“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”Michelangel
But then again, no…
Let me start again.
Yesterday we went to the beach.
It was, as usual, awesome.
I have never had a bad day at the beach. I imagine that it’s possible and I have met people who don’t like it but for me, it’s always good and usually great.
I went there with my son, Yogi and my 10-year-old niece, Lilyette, who is visiting from Maine.
Yogi and Lily spent most of the time in the ocean. I spent most of the time building a sandcastle.
I should say that Yogi and I are Sand Castle artists. I have loved building sandcastles since I was a kid growing up in Hampton, New Hampshire. I passed that love to Yogi and when he was about 7 we learned how to build really impressive castles, really sand carvings, from a company called “Can You Dig It.” Rather than building up, the way to make great looking castles is to make a huge pile of hard, wet sand and then carve a castle (or whatever) out of it.
While Yogi and Lily were swimming, I used a big shovel and built up a big pile of sand and mixed in water to make it hard. It takes a lot of physical labor for a long time before the final carving started and, as usual, I got a few looks and a couple of comments as I labored like a ditch digger. Just like a ditch digger, in fact.
After a couple hours, Yogi and Lily come out of the water to help me carve so the castle would look good before the tide came in and wrecked it.
That’s a big part of what we do. We actually like to start building right around low tide so we have a few hours to create an elaborate structure before the tide comes in and swamps it, creating our own epic disaster.
As we carve out blocks of stone and crenellations and windows and doors and stairs, the castle suddenly emerges out of the blob of damp sand. People start to comments on how awesome it looks just as we are finishing up. It’s very satisfying.
But it’s not why we do it. We do it because the whole process is fun and exciting.
But most of the process is not interesting to watch.
Which brings me to Rocketman.
We finally saw Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, this week before it left theaters completely and it was pretty darn good. I thought it was a little better than Bohemian Rhapsody and Shelley thought it was a little worse. I liked the stylistic risks the director took and I’ve been on a bit of an Elton John kick lately, partly because his catalog has been playing in public places because of the release of this movie and partly because his songs are fun to play on the piano.
When you start digging into his catalog, even just the hits, it’s pretty clear that Elton John is amazing. For the last month, the song Grey Seal (a weird cut from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that apparently nobody, including Bernie Taupin, understands) has been permanently worming around my ears and it’s only starting to drive me crazy after about four weeks of non-stop heavy rotation.
But what Rocketman (and Bohemian Rhapsody) deals with is the happy and unhappy effects and side effects of success. What we don’t see much of is the creation. In Rocketman, we see Elton John playing Your Song as he looks at the lyrics for the first time as if the chord progression was suggested by the lyrics and the melody popped out a few moments later. In Bohemian Rhapsody there is a scene where Freddy Mercury keeps telling Roger Taylor to sing higher as a way of representing Mercury’s perfectionist drive. As a result, Taylor keeps singing the same (correct) note with a bit more intensity each time. Neither snippet makes much sense as a representation of any creative process, let along the process of people we have come to revere as genre-defining (and smashing) geniuses.
Of course, the reason for this is that the actual creative process is dull as dishwater to watch. Most of it is ditch digging. The flashes of insight come out of the details and happen internally when they happen at all. From the outside the interesting stuff comes at the end when the finishing touches make the sandcastle or the song or the novel come alive.
Creation is boring to watch and mostly boring to do. I worked with a bunch of people including Dick Clark (briefly) and Spike Lee (very briefly) to create a reality show based on Instant Film, the festival I created with Peter Lebow and Charles Papert to make movies in two days. It was hopeless because making a movie is mostly boring, grinding work if it goes well. If it doesn’t go well in some interesting and spectacular way, the movie won’t get finished.
The takeaway is that anything worth doing takes a lot of grinding work. Even writing a blog post.
But it’s worth it.
And it’s worth it, not because of the success that comes when people like it, it comes from the act of creation itself. Once you know that, the ditch digging part becomes fun.
If I was a sculptor, for example, it would take a long time to get to the point where anyone, including maybe me, could tell what I was making.