Rick Rubin On Assumptions
This week I’ve been reading Rick Rubin’s new book The Creative Act: A Way Of Being. I like Rick Rubin a lot. For those that don’t know of him, he’s a sort of super-producer who made his name working with acts like Beastie Boys and Run-DMC in the 80s, then became even better known as a mystic guru who would be brought in to work with later-career artists and help them revitalise their work by reconnecting them with the creativity they might have lost on their more recent albums. The best-known example of this is his work with Johnny Cash on the American Recordings series of albums, but supposedly he’s played the same role for countless artists who cite him as being the person who helped them get back in touch with their creative drive after losing their way a bit. He’s gone on the record saying he can’t play instruments and has very limited technical knowledge of music production, but says he’s able to provide a sense of space and intention around a creative project that helps the artist get back in touch with what they want to do, which is sort of a similar role to that of the director in live comedy these days, but that’s another topic for another time.
Rubin’s book is essentially a collection of short essays exploring healthy and productive and insightful approaches to creativity and it’s a must-read for fellow creatives looking for interesting input to help them along with their own projects. He never writes with a narrow enough focus that tethers his insights specifically to the world of music production, it’s all broadly applicable to creative pursuits in general (and in fact he has some excellent thoughts on what constitutes a creative act in the first place). This week, I wanted to brainstorm a bit on one of the ideas in it that I’ve found most interesting, and to hear some of your brainstorms too!
I’ve written recently about habits, and my own journey of discovery that relying on “the same old habits” isn’t inherently a bad thing, and doesn’t inherently get in the way of exploring new ground, because your habits can be the thing that help you to discover new ground. This week’s Tape is possibly a companion piece, or even a counterargument, to that one. Rubin talks about the importance of noticing what assumptions we make when we set out to begin a new creative project, and asks us to consider moving in the opposite direction from them, if only to find out where on that see-saw we actually sit, and at which point along it we choose to apply leverage. His example is of a sculptor, who might begin by assuming that in order to make a sculpture, that sculpture has to have a physical presence in the world. But it’s possible for sculptors to work in a digital space, so what could that sculptor discover if they explored the idea of making work that exists outside of physical space? This isn’t quite the same as just being the opposite of the earlier idea about habits, because an assumption is different to a habit. It would be entirely possible to notice an assumption you’ve made in the generating of an idea, then to reverse it, and then to pursue familiar habits while exploring territory outside of your usual assumptions. I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they work quite well together.
As you can see, the book has already super-charged my creativity
What Assumptions Are YOU Making?
I’m only halfway through the book so far, and I imagine its ideas are things I’ll think about and play around with for a while, and take time to fully incorporate into my process, but for now, I thought it would be interesting to examine what my assumptions are when I start a new piece of work, and to park in my mind the idea of working in the opposite direction from these assumptions, to see what it leads me to discover. Feel free to write back and let me know what you think your own creative assumptions might be, and what sort of thing you think you might discover by challenging them!
So, as a writer-performer of alternative comedy:
– I assume that the work I make has to make people laugh. This one is hard to get away from, because comedy is one of the few art-forms that can be measured by its ability to produce a specific effect, without which you could say it’s not working (I reckon the other ones are maybe magic, the horror genre in film/TV, and some genres of music). My assumption is always that, as someone who makes comedy of different kinds, the basic unit of measurement for that work is that a decent chunk of it should make people laugh. I’ve made some work that’s funnier than others, some that’s more introspective than others, but my goal in every creative project is to make something that some people might laugh at. What would it mean if I challenged that assumption? Would I then no longer be making comedy? Or would I be exploring the idea of making comedy that doesn’t have to be funny? Or asking the idea that whether or not a piece of comedy is funny is not necessarily determined by whether people are laughing?(Some would say I’ve been asking these questions in my work for years, hahahahaha, yeah, let’s get that one out of the way now).
– I assume that the work I make has to be unusual in some way. This one is easier to reverse without getting into an existential tailspin about what comedy is. It didn’t take long for my own interests and sensibilities in comedy to land me with the label of “alternative comedian,” a label which I don’t think really means anything specific, other than that, generally, the other kinds of comedy that get called “alternative” tend to be the ones I enjoy the most. As such, when I start work on a new idea, my assumption tends to be that I need to find some way of rendering the idea “strange,” so that it arouses my curiosity, and I can then work on it authentically, simply because “that’s what I do – I make stuff that’s a bit strange.” Does this need to be the case? Can I explore something I consider very normal, even unremarkable, and then find ways to be curious about it without giving in to the temptation to make it “weirder”? (As a matter of fact, this is the assumption I’ve been actively challenging on my most recent script, in which I’ve been trying to write something about ordinary people living ordinary lives, rather than being set in a high-concept fantasy world, so perhaps this is my first step towards finding out how to stoke my curiosity with the familiar instead of with the absurd).
– I assume that the work I make is intended to be seen and “completed” by an audience. Whatever medium I’m working in, the assumption is always that I’m working on something that will eventually be seen by other people, and that their reaction to it will in some way “complete” the work itself. But I have also, occasionally, got into certain forms of crafting (needle-felting mainly, but other things too) and found that one of the most creatively fulfilling things about it is the knowledge that I’m only doing it for my own enjoyment and satisfaction in that moment, not because the work is going to be seen or enjoyed by anyone else. What could I discover if I consciously worked on more creative projects that weren’t intended to be seen?
– I assume that the work I make has to be original. This is similar to the point about making unusual work, but more specifically it also crosses over with the idea of not repeating my own ideas, and also not bothering with an idea that has already been done elsewhere. This is an assumption largely driven by concerns around marketing, which are not creative concerns – I know that if I made something that was knowingly derivative of something else, or knowingly repeated my own previous ideas, that I would then have difficulty finding an audience for that project. But, as I’ve said above, even the idea that a creative work needs to have an audience is an assumption in itself, and maybe I’m missing out on some creative growth by telling myself that actively impersonating an old idea, either my own or someone else’s, is off-limits as a creative starting point.
I’m sure if I keep thinking, I’ll be able to think of many more, but those four feel like the first things that circle around my head when I sit down and try to work up new ideas for projects. Some of them feel interesting and exciting to try and challenge, others feel more fixed and rigid to me, and as though making the choice to reverse them would just be actively making things difficult for myself. But maybe that’s the point! Maybe I’ll go and spend some time making something that isn’t funny, isn’t remotely unusual, will never be seen by anyone, and has already been done, and maybe it’ll be the best thing I ever make. If it is, I won’t show it to you guys because that will break Rule 3, but I’ll be sure to tell you all how much you missed out on it.
What about you? Let me know what creative assumptions you think you make when you sit down to make work! What would happen if you reversed them?
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – It’s nearly time for Machynlleth Comedy Festival, one of the highlights of the comedy year! I’m doing a very rough, experimental work-in-progress of some new ideas, but there’s a whole weekend of amazing stuff – browse through their listings and book tickets to stuff if you’re going!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I popped into ACMS this week and didn’t get to see every act, but I absolutely loved Charlie Vero-Martin’s absurdly wealthy Gwyneth Paltrow-esque spiritual healthcare guru character. Well worth checking out her show this year!
Book Of The Week – The Creative Act: A Way Of Being by Rick Rubin, obvs.
Album Of The Week – Multitudes by Feist. I’m a tiny bit disappointed by this album, if I’m honest. I adore Feist, her last two albums are two of my all-time favourites, and there’s been a 6-year wait for this one. It’s definitely nice, but it feels pretty middling in her discography. I feel bad, though, for being disappointed in an album just because I think it’s good instead of brilliant. More fool me for setting unfair expectations on it rather than just being prepared to meet one of my favourite artists where she is and enjoy her latest work in the way she intended me to.
Film Of The Week – The Super Mario Bros. Movie. This film really baffled me. The characters literally just play the Mario games, essentially. Which…I guess is not a surprise. It was always going to basically be a massive advert. But I dunno, I found it weird how literally it translates everything from the games to the screen. There are power-ups and levels and everything. I found it totally bizarre how little imagination it had, considering the games are pretty imaginative. But hey, there’s a funny bit with a dog.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, please feel free to send it on to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Huge congrats to Edy Hurst, who staged a brilliant performance of his Fringe show from last year, Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version Of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of H.G. Wells’ Literary Version Of “The War Of The Worlds” (Via Orson Welles’ Radio Version And Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) at Artsdepot in Finchley last week. I loved it, and took this photo to preserve some of the chaos for posterity: