For All Struggling Artists: Remember the Long Ones

Dear Reader,

About a week ago, I was listening to an interview with a musician who was talking about how the greatest works in their catalog were written quickly and effortlessly. As a (slow) writer, I really hate hearing things like this. Yes, I’m really happy for anyone who is able to make a masterpiece in fifteen minutes or less. That must be a great feeling. However, I’m also a big believer that you get what you put in. I think that the idea of the “flash of genius” shown many times in the media can make for a great scene in a movie, but it’s ultimately not very realistic. For most, creating art is just like any other job. It requires discipline, focus, commitment, and occasional (or very frequent) moments of insanity. To back up my claim, I went to Google and researched artists who had to spend a little more than fifteen minutes in order to complete some of their most recognized and respected creations.

1.) Bruce Springsteen—”Born to Run.” While “Born to Run” is both the name of Springsteen’s third album and the fifth song on that album, this article refers to the song. According to interviews with The Boss himself, Springsteen could hear in his head what he wanted the song to sound like, but struggled to express his ideas to fellow band mates. It apparently took over six months just to record that one song. His work paid off, though, as “Born to Run” became a bestseller, as well as one of his signature songs.   

2.) Leonard Cohen—”Hallelujah.” I really appreciate and respect Mr. Cohen. Besides being a musical genius, he’s also an artist that knows the value of hard work. If his name is not familiar to you, the song “Hallelujah” might be. Besides Cohen’s original 1984 version, there are over 200 different recorded cover versions you can pick from. From a pop culture standpoint, it is without a doubt his most well-known song. According to interviews with Cohen, the song took over five years to write. At one point, the song had 80 verses, and his frustration had him “banging [his] head on the floor and saying ‘I can’t finish this song.'” He kept chipping away at the song, though, and eventually completed what many critics believe is his masterpiece.

3.) Junot DíazThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After publishing his 1996 short-story collection Drown, Díaz earned critical acclaim and fans, the latter of which turned his book into a best-seller. He then decided to try writing a novel. It took him ten years to write it. At one point, Díaz confessed that he put the novel on hold in order to earn a graduate degree. He then went back to the novel and, five years after that, finished the book. Besides being a best-seller, it won the Pulitzer Prize. For an American novel, there is no higher honor.

4.) James Cameron—Avatar. After his 1997 film Titanic was released, it earned 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing film at the time. Before Titanic, he had already directed TerminatorTerminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, and True Lies (the last three of which were all Oscar-nominated films). Obviously, he had achieved some critical and commercial success from his films. While his next feature-film would not come out until 2009 (Avatar), it was not a lack of ideas that caused the delay. In fact, Cameron had a very clear idea of what he wanted the film to look like. As early as 1994, Cameron wrote a treatment for the film. However, he eventually went on to do Titanic instead, feeling that CGI was not as up-to-date as he needed it to be. According to interviews, it wasn’t until he saw the character of Gollum in 2002’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers that he was convinced his film could be made. The film went into pre-production in 2005 and completed post-production in 2009. What’s admirable about this story is that, given his reputation in the industry, it would have been relatively easy for Cameron to get the film made at an earlier date, even if it meant sacrificing his creative vision. However, Cameron waited until he knew for certain that he was going to get the film that he wanted. This eventually paid off for him. Besides becoming a box-office sensation, Avatar was nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year. While Titanic is no longer the highest-grossing film of all time, that is probably okay with Cameron, because there is only one other film that has managed to surpass it—Avatar.

5.) Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever DoIn the music industry, Ms. Apple is well-known for writing really long album titles and taking a really long time to complete an album. (She’s also amazingly talented, but that’s beside the point.) Her latest album, commonly abbreviated as The Idler Wheel, was released seven years after her previous album, Extraordinary Machine. According to interviews, Ms. Apple is a little confused about exactly how long it took to write and record. She does know that the album was finished in 2010, but she had to wait an additional two years before she could release it due to complications with her record label. For many recording artists, a seven-year gap between albums would be a death sentence for their careers. However, due to the strength of her previous efforts, The Idler Wheel debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 and was declared one of the best albums of the year by Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Stereogum, among other publications. On a personal note, it’s also my favorite album of hers (so far).

If you are struggling with your latest project and are not sure if you should continue on, remember that not all great works are created in a moment of passion. Some take months or even years to complete. Of course, there is no guarantee that your work will end up being a commercial and/or critical smash, but that shouldn’t discourage you. After all, you never know until you try.




12 Responses to For All Struggling Artists: Remember the Long Ones

  1. This article should be put up in lights. It’s the most sensible thing I’ve read in ages. Although I don’t begrudge those who do it, I can’t comprehend the purpose of this Nano-nono-hey-nonny-no (whatever it’s called) month when everyone writes a novel of so many words a day. This month it seems to be “write a poem a day” month. Someone should be court-marshalled for encouraging word pollution.

    • Thank you. I appreciate your comment. I think challenges like NaNoWriMo can be a good way to kickstart your project, but I just don’t think I could participate in something like that. I’d probably crack under the pressure.

  2. This is a timely and encouraging post, considering I’ve been working on (read procrastinating) a blog post for months.
    I remember listening to Fiona Apple’s debut album over and over again. She’s really talented. As is Leonard Cohen. I think “Hallelujah” is one of the best songs ever written.

    • Thank you for saying that. It’s always my hope that these little posts can help someone in some way. And I agree about Fiona and Leonard. Have you heard Fiona’s “When the Pawn….”?

        • “The Idler Wheel” became my favorite album of hers after many listens, though “When The Pawn…” is a really close second. I think, if you enjoyed Tidal (her debut), “When the Pawn” is an easier album to get into than “The Idler Wheel.” At least initially.

  3. I really loved your article and you also managed to mention some of my favourite people (Leonard Cohen, Springsteen and Fiona Apple). Have a look at this video, you might already be familiar with Ken Robinson, in this he talks about creativity within the context of education, but I think it raises some really important points that also relate to your article (like the myth of the “struck of genius”).

  4. This is certainly an encouraging article. I have a real problem with patience when it comes to my writing; if I try to write something significantly over 10,000 words then I get bored with how it’s going and eventually give up. I’ve been trying to discipline myself into not doing that anymore, but stuff that takes a long time still frustrates me.

  5. Oh I so wish Cameron had only spent five minutes on Avatar, then maybe it would have vanished without trace under the weight of its own preachy, moralistic pretensions.

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