There's a moment in The Doors: Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player, asks the band for five minutes alone (five minutes!) to put together an opening for their new song, "Light My Fire." Morrison et al head outside. A moment later, Manzarek calls them back and plays this unforgettable Bach-influenced organ riff.
"Movies about artists are hilarious," I thought when I first watched this scene, three decades ago. "That took days of effort to write. Weeks!" I imagined the real Manzarek sitting at the keyboard in front of the same kind of sheet music I used in middle school band at the time, painstakingly penciling in each of those notes, playing each bar to test it, fixing any mistakes with an eraser.
Little did I know. It actually happened pretty much as shown.
Similar moments of spontaneous inspiration appear in pretty much every biopic about famous musicians, most recently in Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. The "click" when a famous song comes together is always the hands-down best scene, the one that justifies the film's whole existence. As delightful as the click is to watch, it's a guilty pleasure. You can't help but feel that what you're seeing is a compressed and contrived version of the real event. The bass line in "Another One Bites the Dust" didn't just spring out during a band argument, did it?
While J.S. Bach predates the invention of film by a few centuries, we do have footage—of artists like Alicia Keys or Lin-Manuel Miranda in Song Exploder on Netflix, the Beatles in Get Back, etc.—demonstrating that the click actually, truly does happen in real life. One minute, there's no song and the next, there is. Magical.
Why do I write? It comes back to the click. That's the payoff. Nothing beats the surge of delight when someone says something offhand in a conversation and I realize we've got an overarching concept for the book. Or a killer title. Book launches and bestseller lists can't hold a candle to the click. It's the crux of the creative process.
How do you get more clicks? Collaboration.
In an interview, David Lynch described the moment long-time musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti improvised the Twin Peaks theme.
"Angelo was building this thing, and it was so beautiful to me, I'm starting to cry!" Lynch recalled. "Angelo looks at me and says, 'What are you, crazy?' And I said, 'Angelo, that's so beautiful! I can't tell you how beautiful that is! And he's looking kind of confused." Later on, when Badalamenti was recording a track for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch laughed so joyfully he gave himself a hernia.
Clicks happen when you collaborate, but that doesn't mean they're always mutual. One person lights up with euphoric glee, the other shrugs. (Badalementi was never a big fan of the Twin Peaks theme himself.) It can be incredibly deflating to try to convince a collaborator who isn't in sync. That's why being a good collaborator means keeping the energy up even when you're not feeling it. Better to build on the other person's enthusiasm than block it no matter what your response.
Creating alone feels more serious, more legit. In Tokyo, prospective patrons are only allowed into the Manuscript Writing Café when they're under a deadline. You can't just go in there to drink coffee, let alone discuss ideas with a friend. (Yes, even sharing your own writing with a friend and gathering feedback is collaboration—my wife collaborates with me on every newsletter.) Inside the café, you must be chasing a word-count goal—and they won't let you leave until you meet it. According to the proprietor, this policy helps maintain the "tense atmosphere" of the café. (Makes sense. Writers, like repo men, spend their lives getting into tense situations.)
In contrast to the solo writing sprint, collaboration is fun—it seems like goofing when you're doing it, and, in fact, that's how most collaborators describe the experience in retrospect, no matter how serious the final product. Don't be fooled. It's just as important as getting the words down. The click with a collaborator is a necessary balance to the tense atmosphere you maintain while clicking away at the keyboard.