Back in 1990, a friend invited me to come to the Roxy in Atlanta to see Peter Murphy on his A Strange Kind of Love tour. I was (and still am) a huge fan of Peter’s music, both with Bauhaus and as a solo artist, so I jumped at the chance to see him live – and since I was working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival at the time, getting to Atlanta was relatively easy. The show was fantastic. Peter was just as theatrical as I’d hoped he’d be and he sounded terrific, but it was the opening act — a then relatively unknown band called Nine Inch Nails — that really blew my mind. I had never heard of Nine Inch Nails before then, but after seeing Trent Reznor on stage, unloading one sonic shotgun blast after another into my brain, I was hooked. I bought a copy of Pretty Hate Machine the next day and have been a fan ever since.
Recently, Reznor and his friend and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross (the two won the Oscar for their work on The Social Network) were guests on Song Exploder (one of my favorite podcasts) to unravel the creation of The Lovers from the new NIN EP Add Violence. There were a few things that really struck me about the conversation and got me thinking about how I approach my own creative process. The first thing was how Reznor describes a song during the creation process. On multiple occasions, he refers to the “setting” or the “place” of the song and how the visual nature of the piece can inform the overall sound of the track or the choice of instruments.
One of the other things I found interesting was how willing Reznor seems to be to let go of the creative reins when collaborating with Ross. He acknowledges that the two of them have different yet complementary skillsets that “keeps this momentum going so that neither of us are bogged down too much.” Sometimes the creative process needs to be slow and methodical and other times it needs to be fast and loose. I think the people who we identify with as creatives, artists, or even geniuses are able to recognize what creativity needs in the moment and are able to let it be and just sit back see where it goes. You have to let it go somewhere before you decide that it’s going nowhere. “There’s plenty of time to bring out the ‘it sucks’ hammer,” Reznor says.
One of the things that frankly surprised me was how tentative (for lack of a better word) Reznor seems to be about making music. Here’s a guy who has sold more than 20 million records, sells out arenas all over the world, has two Grammys and an Oscar and still wonders whether the next thing he does will be any good. He has even described his creative time in the studio as “torturous.” Sound familiar? We tend to forget that regardless of the discipline or the genre, our heroes are playing the same game we are and struggling with exactly the same things. I would imagine that anyone who has ever made anything has been paralyzed by fear or self-doubt to a lesser or greater degree. Fear of failure or fear of success — whether real or imagined — can keep us from embracing the creative process and we find ourselves stuck somewhere in the void between coming up with an idea and actually taking action on it. The really prolific creators — the “monsters,” as we sometimes call them — seemed to be unencumbered by the fear of “what if it isn’t any good?” and instead they just get on with making. Picasso produced more than 13,500 paintings and 100,000 prints and engravings over the course of his life. Frank Zappa released 62 studio albums, Spanish writer Corin Tellado wrote over 4,000 books, and Vivian Maier took more than 150,000 photographs, most of which have never even been seen.
In my own creative life, I have been guilty of bringing out the “it sucks” hammer far too quickly, wounding a potentially “good” project or idea before it really has a chance to grow into something — which is ironic, given that I am so in love with the process of making. So how do we learn to sidestep the doubt and fear and attempt to let go of arbitrary terms like good and bad or what a project may or may not mean to our followers and instead focus on the making? There is no easy answer. For me, I think it means trying to let go of creativity as something that “happens” to me, and instead think of it as a collaboration between ideas and ability. At the end of the day, I have control over when I start and when I stop. What happens in between those two points is often a mystery, but nothing happens without first choosing to begin. We can listen to all of the podcasts and read all of the books, but in the end I suppose it really comes down to Luke and the X-Wing: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” We need to get to a place where doing is better than just thinking about doing. To that end, I think that I may start a 365 project in the new year, but it won’t be exclusively photographs or exclusively paintings. Instead, I would like it to be a daily exploration into process — some days that may yield a drawing or a piece of graphic design, others a painting, a collage, or some sort of written piece. The point isn’t to create “something” everyday, but simply to create — to allow myself to go through the process without focusing on where I land. I think in that way, I leave myself open to the possibility of going somewhere entirely unexpected.
What is your biggest roadblock in your own creative process?
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Recently, I was introduced to the terrific work of Marc Valée, a documentary photographer in the UK who calls his work a focus on “contemporary youth culture within the context of the neoliberal city.” Marc’s fascinating body of work includes photography, video interviews with his subjects, zines, and books.
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber are photographers from Brooklyn whose body of work consists of meticulously crafted dioramas — tiny fictional landscapes both urban and natural, beautifully lit and photographed. “Instead of going out in search of worlds to photograph,” Lori says, “we choose to build our own worlds in a much smaller scale.” Fantastic work.
In a fairly short amount of time, Masterclass has managed to put together an impressive collection of iconic instructors, including Martin Scorsese, Herbie Hancock, Frank Gehry, and Aaron Sorkin. They recently added one of the most famous photographers in the world to their roster: Annie Leibovitz. At just $90 for the 14-lesson class or $180 for an all-access pass to ALL of the classes, it sounds like an incredible opportunity to learn from some of the best folks in their respective industries.