What I mean by “throwaway” is in the sense of a “throwaway line”, something that just gets tossed out there and left, rather than worked into a proper statement.
There are times – many times, in fact – where with my writing or my music I create what I consider to be “throwaway” pieces, things that I just do on the spur of the moment but attach no importance to them and, once finished, might never revisit.
Except that, sometimes, I do revisit them, or I like the result so much that I think they are worth sharing. There are several pieces of music like that saved on my computer, where I set up a simple riff on my guitar or programmed one in using the MIDI keyboard, and then programmed a drum track beneath it, and added an improvised lead, or some other embellishments, and created something good to listen to. There’s no effort involved, I just play for as long as it’s making me happy and there’s an interesting idea in my head. I don’t go away and worry about what I’m going to do with the next half a dozen takes or layered tracks, I don’t plan anything or see any point in reworking it to be better. I really like doing the hard work of creativity, especially with my music, so most of the things I record I do do all that. But there’s a lot of joy to be had in just seeing what happens, too. I guess it’s like an artist idly sketching passers-by while waiting for a bus, or something: for a piece that would go on display, or that’s commissioned, I guess you do lots of preliminary work, lay out a plan, a sketch, a first layer of paint, a second layer of details, and so on (I used to love Watercolour Challenge when it was on Channel 4’s daytime schedule so this impression is drawn in significant part from that). But with the sketchpad and pencil, a different value is at work: it’s not about the finished product but the process in itself.
So that’s the positive meaning behind my describing something as “throwaway”. Sometimes with the music, I have revisited pieces after I did them as throwaway, and worked them into something intended for sharing. Sometimes I liked them enough to share without needing further work. But in creating them, while I obviously want it to be something I like, the act of creating is what matters, the rehearsal of generating or expressing an idea in an artistic form (music or writing, usually).
The trouble with something that’s throwaway is that sometimes, there’s no record left of it once it’s done. I feel like calling that the “sandcastle” version, after the great and largely unplanned edifices I used to build at the beach, often with whole villages of little square piles with pointed tops, moats, walls within walls, shell patterns and flags: the whole deal. But rarely were any photos taken of these, and of course, the tide would be coming in and ultimately the whole thing was washed away, to leave a blank smooth beach for tomorrow’s architectural marvel. With my music, this is rare because (apart from the guitarist habit of noodling, which I do loads, in amongst serious practice) in order to do a sketch even, I need to put together more than one part – a riff and a lead, or two or more instruments and building it up. In that sense, the first part I record is like the paper and pencil without which a sketch is impossible! So my musical “throwaway” works tend to be less likely to be sandcastles.
With the written word, whether it’s poetry (or song lyrics), or prose fiction, this is much less guaranteed. Yes, I usually work in a word processor application these days, but there’s nothing to make me hit “save” instead of “don’t save”, and if I want to save it I have to think it’s worth giving it a name and at that point, because it’s not about the finished product, I might not think it is. It becomes a sandcastle for that reason. Similarly, when I work with pen and paper, although I have half-finished lyric ideas from a decade ago still knocking around (most of them, I’ve forgotten what the whole song was going to be about anyway) – if it’s a throwaway piece then the paper can easily be screwed up in a pocket or idly dumped in the recycling. It’s a sandcastle.
What brought me to thinking about this is that a couple of weeks ago on Psychological Research on the Net (as previously noted, I like filling in the questionnaires!) there was a survey that invited the respondents to look at a picture of a man and a woman walking side by side and make up a story about it (it was so throwaway that now I can’t even remember the title of the study, except that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the one called “Storytelling: ways and means” and it might have been “Online dating: Personality and the language we use”). Well, I noticed that they seemed to be comfortable together, but that he was looking down as though he’d spotted something near her feet. I created a story that they were work colleagues attending a conference, had just shared a kiss on the pier and were walking back. She’s just about to step in some dog poo, which he’ll use as an excuse to try to persuade her to come back to his room (it worked in the story, but I forget how). Anyway, I just typed my story into the text box and hit send – and it was gone. Sandcastle washed away with the tide. Only after that moment did I think that actually, I enjoyed it enough that I would have liked to share it on this blog. By then, it was gone.
As you might guess from the preceding text, that is far from being the only thing that I have created, passed on to others in some way, and then it’s lost forever. There’s also the matter of the “Christmas mug”, where it was a paint-your-own-design set, I painted a sunset scene for Mama as her present, but the paint didn’t bake onto the cup properly and washed off as soon as I had shown her the painting; not only that, but the once-again-blank mug got left behind with me when my ‘rents set off back to theirs. We talked on the phone about the deeply philosophical significance about the transience of beauty and suchlike ideas!
The big question that I can’t answer is whether or not I feel regret at these lost works. Yes, I would have liked to share the kiss/maybe more story from that survey with my lovely readers here, but I enjoyed creating it without that, and part of me likes musing on the meaning of it being lost (like with the mug described above!) Sometimes these things happen in ways and places that preclude any permanent record being made: they exist only in the people who were there, if at all. It’s impossible to say it’s a bad thing it happened that way, so how can that be regret? And yet… So, I can’t answer that question.