Spontaneity and great art are not companions

Sorry to disappoint you, but the widely popular notion of art as being the result of a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, of a bulb lighting up, is one that is generally false.  While the occasional imaginative flash will occur, the overwhelming body of enduring creative art is the result of long, grinding work, in hours and weeks and even years of endeavour, and the dictum applies across the genres. Such deliberate and committed application is behind the great music or painting; behind the inspiring dance or piece of literature; behind the film or carving that brings mankind to wonder and to tears. Spontaneity is very rarely the major plank in art that endures.

The photograph of someone or something caught in a moment that seems like an accident, most of the time is no accident at all but the result of painstaking and planned execution, sometimes lasting several hours, or days, using various camera settings and lighting conditions to capture that one moment that looks like a fortuitous encounter. The painting depicting bodies appearing so natural, as if someone is about to move, probably took weeks, or months to create, with several sketches redone, with several early attempts discarded, often to create seemingly minor changes. The song with the lyric that sounds so right – how else could you have expressed that? – is actually usually the result of scores of revisions, of sometimes abandoning a full verse completely, because the right match was not revealing itself; the rhyme was wrong; the sequence of thought was slightly flawed.

Bing Crosby, the famous American crooner, who sang with a very relaxed almost sleepy style would come off stage with his jaw clenched, drenched with sweat from the effort of singing in a way that sounded completely relaxed to his audience. An accomplished writer of poetry will tell you of the countless versions of a poem he/she discards before settling on the one that has that natural almost instinctive flow.  It may sound like the writer just sat down and produced it in a moment of inspiration; in fact, most of the time those lines were laboriously and deliberately and critically crafted. That’s how they ended sounding so right.

The act of song-writing, the actual mechanism itself, if you do it professionally – that is to say, you produce a variety of creative music – is actually a kind of a mysterious process that I can’t really explain, except to say that when you get into this creative condition it feels like something flowing, in you or around you, and you’re part of an action that you’re taking which is also taking you.  Also, it is almost always a fragile thread that can be broken by any interruption – such as a phone ringing or a knock at the door – which is why many writers need seclusion, even a cabin in the woods, to capture the creation undisturbed.  I’m in that category.  When I’m writing – a song, a piece of dialogue, a poem, a column – I have to be in almost total silence or the process grinds to a halt. Interruptions will anger me, and part of that reaction is because the thread is so elusive, and it is extremely hard work, requiring intense concentration, to maintain it, not in the grinding sense, but in that you have to discipline yourself, focus is probably a better word, to simply stay with the thing, that’s the key, until it’s right. You know when it’s not right, you simply know, and you have to resist the temptation to say, “It can wuk so” (it’s a phrase you hear a lot in Guyana) and hang in until it is right. Sometimes it’s right quickly; sometimes it can take weeks. I don’t know why the difference, because the solution, once it comes, usually seems so obvious, but the time factor can vary from hours, or even minutes, to weeks or even months.

Also as you grow as a writer you acquire more of the craft and the techniques – you learn there are many different ways to go at conveying something – and with that expanding arsenal you will also be less inclined to settle for the first take, or the second, or the third, even though they sound good or feel good.  From your improved knowledge of the craft you have learned that you almost always improve by refining or reshaping, so that you will listen to a song you did 20 years ago, that’s generally a good piece of work, but there’s a line or a phrase that you would write better now because you have a better arsenal now.

Just this week, for instance, I’m in the process of sending a friend the lyrics for Masquerade Band, a song I wrote around 1975.  Assessing it now, what I’m depicting in the second verse ending feels strong:

and the shack-shack fella in red, with a
kerchief tie round he head
with a hurry and a yell and a whistle and
a bell
and a barrel drum kicking hell

But here’s the ending of the first verse

with a flute and a kettle drum, bottle and
spoon, and bamboo rhythm
and the power and the beat when they
coming down the street
man, this thing was really sweet

The songwriter I am today would see that final phrase, “man, this thing was really sweet” as weak.  I would write something like “all man jack up on their feet”  or “you can’t sit down it so sweet.”  You’ve gone from the general (“the thing sweet”)  to the specific (“people dancing”). You’ve gone from an abstract image to a living one; you’ve moved up the craft ladder.  That’s a good illustration of the deliberate nature of art; 37 years after I wrote the song I’m still not finished with it.

More in So It Go


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