly.

For my own reasons I like to work the old-school way. On paper for the first drafts. I keep them in a 12″x12″ box, and not quite halfway through 2015 I filled it halfway up. That’s a lot o’trash.

My current work took up more than a ream of paper, and it’s all going to get thrown out anyway. Or saved in that box as a visual reminder of how much written BS I can truly generate.

All of it is fixable. Each time I rewrite the quality improves by a couple of degrees. As far as the first drafts go, though, they’re totally experimental and I don’t have to admit to doing them.

The truth is that I know I’m not in the same league as these guys.

What’s equally true is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is doing the things that fall within my own strengths, and knowing the great ones are every bit as capable of turning out terrible stuff as I am.

Sep 212012

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a relative kid just stretching my legs in writing and music, I did a little work with Rosie Hamlin.

You’d have to be a baby boomer or a real oldies freak to know of Rosie. She was the lead singer for Rosie & The Originals in the ’60s. Her big song back then was “Angel Baby.”

Now, when I worked with her, everybody wanted her to do that song. Except she was a teen then, and her voice had matured considerably and getting the high parts punched holes in her range. Besides that, she wanted to do blues. To accommodate her fans she’d work Angel Baby into a medley, singing just part of the song.

An artist knows when it’s time to move on. With some — particularly in jazz — it’s expected. Miles Davis redid his career several times, creating several subforms (cool, modal, fusion) in the process. In a couple of years John Coltrane completely changed his sound from his Classic Quartet days to his Pharoah Sanders period.

You’ll find this process elsewhere. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain morphed from scoring machine to assist man to defensive specialist in just a few years. While his critics swore these changes were just because he was getting old, it was just Wilt moving into a new role for his team. Shoot, his Lakers already had enough high-octane scorers; if he hadn’t redesigned his game they’d need three basketballs out there.

If you’ve been creating for a while, you may notice major changes in how you do things. You learn new techniques, you find different stories to tell, your imagination goes places you’ve never visited before.

But the catch here is in making sure your audience — your tribe — goes with you.

If you can do something that satisfies that inner Muse and carries enough authenticity to keep connection with your tribe, you’ve probably pulled it off. Otherwise, you’ve just jumped the shark.

After Fleetwood Mac recorded that great Rumours album, the question was what do they do next. Their answer was Tusk, and the title track was recorded with the USC (Southern California, not South Carolina) marching band. A lot of Fleetwood Mac fans were scratching their heads over that one, saying they’d lost it. Maybe, but I thought it was a real gutsy move.

Some of my favorite novelists ended up writing things outside their realm — David Baldacci and John Grisham wrote coming-of-age stuff and relatively lightweight (for them) fare. Stephen King wrote books that do not scare the stuff out of you.

Robin Williams started doing serious roles (The Awakening, Good Will Hunting) and made new fans. Even Richard Pryor wanted to try something serious.

It’s so easy to do the same thing you started with. It’s a whole lot safer, and the rationale is solid. Why argue with success? Stretching things out is a risk.

But sometimes growth is forced upon you. I’m thinking of all those out-of-work newsmen who have to change things up one way or another. Rebuild some skills and go into freelance? Work on the periphery, such as technical writing?  Throw the dice on writing/publishing that novel? Play it safe and hook on with another paper that may actually survive the year? Sell blood for a living?

Other times that growth comes on from pure restlessness. I find that’s true of me. One of the disadvantages of living full tilt is that I get burned out quickly. I need to constantly adjust, keep trying new things. To stay motionless is to die.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t picture a creative life without growth. To me, if my work looks a lot like it did 20 or 30 years ago, I’m moving in the wrong direction. Even if this means getting dangerous and trying my hand at something I’ve never attempted before.