Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Living in the Limelight

I stood in my kitchen as Rush’s Moving Pictures played on my computer, a glass of wine next to it on the counter, a catfish stew gathering flavor in the pan on the stove. While I cooked my dinner and listened to Geddy Lee’s eagle-like shriek reverberate through the speakers, a childhood montage played across the movie screen of my mind. Itinerant summers spent at the swimming pool, covert missions to my brother’s bedroom and his boombox so I could air guitar along to his rock cassettes, secret rendezvous with neighborhood girls before I knew what I was supposed to be doing with them.

This album holds a special place in my heart because it was woven into the tapestry of my life at a rich and fulfilling time. So when I saw it on sale at one of the digital music stores, I scooped it up. Until that night it had been years since I’d listened to it. The way this recording stirs up these memories in me — to this day — is a unique aesthetic experience. Not another human being can relate to this music in quite the same way that I do. It’s embedded in my experiencial DNA. That’s pretty cool — and not bad for a power trio rock band from Canada.

Moving Pictures was released in 1981 and reached #3 on the Billboard charts that year, eventually being certified quadruple platinum. Power trio? Canadian? Top of the charts? Yep, you read that right. And the guys in Rush did it all without even once resorting to synchronized dance routines at their concerts. So what was the appeal? As an artist, I think that is a good question worth pondering.

There are many reasons why Rush should not have achieved the pop success they have. Take your pick: they have written many epic songs that don’t fit into the 3-minute pop format; their songs often have complex and shifting time signatures; they write about heavy topics such as global politics and reference literary works; they are not photogenic; they are Canadian. All of these are high hurdles for a pop band to overcome to become platinum-selling artists.

I think it’s safe to say that the record company tastemakers were not looking for a band like Rush, nor was the pop market. Yet the band still went out and did its thing, making the music it wanted to make, taking it on tour, and discovering that indeed there was an audience for it. The record company saw an opportunity, took a chance on this band, and it has paid off handsomely. It seems an unlikely success story, but one that holds an important lesson for any artist.

As writers, we see what’s popular at the bookstore, what titles are perched atop the New York Times bestseller list, what kinds of books get made into movies. It’s easy to determine what kind of writing appears to have a market. If your goal is popular success, it’s a natural reaction to try to align your writing with what’s perceived as successful, you and thousands of other writers coming to the same conclusion.

It’s more difficult to stick to your guns and cultivate your unique and individual approach to writing and storytelling, maybe spending years toiling in obscurity while you figure out and embrace what kind of artist you truly are. It’s more difficult to be the first Twilight or Harry Potter, or the first (and only) Rush. But this path is certainly a more fulfilling experience for the vast majority of us writers who will likely not be the next Stephen King or JK Rowling. It’s more fulfilling because we are working the craft, we are busy being artists, we are human beings fully engaged in life at the deepest level, rather than fireflies blindly circling around an unobtainable illusion. And if we do find success — all the better that we reached that goal while staying true to our artistic vision along the way.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well offers a literary lounge, where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Feel free to share your own experiences by commenting on a post.