The creative work
Did you know Ed Sheeran’s song “Shape of You” wasn’t supposed to be sung by him at all? Sheeran wrote it for Rihanna. That’s why it has this cool club beat that is so wildly different from his typical acoustic ballad: he never intended to sing it himself.
He wrote the second verse about an all-you-can-eat buffet and realized that wasn’t really Rihanna’s vibe. So he recorded it himself. Don’t believe me? Look it up yourself.
When I was in college, I spent a year and a half as a songwriting major. This is the kind of thing you can major in if you go to school in Nashville, Tennessee. I had dabbled in writing my own music before and thought maybe a full-blown major would be what I needed to make a career out of my poor attempts at melody.
Songwriting I is about crushing all the romantic notions students might have about songwriting. It was a seminar class led by a songwriter who paraded his Nashville songwriter friends in front of us to share their thoughts on the industry. What I learned spooked me away from a songwriting career forever.
The people I met were professional writers. They fed their families off the songs they wrote. No surprises there. It also didn’t surprise me that these writers wrote a “really good one” once every few years, with a few relatively good ones as fillers (someone has to write track 8 on an 11 track album).
What shocked me was the sheer number of bad songs they wrote.
One of these writers described her process something like this:
- 9:00AM: get into the office
- 9:30AM: finish tuning and noodling around on guitar, proceed to first coffee
- 10:00AM: get jitters out of system
- 10-12: write a verse
- 12-1: lunch
- 1:00-1:30: probably throw away the first verse
- 1:30-2:30: try another verse
- 2:30-3:00: probably throw that one away too
- 3:00-5:00: try something else
- 5:00PM: go home, try again tomorrow
All told, she estimated she wrote between 500-1000 songs per year to get 3-5 good ones. That’s a lot of creative product she wasn’t happy with.
And yet, she created it.
Some people are born natural creative geniuses. Mozart was composing music by age 5 and was producing a flurry of world-renowned music by the time he was 17.
Joseph Haydn was not Mozart. He didn’t learn much of composition at all until he was 20. Both Mozart and Beethoven still considered him a creative mentor. Haydn had to grind it out, working stints as a choir boy, freelance musician, music teacher, and street busker. Haydn wrote over 200 pieces for the baryton (a weird bass viol-like instrument) because his patron decided he liked it and there wasn’t much music out there for it. The prince would abandon the baryton later and demand Haydn create operas instead.
Yet Haydn still had to just figure it out or get fired. No one taught him how to compose for the baryton. No one promised him riches if he wrote the world’s best baryton piece, nor did anyone even promise the baryton would be the next big instrument of Europe. He had to create anyway, or get fired. It was creative work, with a strong emphasis on the work part.
Haydn was a professional songwriter. Probably wrote 500-1000 songs per year.
There’s an apocryphal quote usually attributed to Edison that goes something like:
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
And one more recently by Ira Glass with:
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that. And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.
I have yet to meet a person who completely lacked the capacity for creative work. I meet people daily, however, who choose to not sit themselves at a desk and refuse to stand up until they have a paragraph written. Or 10 lines of code. Or a short description for a character.
Most of them are going to be really bad. I have never written ten lines of code that I didn’t hate and throw away later - usually after I had a hundred lines more. You still made them. They are your ugly babies to love and care for. You made them. That’s awesome.
That creativity is highly unlikely to come from some flash of inspiration. It may never come at all. I wrote six drafts of this post before I finally came to something I’m happy with, and I never really felt some overwhelming sense of happiness with the end product. I just needed it out of my system.
Do the work. It’s not going to be fun. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to feel like wine and painting night. It’s going to feel a lot like work.
But wow, you’ll feel great when it’s done.