By Joshua Merritt
I write words for a living, not music, but in many ways the gigs are the same. We both obsess over rhythm and cadence. We care immensely about how something will sound. And we strive to connect with people, to move them in even the smallest ways: the tap of a foot, the nod of a head. More than money, this is what most of us work for as artists.
All of that to say, I feel you. But I simply can’t teach you a damned thing about percussion that you don’t already know. So I have no intention of even trying.
I met Liquidrum founder Todd Meehan somewhere between his first drum kit and his first degree. We started a short-lived band together in high school and rehearsed after school in my parent’s garage. We played shows for fifteen people on a good night, twenty on a great one — and always at seedy nightclubs in even seedier neighborhoods.
We spent Friday and Saturday nights opening for local bands we’ve long forgotten. The sound guy was always a jerk and the PA was always busted. The money was always less than we were promised, or nothing at all.
We were mediocre at best. And I never felt more alive in my life.
I can tell you a few things that have helped me as a writer, a bedroom musician, and a maker of stuff for fun and profit. In no particular order of importance:
I’m writing a book for adults about a talking dik-dik named Richard right now. I’ll spend two years on it, and it’s the least commercially viable thing I could ever work on. A Dik-dik is a tiny African antelope not much larger than a small dog, and Richard is born into an existential crisis: he learns at just a few days old that he will likely live four years tops in the wild, so he’s trying to find his way into captivity. Or at least to Cleveland.
This isn’t highbrow art. But it’s the idea I have right now, and it won’t leave. That usually means it’s time to throw caution to the wind and create without apology. “Do the work as an offering,” Oprah says, “and then whatever happens, happens.”
An example: Silly Putty’s inventors were trying to create a material to replace rubber during a World War II shortage. They failed at that. But they accidentally invented a classic children’s toy that even made it into lunar orbit with the Apollo 8 astronauts.
Resist the urge to judge your art prematurely, or to abandon it altogether. Just welcome what comes, and let it be that simple.
Make some things just for yourself
I’ve started making myself little gifts lately, things I create that I originally intend to send into the world but decide instead just to keep for myself. Last year I started screen printing little sock monkeys into my t-shirt pockets. A few months later, I made myself a ridiculous shirt:
It’s an outlandish spoof on the popular John & Paul & Ringo & George tees that instead celebrates synth-pop legend Vince Clarke’s role in founding Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and Erasure. It meets blank stares wherever I wear it, and I absolutely adore it.
A girl I met at a local art cooperative drew a picture of a different building in her journal every night for a year, just because she decided it would be fun practice. I ran into her one evening at a co-op event, and she was already several beers in, sketching her building for the day so she wouldn’t have to do it when she got home and felt too tired.
For as much art as you will turn out into the world for enjoyment and criticism, hold some back for yourself. Write a song just for you, and hum it in the shower.
Make some things just for friends and family
Same message as above, but with a twist. “I made this for you” is the nicest thing anyone can ever say to someone else. Be forever generous with your talents.
The best picture ever taken of me was actually a silly whiteboard sketch, doodled by a friend in my office:
The whiteboard is long gone, but I took a snapshot of it, and digitized it. It’s exactly how I picture myself, and my friend gave me something more valuable than he could ever know.
Master the art of subtraction
Listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” for the trillionth time, I had a revelation: I love this song just as much for what is absent as I do for what it contains. It took me 15 years to learn that lesson in my own work, but now I take it with me everywhere.
I ask myself regularly, “Is there anything I can remove from this (story, poem, song, design)?” French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best in the 1600’s: “I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.”
Make thoughtful edits. Challenge your instincts. Look for opportunities to redact. Resist the urge to be playing your instrument all the time, and pause to listen and make space when space may be the answer.
Unless you’re better at addition
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I watched this video of Dan Deacon in the recording studio a few years ago and I’m still in awe. His songs have more layers than an onion. Go big sometimes, or try taking something that is already big even bigger. (See: The crazy player piano they rigged in this video. Just, wow.)
At night, when I’ve stopped typing for the day, I occasionally retreat to my backyard studio and write the beginnings and middles of songs, but almost never the ends. I can’t seem to finish songs, only to start them. For years, it destroyed me: What good is a mountain of unfinished ideas?
But that’s such a broken way to look at creativity. Turns out, there are strong finishers in the world, the type of people that are better at building on existing ideas than they are at starting them. Starter, meet finisher. Finisher, starter.
Ask for help. Ask to help. Ask to collaborate. Ask for criticism. Ask someone to coffee. Ask to be loved more deeply. Ask for a hug when you need one, for touch and attention and assurance. Ask for healthy conflict. Ask someone to celebrate with you, or sit with you and cry. Never carry the entire burden — of creativity or of life — entirely on yourself. It’s simply not sustainable.
Remember, all the connections and help you need in this world are all around you. Sometimes they present themselves to you exactly when you need them. Other times, you simply need the courage to find them, and ask.
------------------Joshua Merritt has written three pages of his first novel, Richard Dik-Dik. He once played a triangle in the first grade.