Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Spirit Muppet, Don Music

Does anyone remember this guy? 

His name was Don Music, and when he wasn't banging his head on his keyboard, he looked like this. 

According to his portrayal on Sesame Street,  Don was a tortured singer-songwriter Muppet with an undoubtedly tragic backstory the show never fully explored. He's attributed as the composer and lyricist of alternatives to such children's classics as "Mary Had a Bicycle" ("Mary Had a Little Lamb") and ("Whistle, Whistle Little Bird" ("Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"), and in the Kermit the Frog Newsflash segments that tell his story, viewers are shown the VH1 Behind the Music type expose of his anguished creative process. 

It's in these segments where we observe the genius of Don Music. His strength was his knack for pairing simple words to catchy tunes. However, it's painfully obvious that rhyming is his Achilles' heel, and as many creatively-minded people unfortunately do, he resorts to unhealthy coping mechanisms when confronted by his weakness. Each time we see Don get frustrated trying to think of an ending to his songs, he repeatedly slams his head onto his piano, loudly lamenting "I'LL NEVER GET IT RIGHT! NEVERRRRRRRR!" until Kermit the journalist intervenes to talk him out of quitting his craft. 

I doubt that Sesame Street was meaning to confront the topics of self-injury and crippling low self-esteem when they created this character; they were more likely going for something along the lines of slapstick comedy, I would guess. However, after the show received several communications that children were banging their heads onto things to emulate him, the Don Music Muppet was retired from Sesame Street, and he lived out the rest of his existence in quiet obscurity, like so many talented artists before him.

I never forgot about Don Music. I wasn't one of the kids who gave herself a concussion over him, but I'm pretty sure that if such a thing exists, he is my Spirit Muppet.  Like Don Music, I am admittedly a self-defeatist, my own worst enemy. I'm a woeful rager and a doomsdayer in regard to my own talent, and I often rely on someone else to pull me off the "I'm giving up writing forever!" ledge. This is not a quality I'm proud of. In fact, I find it utterly unattractive. However, I recognize it as the hill that I keep dying on, and I'm trying to figure out my way around it.

That's ultimately what Don did, after all. Once he got the freaking-out out of his system, he always came back to finish his song. I think that was the intended message behind his character as a whole: sticktoitiveness. Never give up on your dream, kids. Maybe you think you're writing a song about stars that twinkle but really what what's inside of you is a song about a whistling bird, and you're going to have to struggle for a while until you realize that, but the only real failure is in giving up. 

Don Music, the poster Muppet for perseverance in the face of internal conflict. 

Though I wish that it didn't, this lesson totally applies to the status of my current novel in progress. I have spent fifteen months thinking that the story was meant to be one thing and then realizing it's probably best if I rewrite it as something else entirely, and I'm in the banging-my-head-on-the-keyboard part of accepting this. I don't know how this happens, or why it seemingly happens to me with everything I write. Inspiration is fickle, I guess, which is putting how I really feel in G-rated language when I'm way passed an R-rating of pissedoffness about it.

I know that I am not alone in this kind of frustration. This happens to a lot of creative projects. Ideas dead end all of the time. Or they evolve. Or, they get shelved to incubate. Then when it feels like it, inspiration returns and everything comes to fruition in a way it never would have if the idea had been forced to completion when it wasn't meant to be. 

Early Frozen/Wreck-It Ralph
Life illustrated this to me recently again in the Valentine's Gift my husband gave me. He bought me The Art of Disney postcard set because it was on a Pinterest board entitled "Stuff you should buy for me" that I directed him to because we don't do traditional Valentine's Day exchanges because the whole holiday is a farce in our opinion he is thoughtful. The set consisted of 100 postcards, each featuring a picture of a drawing, sketch, or film cell from a Disney film. As I was looking through them, I noticed that there were few concept art pictures that took me an extra moment to place. The artwork on these cards featured characters from the films Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph in very early stages of their development, long before they had evolved into the characters as they appear in their films. The Frozen sisters looked like impish flower children while Ralph was channeling an orange broccoli Donkey Kong. (I much prefer him the way he debuted in his movie, looking like the child of Fred Flintstone and the Brawny paper towel man.)
It's hard to believe that these images ever served as inspiration for what Anna, Elsa, and Ralph eventually became because they just seem so wrong-looking. I'd only ever seen the finished products before, and because they seemed so right-looking (Disney market research at its finest) it felt silly that there could have been a time when they were anything less than their end results. But, of course there was a time like that. Because before these characters were established, they began like every thing else does: as vague concepts. Ones that get bent into and out of shapes by all sorts of variables before they are considered finished by their creators. The pictures on these postcards represented  mere points on a timeline of the creative process. Building blocks. Rough drafts that evolve into the masterpieces.

There were likely dozens, maybe hundreds more sketches of Anna, Elsa, and Ralph in between the ones on the postcards and the ones in the films. After all, it's hard to know what makes something right until you know why all the other ways of doing it aren't, and it can take a very, very long time to explore all the ways that something can be wrong. As a spectator of great art, that makes complete sense to me. I affirm that that trial-and-error is a valid process. However, as a writer producing my own work, it's a source of great frustration that the only way I seem to be able to produce anything is by writing a page one hundred ways and then deleting the ninety-nine of them that were wrong. I have a hard time accepting that my rough drafts are a necessary benchmarks on the timeline of my own creative works and not just time (so, so much time) wasted driving at full speed in the wrong direction.

Rationally though, I know that they are. And I know that there aren't any shortcuts to writing quality work. It takes as long as it takes, and it's going to take even longer if I keep banging my head on the piano.

I just wish knowing that would keep me from doing it.

1 comment:

  1. I always felt so bad for Don. In retrospect likely one my first documented instances of empathy.