Creativity on Demand

The Hotel Where It All Happened...

If someone locked you in a room and said, “Write a story” or “Compose a sestina” could you do that? Us writers are creative people, but when we are creative, it’s usually inspired by random thoughts, misheard conversations, or weeks of reflection. It never just happens. Right?

I love Motown, and I keep thinking of one particular story from the label’s heyday. Berry Gordy, desperate for a hit from the Supremes (which had recently switched members and became Diana Ross and the…), assembled some of his best songwriters for a late-night meeting at the Pontchartrain Hotel in downtown Detroit. The composers were then tasked with the writing of a brand new song for Ross that would break the top twenty. That night. Practically locked in the room with pizzas and pop, the song they came up with was “Love Child.” It was well outside the Supremes’ range, neither a snappy love song nor a mid-tempo ballad, the song dealt with themes like unwanted pregnancy, poverty, pressure to have sex, stuff not usually addressed by Hitsville. It might not have been Motown, but it felt topical, much more 1968 than the Eisenhower era when the group began. The writers, now called the Clan, had come up with something truly original and on-point, all in one night.  The song went on to break the top twenty and hit first, briefly restarting the Supremes’ rise before Ross went solo the next year.

Much of the music of the sixties was created by songwriters behind desks. The Brill Building in New York City is famous for launching the careers of talented writers like Carole King or Neil Diamond, people who would write tunes for the Monkees or the Shirelles pretty much on demand.

So, back to my first question: If someone paid you a stipend, put you in a room, and told you to write, could you do it? Would you freeze up and get writers’ block? I am curious what I would do. I am pretty good with deadlines, but the immense pressure of say, writing something good, would probably be too much. I’m pretty sure I would go crazy. I prefer my writing style, which is waiting to overhear something interesting, and then picking up a notebook and covertly jotting down notes. It may take longer, but it’s the kind of pressure I can stand, my own.

A kinda strange version of the song.

10 responses to “Creativity on Demand

  1. Marvin Gaye had a similar experience. “What’s Going On” was against the grain of the usual poppy and/or sexual songs he would sing when he was with his original label. Risky move – but it becomes number one almost instantly.

    As for being locked in a room to write… there’s actually a contest that’s coming up in April that’s tests you:

    I made it to the final round last year. It was a different set of rules though.

  2. I do believe in creativity on demand (as a possibility, not as a rule). For artists, art is a job, and any job requires a certain amount of time and effort, even when the “worker” is not inspired or not in the mood. Will it always be the best work? Absolutely not. But will the artist get better at it? For sure.

  3. I love that song and always thought it didn’t fit with her other songs. Thanks for letting me know the story behind the song.

    Put me in a room and I would write for you. My mind is always percolating with ideas. I can’t promise it wouldn’t need a lot of work in the future, but I’d love to do it.

    However, give me parameters (write a story a woman stranded on a desert island with a monkey and the only way off if by flying away on a magic broom, but she has a fear of heights), and I’d be a little less prolific.

    I guess that’s why I never write based on a magazine’s specific needs. I’ve got nothin’.

  4. I think I could do that… being locked in a room and given the “order” to write at least would “make me write” … it’s like homework – something you have to do. I do have many ideas, and they come by random, but I never really sit down and actually “write” the darn script. It’s terrible! Sometimes I wish I had somebody standing behind my back saying “Do it now!” 😉

  5. @ Kevin-Thanks for the link to the contest, will check it out.

    @ Kristan–Yes, art is a job, but, it’s also fun, right? Being disciplined about writing and enjoying it are two things I haven’t quite reconciled yet.

    @ Theresa–Agreed, parameters are difficult. It’s hard to make something exciting trapped by an editor’s lack of creativity.

    @ Sarah–You’re right about the editor. The internet age has made this role an anachronism yet nothing could be more useful to writers everywhere. I need one of those too!

  6. I could totally do it! (Do you like my confidence?) Working on a novel every week day, not to mention my blog posting schedule, has definitely trained me to write or else. Writing is way more fun when it is inspired, but the end result is usually the same as the forced stuff.

  7. Did Schmidt make you read ‘On Litearture’ by J. Hillis Miller?

    Also, for those interested in the topic of the creative process, Norman Seeff is screening his latest documentary at the Skirball Cultural Center in LA on April 1.

  8. @ Rebecca – Yes, getting into a schedule is a good prelude for contract work. That’s great.

    @ ems Haven’t read it, we should have a conversation about this sometime.

  9. Jonathon that video is awesome and appropriately raises the question: can you dance on command?

  10. Haha, agreed about the video! Loving the dancing. I don’t know if I could dance on command–depends on how much I like the singer, maybe.

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