Creativity is as much a sickness as it is a gift.
On the one hand, creators are blessed with a lifetime of opportunities to bring their visions into the real world. On the other, most of them are tormented by insecurity, doubts, and the never-ending struggle of trying to create the ideal things their imaginations conjure up. The latter is one of the subjects in an editorial, “Found in Translation,” that the Pulitzer Prize (and PEN/Faulkner Award)-winning author Michael Cunningham published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.
“Found in Translation” begins by discussing the mechanics and challenges of translating a novel from one language to another, before moving on to the more personal challenge of turning one’s vision into a piece of art. The transfer of instincts, ideas, images, and emotions to words on a page or computer screen is, after all, basically just several layers of translation, and midway through Cunningham’s editorial, an unusually honest passage can be found:
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire… But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire… It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
As someone who writes professionally and attempts to make music in many different ways, I was floored by how much I identified with this characterization. I am never happy with what I’ve written, especially once it’s done, and normally a very narrow range of the ideas and emotions I began with have been successfully wrestled down onto the final pages.
It occurred to me, as well, that very few musicians will speak candidly about how satisfied they are with their work. They have the pressure of selling that work, after all, and nobody wants to buy a product whose creation left the artist drained, frustrated, and maybe even a little acquiescent to the reality of their limited gifts.
Or do they?
Many years after the fact, they may talk about how much they’ve grown artistically, how far they’ve come from earlier work (think of Radiohead’s long-time disavowal of Pablo Honey’s songs), but for whatever reason, most labels, managers, and artists seem to shy away from discussing how difficult it is to make the album they want to make. Doing so, the thinking goes, is bad for business.
But is it?
Now that a premium is placed on artists building relationships with fans, doesn’t that call for an increased amount of honesty? Shouldn’t artists, especially those who profess to put their hearts and souls into their music, be more honest about just how difficult that is? About what each release fails to capture as much as what it perfectly encapsulates?
Think of the artists you discovered when they were rising. When they were young, when they had no idea how to record, when they couldn’t quite sing in tune, when the songwriting was ragged or sloppy or weird. Did you start to like them more after they got signed, when they got ushered into a big studio with an assured engineer who scrubbed the dirt out of their sound, put them on top of a mountain of reverb and overdubs and compression? Or did your relationship to that artist, and their music, start to change?
I’m not suggesting that high-end production is a bad thing, or that there’s anything wrong with seeking out a team of experts to assist you in creating what you want to create. But as that team grows bigger and bigger, as the gloss gets thicker and shinier, fans may begin to wonder why that’s happening, whether it’s necessary, and whether they are still listening to the same artist they remember.
It’s possible that I’m talking about apples and oranges here, that a novel is different from an album. But do you always wind up with the music you set out to create? What are you looking for, when you hire someone to help record your music, or someone to master or mix what you’ve done? And isn’t it possible that some of your fans will care about those struggles just as much as you do?
This article was originally published on We All Make Music.