Picking a fight with Donald Miller (or, the creator DOES build on emotion)

the fire is poured, the hot tongs are held ready

Don Miller has been posting some insightful thoughts on creating lately. This one in particular struck me.

A Creator Doesn't Build On Emotion

I think it struck me because there is something very appealing about it, and something in it that I completely disagree with. A new friend of mine posted something similar on Twitter the other day:

@justwinston: I'm glad I stopped believing in inspiration and now lean on process. It means I can keep going more easily.

In a way, this is brilliant. And when I say "in a way", I mean, "these two guys are much more successful at this self-directed creative stuff, and they are almost certainly, totally right".

But nevertheless, I'm going to argue with it for a minute. I'm going to argue because I just can't seem to get this to work for me. Yes, it's true that showing up over and over and over is important. As Don says in another post, as creators, we're basically just tilling the ground, waiting for something to come. Showing up over and over to do the work is probably the only way to insure that something does come. If you're not there waiting for it - it will probably just pass you by.

And yet, for me, hard work has never done it. I can work and work and work on a song, and usually by the end, I'm convinced the song wasn't worth bothering with in the first place. But there are other songs - songs I didn't plan, songs that didn't come consciously, but exuded themselves - and to me, they are alive with magic. There is something in between the words, a deeper resonance that just keeps going, that is far better than what I create from consciously directed work.

It's like I'm not smart enough to write a good song. And so I have to tune into something that is.

For me, that thing is emotion. Usually deep, painful emotion. When I'm happy - songs don't usually come. But then something hits me unexpectedly, and I write things that I never knew were there. I've wandered out into the street, caught up in my anger, and sung unanticipated words to the stars.

Not that these songs are all unhappy. Some of my happiest songs come from deep tension. Sometimes just as the tension is being released, sometimes when I'm making peace with the chaos, but other times, just from the shear desire to be happier.

Sometimes the emotion comes from revisiting the song itself, and that stirring brings it back up, and creates new words, and new melodies. It's like emotion is the fire, and when the work becomes supple in the heat, amazing new forms can emerge, showing structures and shapes and hidden things that never would have been seen in the room-temperature world we normally live in.

Don't let me mislead you. If you're not pounding on the anvil, I doubt you're going to create anything worthwhile. But for me, it's the fire that does the work, and I just need to have the courage to grip the tongs.


I wonder if songwriting is more reliant on emotion than prose writing?