Creative Living 5: Robb Royer

January 31st, 2009

Robb Royer won an Academy Award for writing “For All We Know,” the theme from the film Lovers and Other Strangers, and has also written a number of Top Ten rock and country hits, including Billboard Magazine’s “Radio Song of the Year” (“Sold”). Royer was a founding member of the multi-platinum rock group Bread. As a screenwriter, he has had scripts purchased and/or optioned by Orion Pictures, Interscope, American-International, and Universal. His songs have been recorded by The Band, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Randy Travis, John Michael Montgomery, and many others. He is currently a principal in the production company Nashfilms, in Nashville, TN.

Royer estimates that he writes, in one form or another, pretty much daily.  I personally find the metaphor at the end of this piece to be tremendously liberating.

Given the number of failed attempts to write even this simple document, I am probably the last person who should be giving advice on creativity. And since, here in the computer age, we are even denied the melodramatic and purgative pleasure of shouting ‘no, no it’s all wrong’, wadding the paper and heaving it inaccurately at the waste basket, all that remains is to hit delete and stare once again at a blank screen and a throbbing prompt.

But alas this rant will only serve to bolster Tim’s image of me as a Luddite, so here we go… creativity, take four.

I know! I’ll start by taking the safe route of quoting people we know are creative. People who inspired me by indicating that the wandering-in-the-wilderness feeling I get when trying to write is at least, shared by those greater than I. Did I say quote? Let’s say paraphrase loosely.

1. Tom Stoppard said… I begin by writing a finger, then I write my way past the wrist, up the arm and off into the body…

2. Aaron Copland… I just play around on the piano until I come upon something that makes me say…I can DO something with that…

3. John Irving…. If anyone ever knew the simplicity of the ideas that got me started on my novels, I’d be embarrassed…

All three gentlemen seem to be saying that an inspiration is not a detailed vision of the Emerald City but a road sign indicating (usually quite inaccurately) how far.

I really think that the gift of the Artist is simply the ability to recognize an idea fragment as a piece of something larger, something real, pre-existing even. One thought (that was actually mine) that helped me, was to imagine myself as an archaeologist rather than a builder. As a builder I was responsible for the application of every stick of the structure. The archaeologist doesn’t hold himself responsible for what he has unearthed. His job is just to brush away the dust and reveal what is already there. How freeing that mindset can be!

In the movie Day for Night, the Diva tells a story about a ham actor who was being booed for his drunken performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Finally when he can stand it no more he turns to the audience and slurs “I DIDN’T WRITE THIS SHIT!”

If we can all just convince ourselves of that, we’re free to create.

12 Responses to “Creative Living 5: Robb Royer”

  1. Ken H. Says:

    The idea of the fragment as a piece to something larger is liberating indeed. I like the archaeologist concept, though I might not have believed in it personally until just recently. I always assumed that the entire idea needed to have a clear road map and then the details where sort of filled in (that sounds dumb even as I see it leave my fingers). I guess the other seemed a little too scary or an inconcievable way in which to approach a book. In fact,I have found it harder to write exactly what I think I need to get my scene from here to there than to just start writing with a hint of direction and roll into new ideas as they present themselves. I always get a surprise that seems was there all along but I didn’t see coming.

    Do you find that you start with a fragment and end up someplace very different than you would have imagined, or does it all seem like it was there waiting to be discovered?

    Thanks Rob and Tim!

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I love the idea that “the gift of the Artist is simply the ability to recognize an idea fragment as a piece of something larger”. This is a real help.

  3. Larissa Says:

    I have to admit my personal favorite is the idea of drunkenly slurring “I didn’t write this shit” because, sometimes, that’s exactly how I feel. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s very freeing in a sense because it helps me translate the idea that you presented regarding being responsible for every stick and foundation block as opposed to finding something that was already there.

    If creatively we take a step back and re-evaluate our work not as the biggest amount of hooey ever to seep out of our brains but instead as a still dusty, caked with mud archeological find that will eventually lead us somewhere it can really rekindle the fires to just. keep. going.

    Not that our work isn’t our responsibility but it takes it from being a negative statement about our talent or lack thereof and turns it into something that hasn’t lost all of its potential energy in one kinetic tantrum.

    Funny how certain messages show up when one needs to hear them most.

  4. Thomas Says:


    Thanks for continuing a great series with yet another thoughtful post. Let me start by objecting to one thing you say early on. You say, “I am probably the last person who should be giving advice on creativity.” Baloney, my good Sir! I would argue that anyone who has successfully navigated the murky waters of music, film, and words for 40 or so years has demonstrated ample amounts of creativity. Please allow me to use you as an example of the point you already made yourself but I would like to emphasize.

    I am a firm believer in creativity being a never-ending well. Artists of all kinds sometimes run into writer’s block, which is really a manifestation of things such as boredom, issues with self-esteem, lack of focus, poor work-habits, or a combination of all. Just like we don’t run out of memeories or things to say to other people, I don’t think we run out of creativity. Creativity keeps on flowing. However, what I think some people are better at than others (either through innate talent or practice) is to recognize the little golden nuggets that occasionally pop up among the gallons of sludge we produce.

    Benny Andersson, the guy who wrote all of ABBA’s music, once said that he doesn’t even know how to read music. When he composes, he just plays, improvises, for hours on end, until something catches his attention. A combination of notes that just work. He puts those aside and keeps on playing until something else, another golden nugget, pops up. And so it goes on until there are enough golden nuggets to make a necklace, a hit song, something they still play on the radio.

    Hemingway’s secret to great writing was to have a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. Without it, any product would be more sludge than gold. May I dare to suggest, Mr. Royer, that you, along with Benny Andersson, Aaron Copland, and everyone else who has been able to make a living out of being creative, has a pretty decent shit detector?

    Where does that leave the rest of us? Well, I for one, keep trucking along, forming sentences, thinking that my golden nuggets are in there. I just need better glasses and more practice finding them. The best part of your post is the emphasis on the artist’s ability to recognize when something is good and worth keeping. It’s a fundamentally positive message because it doesn’t close the door for any person or any art form, saying only a select few can do it.

    I have enjoyed all previous posts and learned from them but, for me, this was the best one yet. And I’m not even kissing up.


  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I agree with everyone who likes the archaeology metaphor, mostly because that’s what writing seems like to me, too, although I’ve never put it that eloquently.

    And I also agree with all who like the idea that an artist is someone who can recognize a fragment as part of something larger and then painstakingly uncover (or create, if that’s your perspective) the whole thing.

    Flaubert, who knew something about it, said, “Talent is a long patience.” That’s true for everyone, whether you’re talking about the patience necessary to complete a long-form work, or whether you mean the patience necessary to get better, week after week, year after year.

    I love Robb’s post. We’ve known each other since Herbert Hoover was president, and I never knew we thought so much alike, even if he’s better at putting it into words than I am.

  6. usman Says:

    The finger, the arm, and the body; followed by John Irving’s qoute; and then Robb’s own Emerald City.
    There is hope for us pansters yet. I have been struggling with this all along: how to reconcile my own need to just write a story, rather than the synopsis, outlines, and the like.

    Thomas, as always, you make excellent points. I must thank you also.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Ken —

    Robb hasn’t logged in to reply yet, but in answer to your question about whether the idea leads you in unanticipated directions or whether it’s all there waiting to be discovered, I think he would say that when you come on the fragment you don’t know what it is, and you learn what it is by clearing away the debris. Could be an ancient outhouse, could be the city of Thebes.

    Or something.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Usman, sorry not to have responded earlier. It may (or may not) be helpful for you to know that, for me, the writing process is primarily one of getting myself into trouble with my story and then out again. I am constantly chasing some new strand with no idea where it will lead me. Occasionally, it leads me nowhere, but that’s what the DELETE key is for. (Or I can save it for a different book.) Once in a while, it all knits together into an actual story. Then all I have to do is back up, start at page one, and do the revisions that (a) make it all make sense, and (b) make it look like I knew where I was going in the first place.

  9. Robb Royer Says:


    I don’t see the conflict in your either/or. Something can surprise me that still seems inevitable when it’s done.

    Hope this answers. Sorry for the delay. As Tim can tell you, I’m not much of a ‘net guy.


  10. Stephen Cohn Says:

    I like the archeologist metaphor a great deal – it is a freeing concept. Also the idea that the artist is one who can recognize the potential in a fragment is a valuable insight. However, I’m curious about what comes next. Surely, there must another important step in this process because ultimately, having freed ourselves to dig and recognize, we do have to take responsibility for what we put our names on and release to be consumed by our audience.

  11. Robb Royer Says:

    To Stephen,

    True. Admittedly it’s just a cheap way of deceiving ourselves into having no fear.

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