creative process: defining ‘real work’

“Why don’t you do some real work?”

Digging around through some old cd’s the other day, I ran across a cd-r labeled “cool beats for Tim”. Hadn’t seen that one for a long time. A friend of mine had burned it for me back when I primarily did arts-based work with elementary and middle school students. It’s a disk of canned hip-hop and rap music without any lyrics, the idea being that you pick a track and play it and each student writes her/his own lyrics to it.

Hip hop isn’t really my language. My brother Chris knows this. In my ongoing efforts to get a laugh out of him, I often try to surprise him with the unexpected. So I grabbed one of the canned tracks and put one of his poems to it. I even played it straight–no goofing around, but really trying to emulate a song written in hip hop style. When it was done, I was surprised to find that I really liked it.

What if I rewrote the entire “Trip to Pine” album from a hip hop perspective? I played with the idea, then abandoned it. I couldn’t get too excited about using canned music for anything other than a parody.

So I decided to try my hand at writing a “Trip to Pine” summary song (lyrics from every song on the album included in this one song), through a hip hop lens. I ended up with this:

Trip hop to Pine (click to play)

Since I started it at 10 this morning and finished it at 3 this afternoon, I’m not sure whether I like it or not. I’m too close to it to judge yet.

The recording process included a little lesson on hitting “save” often. I’d been working for about two hours and had a really nice sonic bed laid down… about six tracks worth of work. I’d tracked the drum machine, piano and three harmony vocals. Suddenly (you guessed it) I got a message on my screen that Garage Band had unexpectedly quit.

Cold sweat.

I reopened it to find that… yes, I’d lost everything. I hadn’t even saved once. I had, however, locked my tracks to optimize performance. But that’s NOT the same as saving.

I was at a crossroads. As the reality of my mistake sank in, I realized I had some choices:

1) I could get up and curse, go make more coffee, go outside, kick the firewood pile and work myself up into a frenzy.

2) I could shut everything down and quit for the day and accept defeat.

3) I could take a quick restroom break and start from scratch, focusing on the fact that I now knew just exactly what these first 6 tracks looked/sounded like, so I could get right down to business.

I chose number 3.

Yashima, Shikoku. 2007

I felt the added pressure of knowing that my beloved would be home around 3pm. One of my favorite Sunday activities is recording while I have the entire house to myself. That way I can belt out the vocals without having to worry about what anyone thinks. As a professional musician, she knows her stuff. Still, she’s always very supportive and believes in the importance of ‘play’ in the creative process. That’s cool for me.

At this point in the process, I had some momentum worked up and was racing the clock. (Self-imposed, I know.) So I decided to skip eating lunch and just keep writing and recording to see what would be revealed. (Very rarely do I know what a piece of music is going to sound like until after it’s completely finished.) This was another mistake. Blood sugar levels crashing, hands shaking as I pour yet another cup of coffee… not the best approach. But part of the joy I call ‘doing music.’

Can’t see the outcome yet… occasionally I am hit with the thought, “why are you spending your time doing this?” All I can say is that I love to do it. It might only be for myself. It’s possible that nobody else on the planet will find value in it. Somehow, I feel okay with that. When I listen to my own music as I’m driving down the road, there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from having created something out of thin air.

So even as I’m looking out the window at the sun’s bright reflection off the snow-covered trees and mountains, and even as I feel a little guilty for not being outside doing outside things, I’m really, really happy because I have the time, space and resources to create some music.

I might be crazy. But this is what I call fun.

More importantly, this is what I call ‘real work’.

What is “real work”? Is it a definition of activity? Is it what we do to pay the bills? What we do to put food on the table?

Is it time-based? Is it simply what happens between weekends?

Or is real work the stuff we do that connects us to those inner parts of ourself that shine and sparkle more brightly the more we express them? I choose to believe this is what real work is about… For me, it’s not limited to time nor activity. I think it’s possible to connect with that inner wisdom wherever I am, and no matter what I happen to be doing.

I don’t claim to be able to remember that 24/7, though. I’m not there yet.

I think the best life in the world is a life spent bringing these two things together– earning a living while expressing ourselves artistically, be it through teaching, playing guitar, serving coffee, digging fenceposts… the possibilities are endless.

I have to remind myself often that just because plenty of people in the world equate ‘success’ with ‘money’ and ‘real work’ with ‘money’ and ‘happiness’ with ‘money’… (you get the idea), doesn’t mean they’re right. This is why I can find joy in my recording– because when I’m working on a song, I’m not thinking of the potential for mind-blowing fame and fortune… I’m just thinking of how cool the song might sound. How good it will feel to share it.

How cleansing it feels to address some topic and pour out some emotion through the music… and maybe, if I’m really lucky, to connect with a listener or two.

I hope you have a great week and that you find at least one way (if not a thousand!) to express your own inner light.

–Tim

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