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.

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