Purpose and Creativity

Monday, August 08, 2011

Musician John Mayer, addressing students at his alma mater, Boston's Berklee College of Music, urges the aspiring musicians to "manage the temptation to publish [themselves]," and uses his own experience with Twitter to make his point:

John Mayer's main reason for discouraging promotion came from his own struggle to curb using social media, which should have been an outlet for promotion but eventually became an outlet for artistic expression. Mayer shared that he found himself asking himself questions like "Is this a good blog? Is this a good tweet? Which used to be is this a good song title? Is this a good bridge?"

And possibly more alarming, Mayer realized that pouring creativity into smaller, less important, promotional outlets like twitter not only distracted him from focusing on more critical endeavors like his career, it also narrowed his mental capacity for music and writing intelligent songs. [minor format edits]
As Mayer himself puts it:
The tweets are getting shorter, but the songs are still 4 minutes long. You're coming up with 140-character zingers, and the song is still 4 minutes long... I realized about a year ago that I couldn't have a complete thought anymore. And I was a tweetaholic. I had four million twitter followers, and I was always writing on it. And I stopped using twitter as an outlet and I started using twitter as the instrument to riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller. And I couldn't write a song. [minor format edits, my emphasis]
I see some parallels with other creative efforts, including writing, although the parallels with writing are not exact for two reasons (with opposite implications): First, whereas writing is a mode of communication and music isn't, social media can supplement one's other writing, so social media can help a writer, such as by helping him find subject matter or hash out ideas. Second, since writing is a method of communication, it can suffer from additional limitations: If the goal is to convey new ideas to a wide audience, the fragmented, self-selecting nature of social media audiences (i.e., collections of followers), can lead to merely preaching to a choir, which will (1) do nothing to help an author figure out how to reach people who might be receptive to what he says, but do not necessarily agree with him, and (2) limit the potential audience to like-minded people.

The headline in Berklee Blogs, on Mayer's urging to manage self-promotion got closer to articulating Mayer's point better than the body of the article did later on, when it claimed that Mayer, "discourag[ed] [self-]promotion." It is clear from what Mayer says in the article that he doesn't discourage self-promotion across the board: If you don't advertise, you won't sell, no matter how good you are, so self-promotion is necessary. However, self-promotion requires a different-enough thought process that it can become a serious distraction if there is not a clear distinction in the mind of the artist (or other creative type) between self-promotional activity and the creative activity it is supposed to support.

Some time ago, I became aware of problems with my writing and had concluded that the habit of blogging probably had something to do with them, and began taking some steps in the direction of spending less time blogging. At the same time, blogging has also been helpful to me in many ways, so I find Mayer's comments helpful in pinpointing the problem: Blogging mixes the truly creative aspect of writing with the tasks and temptations of self-promotion.

-- CAV