[This post, written by Gretchen Peters, is part of a series of letters from established artists to young musicians. Gretchen is a Nashville-based recording artist and Grammy-nominated songwriter. She’s released a number of great solo albums, and also composed hits for Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Anne Murray, Neil Diamond, and Bryan Adams.]
When I was a kid I wouldn’t have called myself an artist. I just had a profound itch to make things – songs, poems, paintings – anything. People call it self-expression but it’s really self-discovery. It’s a way of figuring out how you feel and what you think. A way of understanding yourself in the context of the greater world. You don’t become an artist. You are one or you’re not. If you are, you’re either creating or you’re not creating. Both have their drawbacks; but while creating is frustrating, difficult, scary, occasionally exhilarating and often humiliating, not creating is to doubt one’s own reason for being. The choice is clear, then; to stay alive the artist needs to create like the shark needs to swim.
These are some things I’ve learned while swimming:
– Don’t live entirely in your head.
Just because you work with ideas doesn’t mean your body doesn’t play a part in what you do. Take lots of walks. There are studies that prove that walking boosts creativity. I think this is because walking takes you out of your head and puts you in the world. Your brain is working all the time, whether you realize it or not. Many’s the time I’ve spontaneously arrived at the answer to a songwriting problem while on a long walk. Your subconscious mind is your collaborator. Walking (or napping, or dancing, or whatever your physical outlet is) gives your subconscious mind the time and space to do some of the work.
– Don’t neglect the other side of your brain.
Neglecting to learn basic skills of life, like handling your money, fixing your drippy faucet and changing your oil, doesn’t make you any more artistic. It just makes you hapless and incapable, and a target. The whole left brain/right brain thing is an oversimplification anyway. You are a real person living in the real world – and you might actually be good at some ‘left brain’ things. I used to have a day job as an accountant. I was pretty good at it. Go figure.
– Listen to your gut.
It’s all you have. If you don’t learn to hear it and trust it, you will be as a boat tossed upon the sea. There is no compass; there is no map; there is no master plan except to keep your nose down and turn your amorphous thoughts and feelings into coherent and honest work. You will surprise and disturb and disappoint yourself. Your finished work will never be as good as it was in your imagination, when it was an unrealized spark. You will be advised, ignored, revered and reviled – and all you have to keep you on course is your instinct. You’ll need it to know what’s worth fighting for. You’ll need it to know when to say no. You’ll need it to know when you’re full of shit. You’ll need it when you feel like giving up. And you will feel like giving up.
– Skill counts.
These days amateurism is more celebrated and rewarded than ever, thanks to YouTube and the internet (and I actually mean that; there’s always room for a great dog video). We are more impressed by ‘natural’ talent than by skill that takes a lifetime to acquire. Our very notions of ‘talent’ and ‘inspiration’ imply that some people are simply touched by magic, and do no actual work. But the romantic notion of The Artist as a melancholy dreamer who subsists solely on the fairy dust of inspiration is fiction… although much sexier than the reality. Most art is the result of a short burst of inspiration followed by a long slog of grunt work. Or perhaps the drudgery precedes the flash of brilliance. Either way, skill, craft and hard work are the bones. They’re the foundation and the framework that determine how strong and enduring the work is. No matter how inspired your stream-of-consciousness is, until you understand that, you’re an amateur.
“Why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with the payload.” – Leonard Cohen
– Know your elders.
You did not spring fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.You are a stew of influences, and those who influenced you were influenced by the ones who went before them. Be curious enough to learn who they were, and what they did. Your work will be better for it, and you’ll discover that there were incredibly smart people doing what you do hundreds of years before you, which will be disconcerting at first. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize there is to learn. That’s when you really start learning.
– It will not get easier.
In fact, it will get harder. Every time you start, you are starting from nothing. Each song, each performance starts with a blank page or an empty stage. You are always, eternally starting over. That’s the blessing and the curse. And as your self-imposed standards rise ever higher, you’ll be less easily pleased with yourself. This is not necessarily reassuring information, but it may help to remember that Leonard Cohen (see above) fills several notebooks for each song he writes (yes, “whole notebooks. I’m very happy to be able to speak this way to fellow craftsmen. Some people may find it encouraging to see how slow and dismal and painstaking is the process.”).
– You must be present to win.
When I’m performing on the road, there are inevitably those nights when I can’t get in the zone. I’m left with a sense of frustration and disappointment. Even guilt. I have bad nights when conditions are perfect, and I have great nights when conditions are far from it, so it’s not simply a matter of conditions, obviously. But I know that if I don’t show up at all, that reduces my chances of getting there to nil. So I like to increase my odds by doing what I do frequently and with the optimism that every performance has the possibility of being transformative. It’s the same for writing, or recording. You have to do it, and you have to fail at it. A lot. The more you fail, the more you learn, the better your odds. Never underestimate the power of dogged, repeated effort.
– Don’t mistake cynicism or irony for art.
We live in an age of irony – everyone is superior to or laughing at someone. We mistake it for sophistication, but it’s cowardice. It’s an unwillingness to stake one’s heart and mind on something for fear of appearing naive. Irony is lazy. Its point is that conviction is meaningless; its point is that there is no point. We think of it as edgy, but nothing is edgy if everyone’s doing it. The really revolutionary act is to create art that attempts to be redemptive, to stand for something, to be unrepentantly earnest. We need that art in this world. Go make it.
For more advice from established musicians, check out “Letter to a young songwriter, from Mary Gauthier.”