Keith James, Leonard Cohen, and taking your time

Keith James

I went to The Greystones on Sunday night, to watch Keith James. He’s a very talented man who tours the world playing the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Keith is a tribute act in the truest meaning of the word – rather than pretending that he is Leonard Cohen – whilst we all sit there knowing he isn’t really – he is instead just a man with an incredible amount of love and respect for Leonard’s work, paying tribute to the man by performing the best of it.

Whilst I sat with my Dad watching Keith perform not only Leonard’s songs, but also some of his poetry set to original music, I couldn’t help but be struck by admiration for Leonard’s fierce dedication to the craft – something I’ve read about plenty of times but never quite appreciated on this level.

Leonard finished slowly, but he worked hard

When Leonard started working on a song, he didn’t treat the moment as most of us do – as the start of something we’d be done with fairly soon. The song wasn’t some product, some commodity, and so the process of creating it was not something that had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. To Leonard, the beginning of the songwriting process was the beginning of a long, deep, tempestuous relationship between the man and the song.

He took the position that the song was out there somewhere, and that, as a songwriter, it was his duty to write it. So he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote.

As he wrote, he discovered all kinds of things that he knew were not really the song, but were just false paths and red herrings. Unperturbed, he chipped and chipped away at the marble, like Michelangelo sculpting David, until he arrived at what he knew was the song.

Sometimes this process took years, and even once a song had been written and performed for decades, he could still be found tweaking it in new live versions, proving that his job – the discoverer of the song – was never truly over.

Your relationship with your work

Contrast this with how most people create most of the things they create. We are in a rush to get something made as quickly as possible, for momentum’s sake. If it gets difficult, or it appears to be taking longer than we anticipated, we tend to give up. We were never in it for the long haul.

Instead of treating the creative process as something you are dreaming up from inside yourself and throwing into the world, see it as the developing and nurturing of a relationship between you and the piece of work. As you write, you are not trying to construct something out of thin air – you are simply attempting to get to know the work.

Just as it takes more than a day to truly know another person – you could live with someone your whole life and discover something new about them every single day – it takes more than a day to get to know the piece of work.

You see, your work exists already. It’s out there in the ether somewhere. And by putting in the hours, days, weeks, and months, to try to give it form, you are slowly developing a clearer and clearer picture of what it is and what it isn’t.

This process might mean you take longer – much longer – to finish your work. But… so what? The process will be infinitely more joyful and engaging, and your work will be of a vastly higher quality than those rush-jobs you’ve been doing up until now.

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1 Comment

  1. Made me think about my writing. Too anxious to complete and move on to something else? Not a perfectionist.

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