If you do creative work of any kind you've approached the moment of truth many times.
Months of work across multiple departments compress into a single shiny point, a captured spark inside a gleaming stone.
It's always the same, and it's always different. By the time something is finally ready to leave the workbench, creators knows every single pixel, every sound, every explanation and justification and reason and inspiration behind every molecular detail in what's about to be revealed. On small projects the coalesced energy presses gently, urging enthusiasm. But on big projects, the potential energy grows exponentially. The coming kinetic release threatens to break on the shore of the event like a tidal wave, like the San Andreas fault growling to tip Los Angeles into the hungry sea.
Oh, Sweet Experience! There's no better teacher for managing the rolling deck of the boat than having brought many, many of them in to shore before. But that doesn't mitigate the buzz. And make no mistake: there's always a buzz.
Everything can go wrong. It's vastly challenging to predict every single eventuality you're likely to encounter on the day of a big show. No matter how much you like to think you leave nothing to chance, variables have a way of creeping in. Generally big performances do not happen in locations of your own choosing, or your own control. That's the biggest source of unexpected drama. You're also likely showing your work, whatever format it may be, to people who are not specialists in your field. You're not showing to other painters, nor dancers, nor even caring school guidance counselors who will clap enthusiastically for every single kid who gets up at the spring talent show to belt out a song. In the real world, your audiences demand something that wows 'em (clip from Chicago?), that moves 'em, that makes 'em think their money was worth spending with you. But caution: if you're thinking you might get away with a Music Man moment, think again. You're not going to engender warmth simply because your clients will see themselves immediately reflected in their so-very-wise commissions. You're going to need much more than that, and flim-flam gets you nowhere. You have to deliver the goods, and you know it.
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." I've always regarded this as a cautionary tale from a performance master. Coasting on talent and experience is never enough. Preparation and practice makes all the difference in the world, and there's no getting around it. And if…IF…you should be so lucky as to have generated a good idea to work with along the way, well, that never hurts either.
Assuming you're serious about your craft, there always comes a day when what you're working on needs to get seen. Whether you've been commissioned by a big corporate client or you're working on your magnum opus of a novel, there always comes a time. Practice and preparation will get you far; they're essential, and deadly serious. Yet real life is not a practice run. Like Han Solo said, "Going against the living? That's something else." Expect to be scrutinized, expect to be cross examined, expect to be dissected in a million different ways. You may have been working on this thing, whatever it is, for months, but to your audience, it only lives for the few minutes they get to experience it, and they don't really care about how hard it was to create.
Everything can go wrong, perhaps. But everything can go right, too. Walk carefully but confidently. Answer questions, but don't defend positions. Own your creations, but be generous is sharing them. Because if you've been honest about the work all along, and it really is something of value, then you're big performance--and that's what it always is: a performance--will be the vehicle that helps convey your vision to eyes that do not know what to expect. It's through those eyes that you have a chance to reach someone else meaningfully.
That's why this moment matters, because, as you know, the eyes are the gateway to the soul.
A rose by any other name is no less important than the value of the flower itself.
Sometimes things that look easily categorized actually belong under their own heading. For example, does anybody really regard the millions of jangly ditties beeping out of endless cell phones as music? The fact that ringtones can be notated using the same graphical language as songs, symphonies, and spirituals does not make them categorical kin. They may both be "musical", but the description of something is not the same as a thing's actual identity. How we categorize things helps us keep them organized in terms of their value, but categories themselves do not confer value.
Language is like this. While just about everyone can dash off a grocery list--or at least dictate it into their smartphone app-- it's probably fair to say that mustard, pretzels, and laundry detergent hardly constitute award-winning prose. (I'm guessing there's a small portion of our readership who recall the famous scene in Norton Juster's classic "The Phantom Tollbooth". I'm talking about the time when court ministers to King Azaz the Unabridged spout the names of favorite foods in the town square, followed immediately by bountiful platters of the same.) Yet this very same language, prosaic nouns and verbs arranged with precision, becomes the tangible flesh and bone of literature.
Grocery lists have their place; they help you remember what to buy. I don't need extensive description, delicate metaphor, or surprising characterization to remind me to pull a quart of milk off the shelf. But when I'm making a movie, mixing a soundtrack, taking photographs, or leading a rehearsal for a live event, it's not enough just to stick together a string of words, sounds, or pictures. No matter the medium, the challenge is always the same. Of all the many choices possible, even if those choices are unattainable dreams, the job always comes down to synchronizing vital choices into larger context. That arrangement of options, that selection process demarcates the intangible boundary between poetry an an ordinary jumble of words on the page.
This process takes moxie and a surprising amount of energy. In fact, sometimes this process takes nerves of steel. Most creative acts have finite production clocks. No matter how self-indulgent an artist or creator of any other type, one thing's for certain: life runs out. On a more down-to-Earth, day-to-day level, schedules and budgets also run out. When creating something, the pressure to complete the job often acts like it's own gravitational field. Complaining about gravity doesn't make it any easier to leap tall buildings just as wishing for clarity and artistic inspiration doesn't make delivery schedules any less agreeable.
In a more literal sense, poetry as a construction of language often has a tough time coexisting amid the ordinary thrum of grocery lists and e-mails to your child's guidance counselor. With its intended precision, poetry functions differently, communicates more precisely, strikes the ear more powerfully than the many conversations and advertisements and newscasts and tennis lesson schedules we more regularly consume. No matter how much we say we're interested, sometimes the saturated clarity of a poem is more intense than we're prepared to experience. Imagine if everyone you met-- lover, friend, acquaintance, and stranger-- came up and gave you a hug. Sometimes Mcluhan's medium for conveying a message matters a lot.
The challenge remains the same, no matter the medium. Music, movies, poetry, cooking: adequacy will always be enough to get by, but excellence demands something more. Excellence demands critical decisions delivered without infinite amounts of time.
Perhaps we should practice more. (link to writers almanac here?) Perhaps part of the process is making sure that we give ourselves license regularly to reflect on intentional aesthetic thoughts. We should multitask less and listen to music more, without doing three other things at the same time.
Now here's a bizarre, but essential inversion. Remember my charge at the top that cell phone ring tones were not music, that just because they could be reduced to musical notation did not mean they were equivalent? It was a trap, dear reader: a trap to make a point. While I don't regard cell phone ringtones as music, per se, I do understand that quality is an attribute that can appear anywhere, in anything. Quality is the process of reaching for apotheosis, never actually arriving, of course, but reaching, reaching, reaching nonetheless. Whether we prefer one type of craft over another is not precisely the debate here. I find most ringtones to be little more than sonic indicators telling me that one person wants to speak with another. But even for the decidedly disposable craft of ringtones, I suppose I must also grudgingly acknowledge that there's such a thing as better or worse examples of the craft. Ultimately that's what may best define the essence of a poetic experience. If good words in intelligible order communicate, perfect words in sublime order also communicate. That they say more than the value of the literal words themselves is the reason they matter. Acts of creation lift the spirit, and the best acts make spirits soar. But even disposable acts, intentionally selected, can get you to answer the phone.
PS -- To regular readers, please take 20 seconds (or thereabouts) and retweet, cross post, or otherwise pass the link for this blog onto your readers and friends! Call it karma, call it kismet. I'll just call it cool! Cool?