So the muse just tackled me in the hallway, and I decided to put some thoughts into words. Muses are fickle things however, and rather than pontificate on a sensible subject, abound with relevance and utility, I’ve been forced instead by my own inclinations to expound upon a random course of discussion started by the illustrious Dean Quarrell, who often gets me thinking once I’ve had a few.
The subject matter was music, and how many, many artists debut with a strong first album, and have a dry spell during the second. Dean’s explanation was simple: after years of loving music, a young artist’s first endeavor is rife with the sum of years of inspiration, experiences, and memories from which to draw upon. In other words, if you’re inspired to create your first music album, you probably go into it absolutely full of ideas, and it’s easy to stuff the thing full of fresh material, to the point where every song is strong and heartfelt.
A second album, however, is often not so lucky — you’ve used the best bits in your first album (why wouldn’t you?) so you have to put in a lot more effort to be new and original in the next.
That was Dean’s point, and of course it got me thinking (artists are just people who attempt to professionally frame their shower thoughts, and so that’s what I’m doing here): perhaps what I’ve called “the sum of years of inspiration, experiences, and memories” is a lot like a fresh food source. A butcher starts off with an animal of some sort, and all the choice cuts of meat are there — there’s the prime rib, the tenderloin, sirloin, etc — hence the butcher’s “first album” is the quality stuff. But butchers can’t survive on just the quality cuts, especially the old world butchers, who know better than to waste anything. So our old-time butcher has to use every part of the animal possible, lest the food run out, and they have to be a little creative.
And what does the butcher do once he’s already sold the quality cuts? He takes what’s leftover, and rolls it up into bologna, or “baloney” as the slang spells it, which is appropriate here. Because an artists’s follow-up album often is just that — baloney — all the choice cuts were in the first album, and they haven’t had the time necessary to inspire themselves into finding fresh meat.
I’ve listened to a number of baloney albums over the years (I’m saving that term, now. Outdated as it may slowly become, it serves its purpose). Baloney doesn’t just mean the odds & ends that you make into deli meat. It’s also hogwash, detritus, (and, in the vulgar term, ‘bullshit’) that artists flounder with and make up as they go along, in lieu of more “choice” inspirations. If an artist is lucky, they’ll find new inspiration quickly, and keep the baloney to a minimum, but luck being nearly as fickle as my muse, there is no guarantee the artist won’t have a dry spell, and the least appetizing material becomes the staple of the diet until the artist sees better times.
What’s your strategy for finding new inspiration? Life isn’t always going to provide the choice cuts. I’m afraid I must lament just how much high-quality material I’ve left by the wayside in my youth, with nary more than a laugh to myself at how amusing it all is, without ever framing the thought or just writing the blasted things down. Nowadays, prime source material is fickle as ever, but the disciplined writer in me says you can only power through it.
Even if it all is just baloney.
I’m sure this came up in your conversation, but I recall an interview with Don McLean in which he was quite bitter about the success of “American Pie.” Of course, at the time it was great, but he said he’s spent the almost 50 years since writing and performing music — that nobody knows about. Having your first album become a mega-hit is great, but he’s spent 40+ years in concerts with the audience shouting “Play American Pie!” at him, and it’s all he’ll be remembered for. He could just as well have sat at home the past several decades and played computer games instead of putting out new music. This is depressing, but it speaks to the muse issue. I myself admit I don’t know a thing he’s done outside of “American Pie.”
That’s important because I don’t know if he’s a one-hit wonder like Quentin Tarantino, who spent years re-making the same basic movie over and over again until he got it right in “Pulp Fiction” — or if McLean really has enough musical and lyrical talent that it would be worth listening to one of his 1980s or 90s albums. Anyone who has had any brush with any publishing business, music, book or otherwise, knows that most of the people in charge in these industries have their heads firmly inserted up their butts, and that being published is no mark of quality music or prose, just as not being published does not necessarily correlate with poor quality writing.
And the underlying thought — no fear — here is the possibility that any one of us who aspires to write and be read may also be one-hit wonders with only one good book in us, though we may manage to get a dozen books published. (May we each be so lucky.) Well, if that be the case, then I hope I at least manage to get that book out.
As for me, my muse is the night, the moon and stars. Don’t know why, but after dark my brain kicks into writing gear. It’s not just that I’m alone and it’s quiet; there’s something about the smells of night and the sounds, like the frogs in the nearby swamp, that just gets the juices flowing. Mind you, it’s not a guaranteed thing. There are times when I stare at blank paper or the computer screen, and nuthin’ happens. In those cases, I’ve learned to accept defeat and open a computer game or crack a book. Apparently my muse occasionally goes for a walk.
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I’d never heard that about Don McLean, but I am not surprised. My one stellar hope for writing is that most authors I enjoy keep writing books, because I’ll keep reading them. I’m always looking for more of my favorite authors’ works, because I haven’t really gotten enough of them yet. So there is hope.
Don McLean is one of the best writers in popular music, shoulder to shoulder with Paul Simon and the rest of the big guns. For whatever reason, other than “American Pie,” and “Vincent,” (“Starry, starry night…”) the rest of his oeuvre has been less noticed. I don’t have an opinion to offer on why that is, other than the fact that his stuff is less pop than (e.g.) Simon’s. That’s not a dig on Simon’s work, just an observation that rhythmically and melodically it’s more accessible – more easily mistaken for something less than it is. A lot of McLean’s stuff is on a slightly different plane, more chewy than crunchy. But “Bronco Bill’s Lament,” “Crossroads,” and “Empty Chairs,” I’ll put up along anyone else’s stuff as top of the pop.
This has me considering my own process, which is to be working on two or three projects concurrently. I have a lot of ideas so I write them down or even start them, but then put them aside. Some get continued and some get saved for later revisiting. I have this metaphorical box of ideas, imaginings, scenes, memories, and characters that I’ve collected over the years. Some of what gets saved may start out as baloney, but once it’s sat in the box and mingled with the other ideas I realize that paired with the right ingredients it has the potential to be something more.
Now that I’m thinking about this I’m tempted to write about my creative process with cooking analogies.
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That is actually a great point to make, as I do the same thing, or did, until I started workshopping. Perhaps should start doing it again. I’m juggling several projects — not just short stories, but also novel ideas where I’ve contributed loads of pages, out of order chapters and sequences of events. The sheer amount of unused material is probably what kept me going — my mind is always wandering somewhere, so writings easy until I get the point where I have to follow some sort of rigid structure.
That isn’t to say the structure isn’t helpful in some way — it gets things done, and for a writer who’s all over the place that can be a real boon — but it probably does stifle the creative process a bit.
That said, I love the idea of pairing the forced material with better ingredients. This really helps.
There’s another aspect to the notion of “putting years worth of good stuff into the first ” and that is that for folks lucky enough to survive a sophomore outing and continue, there’s often a learning and maturing experience taking place in subsequent productions. So while a debut album/novel/painting may have the fruit of those years of (presumably) juvenilial musing and indulgence, later work shows the artist’s growth in knowing what to ditch, what to polish, and what to expand on.
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That is definitely a positive continuation of the notion. Sophomore works aren’t necessarily a “sink or swim” situation, or at least they don’t have to be. I think some authors have a specific message or thematic element that, once they get it out there, dries them up a bit. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, had something specific I think he wanted to say, and he said it, and after that he kind of meandered a bit.
Other authors show far more longevity. Terry Prachett, for example, genuinely just seemed to enjoy writing for the hell of it, and I was happy he never burned out (even if I was sad he died so young).
With that in mind, I’m a big fan of exploring the creative process, and I wish I knew more about it. Might be a whole other topic in and of itself.