What is your creative signature?
July 16, 2021
Who are the writers and other artists whose work you would recognize anywhere? Is there creative work you do that, having put in the hours from beginner to expert, others would recognize as your own?
What is a creative signature? It is something bigger than voice or general style, though it may encompass those qualities. But it is also is as specific as a fingerprint or a soul, even as it is exists within a canon, genre, field, or set of life experiences that shape it. And, alas for those who like speedy fixes and results, it only tends to emerge in exchange for the hours and years you give to developing it.
As a beginner, there is a lot of imitation, which as a teacher I encouraged. At the piano, for example, I am like a person learning to read, moving at a worthwhile but glacial pace, limited in my vocabulary and fluency beyond the staff that organizes a page of music. The best I can do right now is to challenge myself in the signatures of others who have put in their time and toil.
Last week in a music store buying a birthday gift, I quickly became distracted by a book of sheet music for Elton John’s Greatest Hits. That I felt like an excited kid getting a new toy is progress for me. In the past, one look at a staff loaded with flats and sharps sent me running in the other direction as two black diamonds on a rare skiing trip still do. I’d have a nice day on my musical bunny slopes and blue squares, thank you.
While I have heard Elton John’s songs many times, it was only once I struggled through to play it that I could better see his musical signature, which is not easy even to imitate! How far afield his notes go on the page, skittering as they do from bass to treble clef, I wonder how anyone’s fingers are gumby-like enough to comply. Those more advanced than I am may point out that I’m simply not practiced enough. I have not put in the hours yet to trust that, unless I have the song memorized, when I lift my fingers to faraway places they will land on the right note (or at least one consonant enough to fudge a mistake).
Since signatures exists within a context and culture, it can be tough to get outside that context enough to see them clearly. When I first read Haruki Murakami’s writing, I was drawn in by his signature, and it felt as if his writing built staircases in my brain to places I hadn’t known were there. A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle still comes back to me in almost a haunting way. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is about more than running, he insists that he is not as good a writer as many of his peers, that for him it is all about putting in the hours to create something that is, well, good enough. I’d say he’s being modest, but I think the idea may be true for most people who excel.
Reading Murakami led me to the literary journal Monkey: New Writing from Japan (formerly Monkey Business), which led me to Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and Asleep, and to Japanese surrealist literature in general and the various signatures within it.
How do you describe your signature? Does it ever surprise you when others characterize your work in ways you didn’t expect or see? How has your signature changed with time and practice? How does your creative work intersect with your larger national canon, history, culture, genre, and the vast world of your personal experience? They are questions worth exploring, whatever it is you create.
To me, signature is one of the most glorious aspects of human creativity and diversity. There are more creative signatures than you will ever take in, in a lifetime, and each can spark something different in the reader, listener, or viewer according to who they are. Creative signature, one of the most authentic ways we experience each other, is the opposite of cliché, corporate jargon, and blandness that often sacrifice creativity in the name of conformity and agreement. Even if in some fields such jargon may be necessary (Is it? Really?), might your signature provide a refreshing departure from the forces of sameness where you are putting in the hours to create?