I just wanted to document this quote, which I heard for the first time today, but it’s a thought that has crossed my mind in many guises over my entire career.
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” — Chuck Close
I refer to (music) composition as “design and engineering” which reflects my experience that ideas are the easy part, but the hard part is then designing and building the product. I say “product” here quite intentionally. As an engineer, I spent many years building software products. In software, the idea may be subtle and tricky, but it’s still the easy part compared to the design and then the hard work of building — which is where the real time is spent.
And to a great extent, if you’ve studied and trained and understand how to use the tools available to you, and if you just show up and start working on your product, you usually (already) have what you need to accomplish your goal.
So for years I did this in software. And then in 2015 I started doing it in music.
Yeah, yeah, sometimes I get inspired and I write and write furiously late into the night. The endorphins tell me it was a great work. And frequently I then put aside my product, take a rest, then pick it up later on and yeegads(!) it sounds terrible to me. (Inspiration can be delusional.) And then there’s just lots more work to do. But that work is required to achieve the payoff. And if I do the work, the piece becomes so much better!
In my days in software I’d have people pitch me software ideas many times a year. My reaction was frequently, “Well, that’s a nice idea, but have you written the program?” I guess I was a bit brash, but many times I’d continue “Your idea is nice, but it probably represents less than 10% of a product, which requires hundreds if not thousands of hours of engineering.”
Another thing I’m fond of saying is “When you have a novel idea, you can bet that 8,000 people got up this morning and had that same idea; then 80 of them did something about it, like pulling together a team; then 8 of them will bring your product to market within the same two weeks.” That’s kind of hard for an inspired ideas person to hear, but it represents the harsh truth of the world of commercial software. Ideas come from lots of experience, and from creative responses, but they’re seldom completely unique.
Chuck Close is quoted in Inside the Painter’s Studio, a book by Joe Fig. A review of this book goes on to say “Inside an art gallery, it is easy to forget that the paintings there are the end products of a process involving not only creative inspiration, but also plenty of physical and logistical details.”
Those of us who do this kind of design and engineering, understand and appreciate the fundamental truth of this statement.