Michael Stipe on creative work

Oh yes, though sometimes “expansive creative practice” is also what I would call simply having too many ideas. You have to be a great editor in that regard; you have to be an editor of ideas. For me, when some of those ideas are so abstract that they’re literally just a written down thought, you have to take a step back and make choices. You only have this one lifetime—only a certain number of human years—to make things. You have to decide, Which of these ideas am I going to allow myself to focus on? And have I made the right choices? And you hope that you do.

So much of doing creative work is just about making choices, deciding where to direct your energies. I’ve been trying to organize all of my ideas and projects on my computer desktop for the past week. Putting them into folders—folders within folders within folders. Trying to kind of bring it down to what’s valuable enough to actually work to produce into being and then looking at those ideas and saying, “Well that doesn’t work” or “That was a bad idea” or “That was a misstep” or “My God, this is actually kind of brilliant.”

You don’t want to do the same thing forever, even if maybe other people wish you would. So for me, this part of my creative life is really exciting. Deciding where I’m gonna go next is really interesting. You don’t necessarily choose to be constantly working on something, you just have to do it. And I’m very lucky that people are interested in what I have to say or in what I might be making. Still, regardless of that, you just have to follow the impulse where it leads you. You always have to be moving forward.

Michael Stipe

Music and the creative process

Cabel Sasser (co-founder of software house Panic) also makes music. In Stagehand: The Music, he discusses the process of writing the main theme for Stagehand, a game produced by Panic colleague Neven Mrgan and friend Matt Comi.

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Sasser’s piece shows it goes from humming/scatting a few seconds’ worth of a tune into Apple’s Music Memos app:

Through the arrangement and recording:

To the final piece, which you can buy.

It’s a fascinating story of how to nurture a germ of an idea all the way to completion, not least because of Sasser’s acknowledged inability to do it all himself:

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

I was also fascinated by the methodology (there’s no other word to use) used by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to build songs. It involves semi-plagiarism of chord progressions, anagrams, morning pages, syllable counts, databases and democratic band arrangements.

Not necessarily what I would have expected from the writer of Pinkerton, an album that soundtracked my late teenage years, which I rather hoped had arrived fully-formed in his head. Perhaps it did and his process has changed since then. Or perhaps that’s overly romanticising the idea of creativity.

In any case, Cuomo’s approach is an interesting example of using a process and a structure to foster the creative process, and there’s something to learn from it. (I’m somewhat reminded of Frank Chimero’s How to have an idea, which he seems to have removed from his site, so here’s a copy.)

Lastly, an anecdote about where the “where do we go?” breakdown in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine came from:

In his autobiography, Slash tells us the true history of the “where do we go” breakdown — credit goes to Spencer Proffer, a music producer that the band was considering for their album. Proffer was the one who thought that the song needed a breakdown after that guitar solo — the only question was what it would sound like. And then, Axl started thinking out loud, as recounted by Slash:

[Proffer] was right . . .  but we had no idea what we wanted to do there. All of us sat around the control room, listening to it over and over, devoid of a clue.

“Where do we go” Axl said, more to himself than the rest of us. “Where do we go now? . . . Where do we go?”

“Hey,” Spencer said, turning the music down. “Why don’t you just try singing that?”

And so became that dramatic breakdown.

My musical activities these days mostly consist of trying to find 10 minutes in the day to spend with a guitar: half-remembering songs I’ve learned before and playing around with whatever else pops into my head. It’s disjointed, unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. An approach like Sasser’s or Cuomo’s might yield more interesting and enjoyable results.

A walking anachronism

Inside Adobe’s innovation kit. I can’t work out if this is douchebaggery of the highest order, or will genuinely inspire better ideas: “The Kickbox is a small, red cardboard box containing everything an employee needs to generate, prototype, and test a new idea […] you’ll find instruction cards, a pen, two Post-It note pads, two notebooks, a Starbucks gift card, a bar of chocolate and (mostly importantly) a $1,000 prepaid credit card. The card can be used on anything the employee would like or need without ever having to justify it or fill out an expense report.”

The age of the super-subscriber. “With newsstand and ad page sales ever on the decline, magazine companies looking to monetize the influence of their brands are test driving tiered-subscription models that offer the most loyal readers increased access to the editors who create the glossies they read and the celebrities who appear in them.” I’m surprised this isn’t already the standard approach. Kickstarter and Patreon (to name only two) have tiered support at their hearts. Surely this is more valuable $-wise than the one-size-fits-none, ad-saturated but untargeted approach of most publications. Slightly related: Stack is a great way to read and support interesting, less-popular publications. (And you can thank Phil for that recommendation.)

When it’s ok to use word clouds. I’d say never, but: “It’s ok to use word clouds if your goal is to encourage reading of a large set of otherwise unrelated words that are connected to one or two interesting values (and word count in a text doesn’t qualify as interesting).” I had a meeting in a colleague’s office a few days ago and I put my glass of water down on a coaster emblazoned with a cloud of ‘engage’, ‘solutions’, ‘energise’ and the like. I nearly vomited.

Trying to keep a ‘celebrity class of commenters’ happy. Some of the challenges of allowing comments on a large site. “ ‘We’re lucky to have a celebrity class of commenters,’ [NYT community editor Bassey Etim] said, referring to the generally high quality of the discourse he sees, ‘and we want to elevate and recognize them in new ways.’ Just how to do that, with limited resources, is a current topic of discussion among audience development people at The Times.” I can really only think of one site where the comments even approach the quality of the posts, and it’s rarely updated these days.

The last of the typewriter men. “Well aware of his status as a walking anachronism, Schweitzer, 76, now fixes approximately 20 typewriters a week. Some of them are used as props for movies or television shows recreating eras he was a part of, a fact that makes him laugh when he happens to see his machines while flipping through reruns. Schweitzer’s clientele, recorded in two boxes of handwritten notecards behind his desk, includes several high-profile names, including noted typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks.”

Conspiracy revealed: The Simpsons has been lying to you. “Springfield is not in the United States at all. It’s not even in our half of the world. Springfield is in the Southern Hemisphere!”

Editor in Chief of The Guardian: indicative ballot. Who will replace Rusbridger?

Father John Misty: “Bored in the USA” – David Letterman. An album that gets better with each listen. A friend couldn’t understand why I was smiling all the way through this—“why is the audience laughing?”—so I hope the source is obvious. Misty (well, J. Tillman) seems to be one of the few that realises you can combine wit with chops and showmanship. I suppose as a Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson fan I was always going to like this.