Maybe you’ve heard how Chris Cornell wrote one of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Black Hole Sun.” He was driving home at 4 am, and the song just started playing in his head.
The title came from something he misheard on the radio. He thought a news anchor had said “black hole sun,” and something sparked.
Cornell kept the song going in his head until he reached his front door. Then he whistled the melody into a tape recorder — just in case he forgot it. He scribbled down the basic ideas to the lyrics.
The next day, he tweaked the key. Then he wrote the rest of the lyrics following a stream of consciousness. And so a hit was born. It was the child of steady work, talent, and serendipity.
That song helped put Soundgarden on the map, even though they’d been recording great music for years.
Listen to Badmotorfinger, also a great album. A lot of musicians will tell you that “Jesus Christ Pose” is a better song than “Black Hole Sun.” It’s just not as fit for public consumption. If you know what I mean.
Here’s the thing about musicians like Chris Cornell, or any real artist. There’s an inevitability to their work. Obviously, they spend countless hours perfecting their art. The put in all the intentional practice.
But it never looks forced.
Because it isn’t. Not everything happens as easily as “Black Hole Sun.” But sometimes, it does. Stories like this one remind me that we usually overestimate the difficulty of creating great work.
Most of us think this kind of inspiration only happens to creative geniuses, but that’s a lie. Inspiration strikes us every day. It doesn’t always happen at the level of “Black Hole Sun,” but you can’t predict that anyway. So stop worrying about it. Just go with the flow.
Chris Cornell didn’t spend days locked in a studio banging his head, thinking, “I have to come up with a hit song.”
He worked steadily at something he enjoyed, for years and years. He aspired to a hit song, but he was also happy playing dive bars in Seattle.
Chris Cornell actually started out as a drummer, for a little while. Blows your mind, right? He once told interviewers he wanted to be a drummer for “the best band in the world.” I don’t even have to explain to Soundgarden fans how funny that is.
To everyone else, I’m not going to explain the joke.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. The creative geniuses of the world understand one thing above all else. You can always put too much effort into something, and ruin it.
Chris Cornell didn’t overwrite “Black Hole Sun.” The idea came to him. He wrote it down. Developed it. And recorded it. Just like he did with hundreds of other songs. That song’s success may have been a fluke, a happy accident, but Chris Cornell wasn’t.
Have you heard the stuff he recorded in his basement? The stuff he probably figured nobody else would care that much about. It’s amazing. If you saw the first Superman movie with Henry Cavell, you heard a song recorded by Cornell in his basement twenty years ago.
He didn’t write that song for “Man of Steel.” He wrote it for a much smaller indie movie called “Singles.”
Nobody even asked him to. He just did.
Now, a hard left turn into my own flailings as a creator.
Consider my first short story, which I wrote at the age of 19. Hardly the next O. Henry Prize winner. But pretty good. It’s about a young woman who comes home to find her front door ajar. Nothing else is out of place, and the police don’t take her very seriously.
One of them says, “Maybe you just didn’t close your door all the way.”
After the police leave, the girl spends the rest of the night in a paranoid fever, freaking out over every little sound, wondering if she should call the police again. Finally, she goes to sleep — only to wake up in the middle of the night and find the front door ajar again.
It takes every ounce of her courage for the girl to pad through her dark apartment to close the door and slide the chain on. But she does. You never find out why the door was open, either time.
A handful of my English major friends read my first draft. They loved it, and just offered a few minor suggestions.
All I needed to do was make some moderate revisions and then send it off. But what did I do? Something stupid. Instead of making minor tweaks, I spent the next week revising my story from top to bottom. It was good, I thought. But I could make it even better.
In the end, I ruined my story. My friends shrugged at the revision. A few of them said they liked the original better.
I’d killed the mood by adding too much pretty prose. Plus, I didn’t keep any versions of the first draft. Fifty journals rejected my piece, and now its ghost lives only in my head as a cautionary tale.
Too much effort can ruin anything.
Around that time, I read one of the best books on writing in existence, The Midnight Disease, by Alice Flaherty. This book makes a hundred great points about writing. But one of them really stands out.
Flaherty overviews the careers of the most successful writers, poets, composers, and painters. She finds that they all had one thing in common. They were extremely prolific.
Sure, they’re probably remembered for a handful of masterpieces. Or maybe just one. But they themselves never knew which of their works would last for centuries.
They just created a helluva lot of stuff. Maybe they sucked in the beginning, or they were naturally talented. Either way, they all wound up in the same place. Either they felt compelled to create, or they just enjoyed it.
They didn’t put too much work into any single piece. They put in just enough. And then they moved on.
To be clear, “just enough,” could still mean 4–5 hours.
They just knew when it was done. And they didn’t keep adding stuff. Sometimes, they wanted to and fate intervened. Consider the poem “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He wrote it after waking up from an opium dream, inspired by something he was reading.
He couldn’t finish that poem, because he was interrupted by a business meeting. Still, it remains a classic, published at the behest of his friend, Lord Byron. Sometimes, getting interrupted is good for you. Even if you don’t know it. Does the poem feel incomplete to you?
If he had more time, maybe Coleridge would’ve fucked it up.
Let’s skip forward a few centuries.
How did Jackson Pollock stumble upon drip painting? He accidentally dripped some paint on the floor. Imagine how many painters in the world on that same day did the exact same thing.
But he’s the one who noticed, and did something with it. That’s not especially hard. That’s not effort. That’s something else, almost the opposite of effort. He was living in the moment of creativity.
Sure, Pollock had a lot of problems. Putting too much effort into his work wasn’t one of them.
This idea — stop trying so hard — goes well beyond art and creative writing. Just today, I wrote a proposal for a chapter in an academic book at someone’s request. (A really important person in my field. I’m not bragging or anything.) They asked me for that proposal in mid-December.
It was due today.
I didn’t exactly procrastinate. In fact, ideas ran through my head constantly. And every day, part of me said I should get to work. That I needed to spend hours a day brainstorming on a word processor, re-reading articles, and writing up an IRB request.
But something else in me said, “Stop trying so hard.” There was a simpler idea out there, and I just needed to wait and think, while doing other stuff. So today I finally sat down for a few hours and wrote up a proposal. It had very little to do with what I thought about the last week, but everything to do with what I’ve researched the last six years.
So six years of steady work led to a spontaneous new idea. Serendipity, and steady work. But not too much effort in any one place.
This doesn’t mean that I live a carefree life. Sometimes, I do have to lock myself away for hours, or days.
I’m not a stranger to working 12 hours straight just on one piece. But that’s grunt work. Finding the pull quotes I circled last week. Tapping out the prose. Crunching data. Formatting. Proofing.
Academic writing requires a lot more grunt work. 12 hours on a blog post? Please shoot me now. This one took me 40 minutes to write, and maybe another couple of hours to flesh out and edit.
So three hours total.
But if you count reading Flaherty’s book and watching movies about Jackson Pollock, then you might say this post took several years.
But never too much effort.
After I sent in my proposal, I surfed YouTube for a while and stumbled across this song by Neil Young, “Old Man,” another one of the greatest songs ever written. A song I’ve heard on the radio a hundred times. But the live version from 1971 blew me away.
Neil tells the crowd where he got the idea for the song, a foreman who worked on the ranch where he lived.
A lot of people have uploaded Neil’s performance to YouTube. All of them have at least a few million views.
One of them has 57 million views.
So if you want to go viral, buy a ranch. Talk to a foreman. Write a song about it and wait about 45 years.
Or, take the bigger picture. Let your life inspire you. Work steadily. Don’t try so hard. Go buy a Chewbacca mask.
That’s the other video I watched, after Neil Young. It also went viral, but not because Candace Payne was trying. You can’t make that laughter intentionally, in order to go viral. It just happened.
Like she’s said in interviews, she didn’t plan to be a hit. Actually, she had to go pick up her kids in half an hour.
She just got inspired, and she did something with it.
She’s super exited about that mask. End of story. That’s what went viral. Not the mask. Her inspiration. No, she’s not a skilled guitarist like Neil Young. But she got inspired, and she did something with it.
Neil Young didn’t necessarily work harder than Payne. He just worked longer, at guitar. When you watch him play, you can tell he enjoys it just as much. He’s not laughing hysterically, but he feels good.
We still don’t understand everything about inspiration. But we’re getting closer. You’re not always going to feel inspired, but it needs to happen a lot if you’ve picked the right trade. One reason I keep writing, even if I don’t feel inspired, is that I know inspiration will come again.
I just have to huff the fumes of my last inspiration.
When the fumes get a little too dry, I go back to living. And life normally gives me the next kick.
Inspiration might occur to you more often if you stop trying so hard. Don’t put too much effort into any single painting, photograph, poem, story, or song. Take the long view. But live in the moment. Do both.