“Not all those who wander are lost.”
The Lord of the Rings
The writer Will Durant once said that “Nothing is new except arrangement”. Similarly, Charles H. Duell said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” That can be true in many, many cases. But what about that rare possibility where it could be wrong? — What if we can create something that the world has truly never seen before?
It’s definitely possible.
As musician Brian Eno said, “My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that has not happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.”
Another brilliant musician, Tom Morello is famous for being not just a musician, or a mere guitarist, but a sonic innovator. With his wide range of guitar effects pedals and creative techniques, he’s been able to create unique robotic or imitative sounds — Something no other musician had done before.
As a learning guitarist, he said, “The electric guitar was a relatively new instrument on the planet, but I remember every article, my favorite guitar players would say when I was growing up, ‘It’s all been done on the guitar’.
“I’m like, ‘Well, has it? How would we know that? Has it been scientifically proven without a shadow of a doubt that everything’s been done?’ So I just began looking at the guitar; I was like, ‘It’s just a piece of wood, it’s six wires, a few electronics that can produce sounds in non-traditional ways.’
“Just sitting in my Hollywood apartment, there’s a lot of ambient and drastic noise happening outside of the window — It felt to me like the horizon was wide open and I was creating a vocabulary of sounds that I could help craft in the songs.”
You can actually go far by just messing around, or casually practicing.
When Morello was in college, a lot of the cool kids had electric guitars with just one knob, which controlled the volume. Contrarily, he had an “uncool” Explorer guitar that had too many knobs and an unattractive toggle switch. Rather than complain, he decided to find a use for them — And that’s how he came about to inventing his trademark R2-D2 sounds — By switching between guitar pickups, with one of them turned down to volume zero.
For me, when I play music with a friend of mine, we’d hit a wall after a couple of hours of jamming. When that happens, we’d switch instruments and just mess around — I’d play his bass, and he’d play my guitar — And oftentimes, we’d come up with a pretty good tune.
It’s worth stepping out of your usual ways of doing things. So mess around, and just have fun. See what kind of new ideas that would lead to.
Let it Sit
We often hear about artists who leave ideas to incubate and hatch when the time is just ripe for them. It’s not uncommon to learn that a piece of art, like a song or poem, might have taken years for it to be in its finalized form that we see now. To quote Paul Valéry, “Poets don’t finish poems, they abandon them.”
I do that for a lot of my articles too — The best ones, at least. Some of them were born from ideas I’d thought of months, or even more than a year before, as it slowly grew. If I’d finalized it before its time, I would absolutely feel like I’m not doing it justice.
The possible logic behind this is that for us to stay in a good state of flow with our craft, we need to take on challenges that are just above our current level — Ones that aren’t too difficult, or too easy. So when a task is too hard, we leave it on hold for us to return to in the future.
In our instant society, we often forget that so many things in our lives take process. We can’t rush anything good, and there aren’t any hacks or magic beans to speed up the process. Jay Z once said that a song “probably isn’t going to work” for him if it took more than 20 minutes to write — Either Jay Z’s missing out on better things, or I’m just not smart enough.
It’s a pretty good strategy too — To let an idea sit while we gain the needed experience, vocabulary, and wisdom to give life to it — And to just come back when we’re ready.
Stephen King has a habit of keeping manuscripts in his drawer — He’d often put an idea on hold if he felt it was “too big” for him in that moment. One of his stories, Under the Dome, was the result of him coming back to it decades after he first worked on the manuscript.
My Chemical Romance came up with the idea for what would arguably turn out to be their best album, The Black Parade when the band was formed in 2001. The album wasn’t finalized until five years later, when they were finally happy with everything about it. Guitarist Ray Toro remarked on the song Welcome to the Black Parade, “What’s really cool when you write music is sometimes all you have to do is change a chord progression and that completely changes the face of the song. So we basically just changed one note in the chorus and it let Gerard (Way) go somewhere else that he wouldn’t have gone, and that’s where the hook of the song came from. I just have very fond memories of that song because it started out in a completely different form. It’s been a part of this band for five years, and it took that long to really finish the song and define what it truly was about.”
Bob Dylan often said that it took him “ten years to live and two years to write” Tangled Up in Blue. Similarly, Don Henley from the Eagles remarked that the song The Heart of the Matter “took me 42 years to write this song, and 5 minutes to sing it.”
Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere
Inspiration can literally come from anywhere, often without us even realizing where it came from. So hey, don’t be selective about where you can “get inspiration from”. Try to open yourself up to as many things, as many different kinds of interests as you can. There’s a huge chance that you’ll be able to make some darn good connections between them, in times when you least expect it.
It works like a symphony in a way — When different forms of knowledge and information band together to create something harmoniously new.
As T.S. Eliot wrote in one of his essays, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
That’s how the great Jimi Hendrix approached his songwriting, too. When he was asked about where his songs came from, he responded, “From the people, from the traffic, from everything out there. The whole world influences me. Everybody and everything is music. You don’t plan songwriting. You don’t get into a certain grove to write a song. You can get inspiration for a song any time, because music is just what you feel. The ideas come very easily. It’s just getting the song together to where it’s acceptable.”
So go on and explore uncharted waters — Whatever that might mean to you — Listen to new music, drive in a new area, head to the art gallery — See where that leads.
And keep a pocket notebook! You never know when inspiration might strike. So be prepared when it does!