The pain and fear of making ideas

There is a remarkable scene in the recent Beatles documentary, “Get Back”, where Paul McCartney, under deadline pressure to write songs, is sitting with his guitar strumming through various chords. He plays and plays, concentrating on something in the distance, willing an idea out of his head. Gradually, the beginnings of something familiar form, and then, because we’ve all heard this song a hundred times, it becomes clear that the riffs are congealing into “Get Back”

As viewers fifty-three years later, we know the payoff. It’s a mega hit that’s almost inescapable, and so recognizable that it becomes the title of the documentary. But in 1969, George Harrison and Ringo Starr casually watch McCartney strain through the process as they yawn and look around the room. The riffs could easily be a dud or album filler. Who could know at the time that the song was a big deal?

Still, McCartney pushes through – and then it becomes clear that the music he’s making is…something interesting.

This is a moment of sheer will: pressing, pushing until an idea comes out. Because it’s Paul McCartney at the height of his talent, it will likely have a good idea. And that’s what makes the moment caught on film so fascinating and inspiring.

For the rest of us though, we still need to create ideas. We still need to come up with new concepts to solve problems, create new ways of doing things – and we don’t have the benefit of being Paul McCartney. Most ideas we have are not going to be great ones. 

Maybe OK. Possibly bad.

I don’t know about you, but creating new ideas is a constant struggle for me. And I don’t mean just ideas for writing, but also how to solve problems, maybe making a list of people I want to contact. Although it probably isn’t true, it feels like my days are filled with making lists of things. All for the purpose of finding solutions; finding new ideas. The actual execution of an idea seems like a relief, like sledding down a hill I’ve been climbing for days. The payoff for all my hard work.

But. Creating. Ideas. Is. So. Draining.

There are times when I’ve been forcing ideas out of my head all week. I’ll get to Friday night and say to my wife, Teresa: You have to make all the decisions. I’ll do whatever you want. Just decide for me. She’ll then say, “OK, we’re going to a restaurant, do you want to drive?” And I’ll stare at her, deadeyed. I literally can’t decide, there’s nothing left inside.

There are other times when I’m afraid of even entering the creative process. What if I make something mediocre? It’s not the bad ideas I’m afraid of, I can smell a stinker from a mile and toss it away with no love lost. It’s the mediocre ones that cause problems. Not bad enough to toss. “Maybe with some care and feeding it’ll get better,” I think. Or maybe “This isn’t so bad. I’m just being hard on myself,” so I don’t throw it away. And then after working on it for a while, it still isn’t great, but I’ve been too close to it to tell that it isn’t getting better.

That last part is nonsense though. I know when an idea isn’t good enough to meet my standards, that’s just the fear poking through. Fear that I shouldn’t engage in the creative process because I’ll just end up making something useless and lame.

You have to start. And then push. Keep going. Think. Iterate.

The big criticism of “Get Back” is that it’s almost eight hours of tedious, undirected talking. Endless fooling about where the Beatles riff on everyone else’s songs. Only now and then do you get a payoff like when you hear the beginnings of “Get Back” and “A Long And Winding Road”.

But I think that’s the real lesson of the movie: That if you’re going to create a good idea, you have to expect that you’re going to wander about, lost for a while.

And slowly, you find your way to an idea that’s worth keeping. Maybe even a really good one.