Embrace the Mess

I’ve been reading a great book by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Although he’s describing things he’s learned about fostering creativity in a large complex organization (an animation studio and technology development company), many of his lessons apply to songwriting: especially to the kinds of smaller-scale collaborative interactions that happen in co-writing, and even in solo songwriting.

Here’s one powerful insight from the book. After completing one film (Toy Story 2) on a crushing deadline, Pixar’s leadership had resolved to work everyone at a more sustainable, human-friendly pace on subsequent projects. But they found they were taking lots of time, in part because story lines kept changing all through production. On Finding Nemo they tried to change that. It didn’t work. The movie was successful, in fact very successful—the highest-grossing animated film ever. But (page 134):

“The only thing it didn’t do was transform our production process… By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”

There are big implications here. When we think we’re getting it all figured out, we’re often in danger of losing sight of the big picture. That’s true for any creative work, I think, happening at any scale. It certainly applies to songwriting—with a vengeance.

The late Henry Gaffney, a beloved Berklee teacher of songwriting, liked to make the point that songwriting, like all creative work, is “inherently messy.” He was deeply suspicious of the tendency to over-systematize things. I believe craft and technique can certainly help us become stronger writers. But I try to stay vigilant for that crossing-over point, where we start having too much faith that our craft will yield a linear, “rational” process for something like songwriting. Or where we fall more in love with sticking to the process than on winding up with a great song. You can do this as a “study”—to learn, explore, gain skills—if you let go of caring about the ultimate result, for that experiment at least. Butas soon as you care again, then no prescription or good intention can be allowed to trump listening for whether you’ve got a great song.

Perhaps those intuitive songwriters who hold to the belief that the writing process can’t (or shouldn’t) be shaped or crafted at all may not fall prey as easily to this danger. (They may hit other snags!) But those who have commited to working on their craft need to maintain vigilance. As do those who dare to try to teach this stuff!

Here’s a nice post about Catmull’s book, from a very interesting and well-written blog I follow from Keith Sawyer, a researcher and author on creativity:


And here’s my morning’s creative restatement of this principle:

 Embrace the Mess

©2014 Mark Simos/Devachan Music (BMI).

(Written 4/19/14 am, Anchor East, in response to Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull)


There’s no way to second-guess

The Craft’s essential messiness

It’s more or less prescriptionless

We may as well embrace the mess


And so although we have aspired

To not chase our own tails till tired

That’s just the way we are not wired

You work the clay before it’s fired


You get your hands right in the slop

You pinch the pot and you don’t stop

You build the shape you see it drop

Keep climbing for that mountaintop


Never settle for second rate

Better by far a little late

The only true goal: to create

Something you know to be great


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s