Entries in creativity (2)


Collaboration: when it's working, it doesn't hurt

As a result of the "Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies" I took this Spring through Berklee Online, I've been thinking a lot about collaboration. The class format and the students in that class combined to create a highly interactive environment. We were spread all over the world, spanning an entire day's worth of time zones and yet everybody interacted and learned from those interactions. Strangely, though, when the topic of collaborative songwriting came up, many of the students were uncomfortable. Their concerns are similar to those I've seen across most of my life experiences, in music, in software, in school.

Collaboration scares people. It's seen as giving up ones own goals, degrading ones own vision. It's seen as the path to impurity and struggle. Sadly, there are so many examples in the real world to support this. Just listen to anything from The Troggs Tapes (careful there's lots of swearing) to the U.S. legislature and it's clear that working together is hard. Watch any reality TV show or This Is Spinal Tap and you will get a a vivid reminder that collections of people have a hard time agreeing on anything, especially when a shared creative goal is involved.

Despite that, however, there is nothing better than a successful collaboration. When it's working, it really doesn't hurt at all. The ideas flow more quickly and you look back at the end result with awe. The song or other creative work is something that no one person could have generated. Sure, sometimes you end up with the offspring of 100 maniacs but the beauty of creative endeavors is that you can always set one aside and move on to the next. In fact, many of us believe that's how creativity works anyway. Not every creative work is successful, but the practice you get on the unsuccessful ones combines with the raw output of repeatedly trying to assure that you do generate successful works.

Absolutely, though, it takes a different approach to be successful when collaboration is involved. Too often everyone thinks they have an agenda and when that agenda does not get satisfied in the end result, it's a failed effort. That's why it's important to alter the goal. The reason for collaboration is to generate an end product that could only exist through the efforts of many. It is not the product of one person's vision implemented by many. So, you really cannot know how it will turn out based on the first conversation or the initial vision. It will evolve through interaction, conversation and critique. And once complete, every one of the collaborators will see themselves and every other collaborator reflected in the final product.

Does that sound too hard? Do you have to give up too much of yourself to make collaboration work? No, absolutely not. In fact, with the right collaborators, you will find that you express more of yourself, especially your strengths, than if you try to do it all yourself. I'm a guitarist and part-time vocalist. Although the bass has similarity to guitar, I am not a bass player. I understand the mathematics of rhythm and the mechanics of playing a drum kit, but I'm no drummer. I can spend hours sequencing keyboards, bass and drums but experienced musicians can accomplish the same thing (no, really, way better things) in much less time. If I surround myself with the right people, ideas become songs much faster. They don't lose their freshness and excitement somewhere along the arranging and recording process.

So, the next time you find yourself shying away from an opportunity, fearful that interacting with others will erode the vision, think again. Go out on a limb and try writing a song with someone else. Try developing a software product plan with collaborators. Or, just plan a pot-luck dinner for next Saturday night. Then, let yourself revel in the unexpected outcomes. Enjoy the process, the ebb and flow as all contributors' personalities and efforts factor in, flavoring the final product. Then, experience the end product and think back over how each of you contributed and how each of you achieved things that were personally rewarding. With practice, you will be amazed at how much you enjoy the process of reaching the goal, and that the results of your efforts are unique and well beyond anything you could have accomplished on your own.


Creativity: you don't grow out of it

Almost every one of us has had this experience at some level. Activities that used to fascinate and transfix you as a child eventually get pushed aside in favor of more practical and sensible activities. Maybe you loved building forts out of cardboard boxes, maybe you made up recipes using whatever you could find in the kitchen, maybe you wandered your backyard with a magnifying glass. In most of those cases, you look back and realize you don't do that as often as you used to.

It starts in grade school when you have to do your homework before you can play. Or you need to clean up the house first. Soon your parents and teachers don't have to say anything, it becomes ingrained in you. The process is gradual but highly effective; we learn to push all the responsible and "necessary" activities to the top of the list and barely notice as fort making, cartoon drawing and puppet shows get pushed farther and farther down the list. Eventually they're buried under so many other responsibilities that we forget them.

The problem with that eventuality (if my own experience is at all applicable to you) is that we don't really forget those things. They burn deep down, eating away from the inside while all the exterior forces scratch away from the outside. Despite the message that pummels us from the world around, "cut your hair, get a real job, stop wasting your time", the crazy, intense, youthful creativity that we start out with is still there and suppressing it hurts, literally.

For one, suppression is destructive because it makes us less effective in everything we do. Many of you know how much more difficult it is to teach your parents' generation about technology than it is to teach your kids. Just watch a 6 year old and a 60 year old, each with an iPad. The 6 year old will bang around, try things and learn from mistakes. They will ask you questions whenever something doesn't make sense ("Why does the picture keep flipping when I turn it?") but the minute you answer the question, they run with it (I constantly find my iPad with rotation lock active and I rarely, if ever, use it myself). Kids take these things very seriously (they want to learn as quickly as possible) and yet they approach everything with a wide open, playful sense that means they seldom get demoralized or frustrated.

The non-technical adults I interact with are quite different. Every challenge is a struggle, every quirk is a land mine. Even though adults have much more experience to draw on, seeing analogy in technology is much more difficult. Where kids revel in the newness, starting from complete lack of information and rapidly climbing the learning curve, adults get impatient. The first hurdle and they fall deep into the mud, sucking them down into mental gridlock. And, in my opinion, this is tied very closely to buried creativity.

You can't make creativity go away. If you do, you become less effective in so many ways. When you bury your creativity, you also bury your happiness, although this process is slow enough that you don't really notice until you are quite far down that road. It doesn't matter where your creativity naturally focuses. It's dangerous to bury it, assuming that more practical use of your hours will make up for it. Every one of us needs to find a balance: support yourself and your family without walling up your creativity behind brick and mortar. Your creativity is a fuel and a skill that facilitates everything you do. The more actively you exercise it, the more likely it will be available when you really need it.

For me, this means remembering that music, and specifically, guitar, drive me in a way that nothing else does. I am happy and energized when I give myself time to play my instrument. Listening to music isn't just a passive thing for me, it's enveloping and something I need to do regularly. Maybe it's cooking for you, or gardening or oil painting. Can you figure out how to restore the creative activities in your life? What is the key for you; what creative arena defines you?