David Byrne on How and When to Handle Criticism

David Byrne posted in his blog today that one of his friends warned him not to read a review of his current tour in the New York Times. It was less than flattering and was written by someone who had not liked his work in the past. He did not look at it and passed on this wise advice about timing when you take on criticism.

While taking criticism on board can be constructive, it can also be detrimental to the creative process if it’s considered while that process is still under way. It undermines one’s enthusiasm and will — which is OK, beneficial even, but only after a tour (for example) is over. This review, by all reports, wasn’t helpful criticism anyway — it seemed to be one of those reviews that comes from some psychological issues the writer has — and therefore even a belated reading is not going to help us refine what we do.

David Byrne

The Creative Power of Faking It

Today’s post is guest-written by Jay Hathaway an always entertaining writer and blogger! Why do it for real when you can fake it?


Sometimes a fake is even better than the real thing. Before Ben Folds released his latest record, Way to Normal, he spent a day in the studio producing “fake” versions of his new songs to leak to the public. Although these recordings were initially meant as a joke, a fun way to kill a day in the studio, they contain moments of brilliance that match anything on the “real” album. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Folds said that the idea of making a fake album allowed him to create in a way he wasn’t totally used to: “The word ‘fake’ came up when we started doing it and it takes all the responsibility out. You can just be free to write and let it go.”

That goes a long way toward explaining how the leaked album, made in a single day, even came close to the official release. Trying to fake being yourself might actually generate something that feels completely authentic, not burdened by reputation and assumptions. The distinction between real and fake is important during the process of creation, but its power diminishes once the art is out in the wild. If you played Lovesick Diagnostician (a fake song) and Dr. Yang (the real track) for someone who knew nothing about Ben Folds, and asked that person whether they were real songs, the question wouldn’t make any sense.

Frank Portman hit on this idea in one of my favorite novels, King Dork. Tom Henderson, the titular dork, learns the following lesson during his life as a high school outcast: “Start a band. Or go around saying you’re in a band, which is, let’s face it, pretty much the same thing. The quality of your life can only improve.” To really be in a band, you have to make music. When you just say you’re in a band, you don’t necessarily have to make anything.

If you’ve ever made up fantasy band names and album titles, a game Tom Henderson and Sam Hellerman play throughout King Dork, you know that the identity often matters more than the music. The iconography you produce under the guise of your new band can take on a life independent of any music that has been or will ever be made anywhere in the world. There’s something tantalizing about titles of songs and records no one will ever hear and posters for shows nobody will ever play.

Some fake bands, like the ones Tom and Sam create in King Dork, eventually cross over into real band territory. They rehearse, they make recordings, and they play shows. Others have no intention of getting there at all. In fact, they make a point of never engaging in any musical activity whatsoever. My friend Evan Hamilton (who, it’s worth mentioning, is in a real band) told me about The Tree Brains, a “theoretical rock” band that started online (at The Sneeze). Here’s how The Tree Brains describe themselves:

The Tree Brains are an imaginary band that anyone can be a part of. No musical ability is required to join. The band will never play anywhere because it only exists in theory. There is no initiation into the band. If you want to be in it, you’re in it. You may lay claim to any instrument or job in the band you would like.

If you decide to join the Tree Brains, you’ll be able to go around saying you’re a part of the band, and there won’t be anything made up about it.

A concept like the Tree Brains seems fun, but not particularly practical. I think it can actually be put to great artistic use, though. Creating a band, or an alternate personality, takes the pressure off in the same way Ben Folds did when he labeled his work “fake.” If you feel too close to your work, like you’re risking too much, then try acting like it’s someone else’s. Invent a character (or a band) that comes from the part of you that doesn’t self-censor, and then write, draw, build or sing from there, too. The part of Ben Folds that writes whimsical, honest, borderline inappropriate lyrics made a damned good album.

Eliminate other people’s imagination

Nick Mamatas, controversial writer and editor, was asked by someone whether or not they had the potential to be a great writer. He posted his answer and it’s a fascinating discussion of good versus great, the value of practice and turning on the pilot light of imagination.

The whole answer is worth reading and debating, but I wanted to point out one particular bit because I think it has a universal truth that applies to all creative work.

The goal of the practice is to negate the negation — to eliminate the use of other people’s imaginations instead of your own. You must negate and negate and negate until there is nothing left but you, your right hand, and that woodchipper. Do you think it is clever and responsible to find “balance” in your life by keeping a day job and writing every other weekend? You should cultivate a loathing for yourself, for such advice, and for the pathetic circumstances of existence — bills and kids and private property, that makes that advice seem so sound. Do you think “real artists” run around from lover to lover, living off the fat of the land and friendly patrons one might meet in midnight cafes? Embrace the reality that you are a hopeless poseur playacting the neuroses of a couple prominent writers and zillion awful pigs from the last century. All that has come before is worthless, except for those few people you realize were using their own imaginations and not the mass imagination, and their work.

As you can see, Mamatas is not out to make any friends. Even if you disagree with him, what he says is worth thinking about. How much of what you do is just you? How much is just everything that came before you projected on to you? What do you need to do to grind away the inessential, unoriginal parts of your creativity?

By the way, I just read Nick’s book Under My Roof and thought it was great. Also, his submission guidelines for Clarkesworld are extremely funny.

Link to answer

Start with projects you can complete

Warren Ellis, novelist and comic writer, wrote a great post about the best way to complete a project that people will want to consume. He frames it around Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible web project

Part of his point is that you have to earn people’s trust before they will pay attention to something big. Instead of starting with a huge epic or a full length feature, start with something small and manageable and build.

The three strongest points he makes are, “Be Short, Be Bold and Get It Done.” Later in the article he adds, “Be Great.”

He adds:

I can’t tell you how many new hopeful comics writers I meet who have never finished anything in their lives because their intended first project is a hundred-episode epic that creates a whole new universe or three. And I tell them all the same thing: you’re screwed. No-one will want it. Not until you’ve written something short, capable of being produced on a budget, and finished. Your epic may be worldchanging, but no-one will ever know because no publisher will gamble that kind of money on an unknown. And that’s before you get to the vagaries of the attention economy.

I think this is fantastic advice, especially with web content. I know people who won’t even start a video on youtube if the length is over five minutes. Produce enough brief, memorable stuff and people will flock to your longer, more complex stuff. Build an audience, create desire with tiny savory snacks before you serve up a meal.

Also, limitations can be a powerful way to inspire yourself. Challenge yourself to Be Brief, Be Bold and Get It Done!

Read the whole article here

Playing the media like an instrument

Joey Skaggs is an artist, but his medium isn’t painting or poetry, he uses the media to create huge projects. You see, he creates pranks. He changes the world and people’s perceptions of reality by putting fake information into the machine that has been set up to show us reality. His point, that what the media reports needs to be questioned, is obvious, but his pranks are clever.

He has a list of all of his pranks on his site, but some of his more memorable ones include a cathouse for dogs (a doggy prostitution ring) and vitamin pills made from cockroaches. Both of these received huge media attention and his fake cathouse for dogs almost got him arrested after it was reported on ABC news.

While I was looking through his site, I came across a great essay he wrote on how to play the media. If you ever have to deal with the media, the advice in this piece will help you put yourself in control. Or, you can just use it to pull your own prank.

Concoct a well thought-out story. TV news producers, writers and reporters are greatly under the influence of Hollywood. Hollywood is equally influenced by what appears in the news. Our culture is reflected in both of these forms of media. So it’s important to combine the necessary theatrical elements to attract them. In essence, give them what they want!

Dangling the line:
You may select from any of the following hooks, lures, and tasty baits. Mix and match for a formula that is sure to work.

Dependable hooks:

New technologies
Little guy against the system
Anything with an animal or a child

The whole article.

In any case, all of the articles on his site are an interesting glimpse into how the media works and how you can take advantage of it. It’s not easy. He points out that faking a business actually requires more work than actually having a business.

For me, it made me realize how many different mediums there are for us to apply our creativity to. Even if you can’t change the world to be the way you want it, maybe you can get the media to report that it’s that way.

The vultures of mediocrity

Seth Godin, marketing smartypants and action figure, has a great post about how the world drives you to mediocrity. It’s very short, so I am reprinting most of it below. I do recommend you read his blog if you are at all interested in marketing yourself or your work.

There’s a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it’s right—then, quite suddenly, people will line up and support you.

In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths… whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over.

If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it’s unlikely it would be worth the journey. Persist.

I wanted to add to it. Those forces are not just outside you acting on you. There is a drive inside ourselves to do things in a way that is “good enough.” Before you even start to worry about the world stopping you from being mediocre, you have to decide that you want to be better.

The difference between good enough and great isn’t always huge. It might just be a few extra seconds. It might be one more ingredient or one more draft that separates you from being extraordinary. If you want to be great, you have to convince yourself before you can convince anyone else.

Expect more than the mediocre. Stop settling for a C+ life, you deserve at least a solid B, don’t you? Just kidding! Shoot for the A+!

Trying for great and achieving mediocre half the time is much more satisfying than trying for average and achieving it every single time.

After you set your standards high, then prepare yourself for the forces in Seth’s post. The vultures of mediocrity are circling over every creative person, ready to rip into any good idea that dares to call attention to itself.

How to feel miserable as an artist

Keri Smith has a great blog. She also has a page that collects her “how to” and inspirational pieces which are indispensable. The one that has stuck with me the most is her list of ways to feel miserable as an artist.


My favorite is  “base your success on one project.” It reminds of me of a guy I knew in a creative writing program that had one “professional level” short story and wasn’t going to write another until the first one sold. I had three courses with him and he just kept brining the same story. He rewrote it over and over again.

Another important thing to remember is doing only work that will please your family. This is an impossible task. Your work will be used as a mirror by your family and whatever you produce they’ll compare to their own image and decide what you’re trying to say about them. Good luck with that!

There is always another joke

Jane Espenson is a really successful TV writer with a blog about being a successful TV writer. Her tips range from life-changing lessons to common sense stuff that seems so obvious after she points it out you wonder why you never thought of it yourself. There is one repeated phrase she uses that I think applies to more than just TV writing. Here she explains it:

There is always another joke. This is probably the biggest lesson of comedy writing. No matter how much you love a joke, even if a particular joke was why you decided to write a certain episode, there is always another one.

I think this applies to far more than jokes. There is always another idea. There is always another way things can work. Don’t hold onto something out of fear that nothing will be able to replace it. There is always another way.

She also has a few articles on the process of writing in the “Works” section.

Jane Espenson’s blog

Creator Blog: John August

John August is the screenwriter behind movies like Corpse Bride, Go and Big Fish. (And Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, but, hey, they can’t all be great.) He keeps a regular blog that covers what he’s working on and the more technical angles of writing movies. He had one post that I wanted to pass on. How Do You Become Successful. While he is talking specifically about the film industry, his answers apply to any endeavor where art and industry meet. Here are two of his five lessons:

1. You’re not entitled to anything. A film degree is basically worthless. You won’t get recruited, and no one will ever ask to see it. An MBA from USC gets you a $100,000 starting salary. A film degree from USC might get you an unpaid internship. All you get out of it is the education, so make sure you’re learning every second of the day.

5. Make your own luck. Sometimes, magic happens and Spielberg likes your wacky short film. But that can’t happen if you didn’t make it in the first place, and the seven others no one saw. You never know which script, which lunch, which random idea is going to be important. So treat them all as important.

Great stuff.

John August’s Blog

Creator Blog: David Byrne

David Byrne is best known for being the lead singer of the Talking Heads, but he does interesting things in lots of formats. He’s made movies, painted, done stage shows. The money from his music has allowed him to live a fantastic life where he can create what he wants.

He has kept a regularly updated blog for years where he comments on current events, talks about what he’s working on and just observing life around him. I like his writing and perspective.

My favorite entry of his was from last year. He was writing about outsider art. I enjoy outsider art, but I often have had to defend my enjoyment of it. Some people think that you can only enjoy outsider art in an ironic way, not for what it is. Someone once told me that my buying a Daniel Johnston album was just me making fun of him.

His entry help me clarify how I felt on the issue. Here’s a bit of it:

…what is sanity and does being functional make you a better artist? Full disclosure: I don’t think so — but then, I think a stain on the sidewalk or a blob of construction insulation has the equal value of some Picassos.

Functional to me is the key word. Not sanity. Many “sophisticated” and successful gallery artists are quite mad, lost in their own worlds and emotional wrecks — but they do know how to navigate the shoals and reefs of the art world. Well, a bit. They can compose and posture themselves sufficiently to get by, to talk the talk and walk the walk… though they also might be drooling drug addicts and conversational incompetents. Some of these observations come from personal experience — art dinners and openings.

I’m not sure I know anyone, anyone at all, who is completely sane. Sure, I know plenty of people who play the sanity game with skill and daring. Their masks of having it together are well secured and they don’t spit out profanities or stare goggle-eyed into space. But they are mad, too, though maybe, I’ll admit, to a lesser degree than the poor souls who can’t help but constantly express themselves visually.

David Byrne’s blog

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