The Paradoxical Illusion of Artistic Control

It’s strange. I wasn’t sure that I believed it when I first truly contemplated it in an English class in college. But now I’m sure it’s true. Try as they might, firm as their grasp may seem, no author, no creator, can completely control the content of their work.

There was a time when I actually completed (with some regularity) the artistic projects that I had begun. Enough time has passed since those days that I am able to look back and reflect upon the art that flowed through me and was so urgent at the time. What I see astonishes me.

I was a lyricist. It was a position that I took very seriously. It would be easy for my current self to dismiss what my 18 or 19 year old incarnation had thought to be so important as the blind folly of ambitious youth. But it wouldn’t be true.

I wrote and completed the lyrics for nine Lock Your Door songs during the duration of the band’s existence (for the record: eight were recorded and released, one remains an unrecorded demo, and a few tracks that were begun were never completed). The details of how I wrote the lyrics or how I created their interplay with melody are irrelevant at the moment, but suffice to say that I expelled more effort on those nine completed songs that just about anything else in my life over the course of two-plus years. More than two years. Less than ten songs. To say that I was detail oriented would be an understatement.

I had done an unusual thing as I wrote those songs. I had vowed to myself that I would not write love songs or heartbreak songs, songs about girls or songs about parties, songs about anything that wasn’t as serious as I believed our music to be – songs that wouldn’t seem childish when I looked back on them from the distant future. I didn’t want to ‘taint’ what I found to be spiritually and intellectually important music with the oftentimes juvenile themes that seem to run through a vast majority of lyrics. I pledged that I would write outside of myself. I would write about narratives, problems, and emotions that I thought were interesting, powerful, or even important.1 I would write stories that had not been told or tell existing stories in a novel light. On the few occasions when I made exception to these self-imposed rules, I attempted to mask the bits of myself that shone through and distort the image of those demons that I needed to exorcise so that no one, save myself, would know that they were there.

At the time, I was sure that I had succeeded in my goals. Every song had narrative and symbolism and both aspects worked on multiple levels with only marginal and tangential indicators that I – the creator – was anything more than a vessel through which these stories were told.

A photo by Ryan Evon from one of Lock Your Door's many shows at the Wesley Foundation.
A photo by Ryan Evon from one of Lock Your Door’s many shows at the Wesley Foundation.

Then the band dissolved. Distance and age drove us ever farther and farther apart until it didn’t make sense to continue. We had recorded the eight songs that we had fully completed. A few remained in the constructive stages. They were the unavoidable casualties. Things did not end as we had hoped but, in the end, we had succeeded. We had made something that we loved, something that, even in retrospect, we thought was important and valuable. I am infinitely grateful for having had the chance to work so closely with such fine people. More has been said elsewhere on that subject and perhaps more will one day be said here at The River, The Tiger, The Fire (Hell, the name of this blog comes from an incomplete Lock Your Door song, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable).

Now to pull full circle on my point. Several years have passed since I penned those lyrics. As I absorb them now, as I listen to music that is both intimately personal and necessarily foreign – for I am and am not the person who wrote them – I find that I failed in my quest. And yet that I succeeded. Those lyrics remain about narratives and stories and there are multiple layers that go in many different directions. I succeeded. But there is a startling clarity in their reflection. I failed. They are, entirely, who I was when I composed them and not one ounce or flaw has been exempted. Though the narrative and disguises remain, I am able to see through them now (you, the reader, could likely do the same) and – in a few of the songs in particular – the lyrics are so unyieldingly personal that it’s downright shocking. Despite all the efforts that I put forth to hide myself through the lens of those songs, all that they are is my story. I am them and they are me. This involvement is both subtle and glaring. It’s all so paradoxical. And yet this is a conundrum that many creators experience. We strive for complete control over our creations, we strive to make them exactly as we wish them to be. We hope to be God. We fail. But the paradox continues because where we fail, we succeed: we cannot have complete and absolute control over that which we create because with each stroke of the pen or strum of the string we give our works that Godliest of gifts – a life of their own.

—–

Footnote

1. For the approximately three people who listen to Lock Your Door and might be interested, here is a complete list of all the material that inspired or was referenced in Lock Your Door’s lyrics and titles: Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ David Fincher’s Se7en, an obscure court case from Montana (or one of the Dakotas) that I could not re-find, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a Winston Churchill WWII speech, Transfomers: The Movie (yes, the 1984 animated feature), Ursula LeGuin’s ‘The Bones of the Earth,’ Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!,’ the inscription on John Keats’ gravestone, Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, Capote’s In Cold Blood, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the ever present influence of LeGuin, Tolkien, and Borges that can be felt in all that I write. (I suppose it’s possible that I missed something, but I’m pretty sure I got it all.)

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