Just a quick update for my loyal readers (yes, both of you!). You may have noticed that I have been rather quiet for the past several months. This is not due to any lack of work; I have been busily composing and writing a number of pieces. I have some exciting projects in the works, and will have more to share soon. As always, thank you for reading and sharing, and stay tuned (hey, those sentences rhyme)!
How do you know you have said what you wish to say?
You may read this article on Medium if you wish.
One of my piano students asked me this question some time ago: how do you know when a project is finished? I thought it was an excellent question, and also a very difficult one. To my knowledge, I have never been overtly taught this, nor have I heard a definite answer from history. Truthfully, I wonder if anyone can know the answer. Perhaps this is simply one of the great mysteries of creativity that will remain for the entirety of time? Nonetheless, I do love puzzles, and this appears to be one of the most interesting puzzles of all.
The answer I gave him (after much thought) was this: it is finished when your instincts tell you it is finished. By itself, this was a useless answer. Connected to the concept of language, however, it makes more sense. With spoken language, the have the concept of a sentence. We know a sentence is complete when we have expressed the thought we wished to express in a manner comprehensible by our listener. I will extrapolate from this concept.
Any story can be summarized in one sentence. When I write a story, there comes a point at which I distill the entire story into a single statement. This is my one-sentence summary (this is a great piece of advice I received here.) If the essential elements of the story cannot be reduced to this level, then the story is likely too complicated and needs to be paired down.
Any essay can be similarly reduced. Many a student will recall the concept of a thesis statement. This statement distills the entire paper into a single sentence, encapsulating the core argument and goal of the piece.
In both cases, the entirety of the piece may be expanded from this first sentence. It is the “seed” from which the rest of the writing grows. Therefore, the piece may be said to be finished when the ideas put forth in the summary are fully developed without any extraneous material. In short: it is finished when the author has said what he needs to say, no more and no less.
How does this apply to music? Let us explore this using the same concept. The musical analogue of a sentence is the melody. It is both complete sentence and main character. Can a musical composition be distilled into a single melody? If so, how? I would argue based on personal observation that the answer is “yes.” In fact, this appears to occur whether or not the composer has so planned it. One of the most famous melodies in all of history is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Nearly everyone can hum, sing, whistle, or even play, this melody. Even those lacking any musical training of any kind are likely to instantly recognize it, and it is nearly impossible to forget it once heard for the first time. It is a very short and simple tune. By itself, it constitutes a complete musical thought.
What many do not realize is its use in a much larger musical composition: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The entire composition is roughly an hour and a half long and makes use of numerous other melodies and moods. These ideas are developed in ingenious ways, and the core idea of Ode to Joy is not even introduced until the final movement. In this sense, the symphony could perhaps be interpreted as a struggle to find joy amidst difficulty. This, Beethoven achieves with aplomb.
This, however, does not completely answer the question. Written language is concrete. It depicts clear images and emotions that do not vary from person to person. It is highly specific. If I say the word “cup,” for example, nearly everyone will imagine a cup. Of course, they may imagine different types or sizes of cups, but they will all fundamentally imagine the same device. If I wish to plant a more specific image in their minds, I can describe it with increasing precision until, theoretically, all imagine exactly the same object.
With music, this is nearly impossible. Music is not a language attuned for specificity. It deals less with the concrete, and more with the abstract; the emotional, rather than the logical. Its grammar rules are less defined (if one may even call them “rules”) and images evoked will vary wildly from listener to listener. In fact, without a title or program notes, two listeners could imagine completely different images. Using Ode to Joy as an example: if two people listen to it without knowing its title, they will likely both say, “It made me feel happy,” or, “It sounds exuberant!” However, when asked for a specific image, one might say, “It reminded me of the day I got married. That was such a joyful occasion!” and the other, “I saw an image of people dancing and smiling.” Both describe the same emotion, but completely different images evoked by and associated with it.
And yet, the melody will have achieved its intended result. It will have depicted and evoked joy. It need not be specific, because it relies on the human imagination to “fill in this gap.” In this manner, it is a most efficient language. And in languages both spoken and musical, the answer to the first question is the same: the project is finished when the author has said what he wishes to say in a manner that is understood by his audience.
This begs the question, “How does one know if he has said it well enough?” Consider the example of an ancient artifact, excavated by an archaeologist. At some point, he has the entire artifact in his possession. He may have begun with mere pieces, but in the end, they have been glued together in a manner that makes the object appear like new. At this point, it could be considered finished. In a sense, however, it could always be dusted off just a little more, or made just a bit shinier, or have some aspect of its beauty made slightly more obvious. In other words: the archaeologist has put all of the pieces together. He has a clay pot. There is nothing he may add to it that will significantly change its aesthetic or function. He may dust it off more or polish it more, but the digging, assembly, and essential cleaning have been completed.
His apprehension of this, of course, requires that he see the object clearly. He must have a good objective sense of the intended finished product and its effect on a viewer. This is a skill that is developed over time, and it appears to be one of the last to blossom. The simplest way in which to develop it is to put distance between oneself and the project after completion. The creator may take several days, weeks, or even months, to work on a different project. After this period has elapsed, he re-examines the first project. My composition teacher was fond of calling this “letting the pie cool after baking it.”
Another way (though the two methods do not exclude one another) is to simply hire an editor. It has been said, “You cannot edit your own work.” I tend to believe that this is true, though with some minor caveats. The editor has no emotional attachment to the project, and can therefore be objective. The best editors understand the creative process and are not only competent to identify errors in grammar, spelling, and the like, but are masters of knowing a creator’s intentions. Rather than simply deleting a section that does not work, they will tell the author that it is unclear and perhaps make suggestions. This way, the creator preserves his voice and ideas in a way that is still understandable to his audience.
When the process is complete, how does one know that the project is truly finished? How does one know that there is not one more spot to be shined, one more spell-check to be run, or one more chord to adjust? How does one know that it will have exactly the intended effect on the audience?
One can make no guarantee. At some point, one must simply press “Publish”, or present the artwork, or complete the composition. Reinvestigating the work years later may reveal yet more room for improvement; this is good, as it means one’s artistic instincts are improving! This does not necessarily mean that one’s previous creations are “trash,” but simply that newer material may be better. And this is one of the artist’s lifelong battles: the persistent struggle for unattainable perfection. Perfection may be compared to the speed of light, in that one may approach it infinitely, but never reach it.
Carrying the analogy further: all humans carry “baggage,” and all subatomic particles carry mass. The only particle to move at lightspeed is the photon, which carries no mass. Perhaps, then, the only way for an artist to achieve perfection is to be, inherently, perfect? This, we will never achieve in this life, but our works need not be perfect to be beautiful.
You may read this article on Medium if you wish.
A common belief appears to exist regarding composers, and it is best described through an image inscribed in the memories of many. The image consists of a composer hunched over his desk. His wild gray hair betrays a chaotic mental state and evokes an image of the “tortured genius.” His deepest emotions, thoughts, and desires pour out through the ink as he weaves melody, harmony, and rhythm into a musical letter from soul to soul. The musical symbols fly onto the page without any apparent effort, carrying the creator as if he lives in a waking dream.
This image is one of the most pervasive myths in the history of musical composition. While it is possible to compose in such a manner (and some have done so), it seems that many new creators become discouraged when this process does not work for them. In truth, the process of creation is far more complex, chaotic, and multi-layered. What, then, is a more accurate depiction of the process? Is it even possible to describe it, or will it remain ever a mystery? In the hope of clarifying it for others (or perhaps encouraging fellow creators who worry that they are “not doing it right”), I will attempt to describe how it works for me.
Writing a piece of music in the manner of writing a letter (from beginning to end) is normally one of the final stages of the process. For me, the creative process appears more like this:
- The “big picture.” The creator decides the type of project he wishes to create. This could be his own decision, or it could be decided by the client. (For example, a filmmaker may ask the composer to score a documentary film about eagles; the director may tell the composer to go for a “sweeping orchestral sound” to evoke the grandeur of these majestic creatures.)
- “Brainstorming” (or, as I call it, “digging in the dirt”). I attempt to find the “emotional core” of the piece and to “get in character” like an actor. Initial ideas usually flow from this. I develop these ideas with an attitude of curiosity. These ideas need not be in a particular order, or even make sense immediately. They need only be discovered. (Notice that I did not say “created.” In a sense, the ideas already exist, but are buried beneath a good deal of clutter and must be “dusted off.”)
- The ideas begin to coalesce. The shape of the piece takes form, and the positions of the smaller ideas within the whole become more obvious. The initial plan for the project may need to be revised at this point; this is a good sign! It means the ideas have life. The creator should always allow the ideas “room to breathe.” N.B. At any of these stages, the ideas may only be written in cursory form. For music, they may be only leadsheets (melodies with chords written above them). The ideas do not “look like much” at this stage. After all, they have only recently been “excavated”.
- Refinement. The ideas are expanded, experimented with, reorchestrated, and tested in a variety of ways. Some are thrown out, others may be given more import. More detailed sketches of the harmony may be added, counterpoint may be added, more specific colors might be specified, and generally, the ideas become more detailed. In a sense, each idea becomes its own “little composition”.
- Orchestration. This part of the process moves quickly and fluently because it has already been “prepped” by the previous stages. This most resembles writing a letter because it may be done from beginning to end (by this stage, the order in which the ideas are presented has already been made clear). I rarely deal with “writer’s block” at this stage because it has already been dealt with earlier (if I do hit a block at this stage, it likely means that a previous stage was neglected or not sufficiently “fleshed out”). At this point, the project is already finished, and I am only arranging it (assigning each instrument its role).
- Editing. I allow the project to “sit” for a while and then return to it, making small changes. Once this has been done, the project is complete.
The reader may notice that the title of this article is Writing is like orchestrating. Further, they may ask, “What does any of this have to do with writing?” The answer:
Many writers say, “I do not like writing. I like having written.” They describe the process as laborious, difficult, and emotionally intense. At times, it can be; I have experienced this myself. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided and a creator must simply “push through it.”
However, this usually occurs because I am trying to perform multiple tasks at once rather than separating them. For me, the actual writing of the story from beginning to end is the penultimate stage, not the beginning. Beginning a story in this way would be akin to starting a musical composition with a full conductor’s score, all instruments arrayed in front of me, all colors available, engraving needing to be perfect, and all other elements neatly aligned. Some can do this. I have even worked this way at times. However, it is usually too much for me to handle all at once and does not allow me to focus on the essential elements early in the process. I find that, at this stage, I must focus only on the emotional core of the project: the main characters, the setting, the size and scope of the project. I may sketch details as they occur to me (and they do), but I will almost never focus on them. It is too early to dust off a piece of the relic when there is so much of it left to discover! For writing the process looks something like this:
- “Big picture.” Am I writing a novel? A short story? A blog post?
- Sketching. What is the story about? What about my characters, settings, and main ideas?
- Large-scale plot. Plot ideas come together. Threads become clear. Character interactions become apparent. I now have a large-scale outline of the project, though it may have significant gaps.
- Scene list and synopsis. Order of the story is refined, gaps are identified and filled in. Unnecessary scenes are deleted or interpolated into other scenes. After this, a detailed synopsis is written for each scene. These can be multiple paragraphs. Further revisions are made as I go. Each scene is essentially a “little story” in its own right.
- Writing. The story is written from beginning to end, one scene at a time. At this stage, it flows naturally and is generally easy (or at least, not as laborious as it may have otherwise been). The process has been broken into its component parts and completed step by step, layer by layer, before the writing begins. The writing, in fact, is one of the final stages. Revisions and refinements can still happen at this stage.
- Editing. The project is set aside for a time, edited by me afterwards, and then sent to another editor.
At this point, the following chart may be helpful for comparing the two creative processes:
|Big picture (symphony, overture, film score, etc.)
|Big picture (novel, short story, article, etc.)
|Initial ideas (“spark,” emotional core of the piece)
|Initial ideas (“spark,” main ideas in the story)
|Random sketching (exploration of initial ideas, searching for other ideas)
|Freewriting (exploration of initial ideas, searching for other ideas)
|Characters/setting (motivations, goals, personalities, etc.)
|Form/structure (sonata, rondo, ternary, etc.)
|Plot (order of the story, character interactions, etc.)
|Refinements (harmony, bass, counterpoint, etc.)
|Scene list (detailed synopsis of each scene)
|Orchestration (colors, instrumentation, playability, ranges, etc.)
|Writing (voice, flow, turn-of-phrase, readability, grammar/spelling, etc.)
|Pagination/cover art (my wife draws the cover art)
|Cooldown (let project sit for a while)
|Cooldown (send project to editor)
|Final edit (editor sends it back to me)
To me, the similarities between the two processes are remarkable. Perhaps this is because they are both expressing a story, but simply doing so with different languages. It is also remarkable to notice the amount of work that can be put into even a simple project. My short stories scarcely take more than 45 minutes to read, yet each one takes roughly a month to create!
I believe this explains why I must carefully plot every detail of a story before I write. If I begin by simply writing, I end up attempting multiple thought processes at once and participating in a slow, laborious process. It would be akin to digging up a completed large artifact, rather than smaller pieces that are later glued together. The “layered” approach allows me to enjoy the beauty within each piece, and all the more as they are brought together.
Is creating difficult for you? Do you find it laborious? Try separating its layers. Sometimes, creating one layer at a time is the best way to keep the project easy and retain the joy of creation. And if creation is to be our work, should we not take joy in it?
You may read this article on Medium if you wish.
The creative process is innately unpredictable. Many a creator can relate to the simultaneous frustration, elation, and “zany fun” that this produces. I have used many analogies to describe this: an archaeologist, a city, and a cat among them. I believe I have found another analogy that is aptly suited.
Creativity is like Chinese Checkers. If you are not familiar with the game, then I will briefly outline its rules (it is very simple).
For the sake of simplicity, let us suppose that there are two players (though the game can accommodate up to six). Each player begins with a set of small pieces, and the object of the game is to move one’s pieces into his opponent’s territory. The opponent, of course, will attempt to do the same, and will also attempt to block the other player’s movements.
There are two ways to move around the board. The simplest way is to move a piece one space over in any direction. This is reliable, but slow and predictable. The second way involves jumping over an existing piece (whether it is one’s own piece or his opponent’s). If multiple pieces are lined up in a particular way, then multiple jumps can occur in the same turn. Using this technique, experienced players may set up their pieces to form “bridges” that allow fluid and quick movement into their opponent’s territory. The game becomes quite interesting as both players attempt to build their own bridges, use their opponent’s pieces as parts of the bridge, and block each other from doing the same. This simple ruleset results in fascinating exchanges of moves and countermoves.
These “bridges” are not always apparent. Sometimes, one must simply make a first jump before realizing the rest of the path. Other times, several moves must be made in advance to set up a future bridge. In many instances, the process cannot be planned beyond several moves ahead, as the configuration of the game pieces is constantly changing.
As I played one such game, it occurred to me that this resembled the creative process. To visualize an entire bridge at once would be akin to “sudden inspiration.” Many such paths are only apparent once a bridge has already been set up (or nearly set up). Many pieces must often be set up before a bridge is possible, and a player does not always know which pieces these will be. The longer the game continues, the more possibilities for bridges exist, and therefore, the higher the likelihood of such an inspiration. Sometimes, the creator starts the process (such as by sketching a random idea). Other times, the “muse” begins the process (an idea randomly “pops into a creator’s head” as he performs a household chore). If one’s muse does not begin the game, then the creator must.
Many creators make the mistake of waiting until they are “inspired,” or can create a complete project all at once. They wait; they do not act. This is akin to predicting the exact moves that will occur over the course of an entire game; it is, of course, impossible! Rare is the creator who can rely on random inspiration alone, and these astonishing stories often give rise to the myth that one must possess so special a gift. The truth is far simpler, and far easier to execute. There is but one thing that a creator must accomplish: the first move. He need not have completed the game in his mind. He need only begin it in the real world.
Some creators make this first move, abandoning the project when there is no counter-move. They believe that this means they lack a muse, and therefore, lack a “creative gift.” In reality, it does not mean this at all! It simply means that one’s muse is stubborn. It may not wish to “play” at this time. You have not formed a friendship with it. The solution is simple: keep creating. Continue to make moves. Return the next day (preferably at the same time) and make another attempt. One may need to make several moves, or even set up an entire bridge, before his muse makes a single move. Many creators simply give up before this happens. If inspiration is not forthcoming, it is usually better to keep creating anyway. As others have said, “Inspiration comes in the eighth hour of labor,” and one’s muse can be notoriously particular. If one continues this, the muse eventually “gets the message” and sits down for a game. Creative professionals can make inspiration appear on command because they have forged a lifelong kinship with their muse; the two know each other well. Get to know yours! You may find him a formidable and entertaining game partner.
Other creators make the first move and continue for a time, only to be discouraged later. They set up a bridge, only for their opponent to block it. If this happens, do not despair! One does not quit the game at this point, does he? No, he simply devises and executes a countermove. After all, an unexpected move by one’s opponent does not instantly result in a loss, and an unexpected alteration to the creative process does not mean the project has failed. These frustrations of the initial plan often create other possibilities. A player does not cede the match when his bridge fails; he simply uses his opponent’s move as an opportunity. One should embrace this; it is part of the game! A bridge that was initially straight may now possess a sharp curve, or even cause some pieces to move backwards. These sorts of changes may occur until the very final move. Like Chinese Checkers, creativity is not controlled by only one party, but by many. Chinese Checkers is controlled by two or more players; creativity is controlled by two or more aspects of our personalities.
To overthink, over-analyze, or “force,” this process is akin to cheating (for example, by rearranging an opponent’s pieces). This, of course, produces no joy in the game and increases the chance that one’s opponent will simply leave. This, in turn, destroys the creativity and produces a “manufactured” result. The best creators do not manufacture; they “play the game.” They may begin with a rough plan, but it is always flexible. They, like their opponents, are masters of adaptation.
And creativity, like Chinese Checkers, is fun. At its core, it is a game. The best creativity occurs when the creator freely enjoys the process. Though it may be our job, we must retain the child-like joy of it. We must not treat it like a chore, but like the never-ending game that it truly is.
However, creativity is better than a mere game. With creativity, there are no winners or losers; there are only creators, audiences, and the imagination. With a sincerely-felt, well-crafted project, everyone wins.
Have you ever wished you could create something? Perhaps you have an idea already? Or perhaps you are “stuck”? Maybe you are still looking for your muse?
What are you waiting for? Make that first move!
You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.
In the music profession, advice related to the amount of practicing one must do each day abounds. One may have heard that it requires 10,000 hours of practice with an instrument to acquire a “virtuoso” level of skill with it. One may have also heard that several hours of practice per day are required; advice ranges from three to six hours, or even up to eight, depending upon the instrument in question.
There is no doubt that much practice is required to achieve mastery, and that few are willing to invest this much time in learning such a craft. It puzzles me, however, that I have rarely heard this advice given to composers. If one does not speak in these terms, then in what terms does one speak in? How does one achieve creative mastery without thinking in this way? Why is this so, and what might it imply for other aspiring creative professionals?
The language of composers and those in several other professions appears to be different. Composers often speak of the projects over which they currently labor, as well as the projects that they complete. Visual artists speak in the same terms. Authors may speak of their daily word count, though there seems to be no universal agreement regarding what it ought to be; rather, most authors speak in terms of their latest completed work.
The commonality between these professionals is the language of completion. Each creative project is a specific goal that may be broken into simple steps. Each step becomes a sub-project, and the sub-projects are completed before they are brought together to form a coherent whole. My composition teacher never recommended a number of hours for a student to “practice composition”; he simply set deadlines for completion of the projects, and the student had to invest whatever time was necessary to meet these deadlines. Some projects were simple, taking less than an hour to complete. Others were longer-term projects, requiring hours of time invested every day for several months. In many cases, a student worked on multiple projects at a time that varied in length and difficulty. “Putting in the hours” was a means to an end, but was not, itself, the goal.
I have always thought and worked more effectively on these terms. I find simply “putting in the hours” to stifle creativity, as it becomes a directionless, aimless exercise in maintenance. Maintenance of skills is, of course, vital, but it appears that it may be more effectively achieved in service of a greater goal. After all, would one send a ship on a long journey without a destination?
In fact, as I work to complete various projects, I find that I end up investing ample time in the practice of my craft. The time investment is a by-product, or simply a necessary step, rather than the goal. Completing my latest work required several hours of composition daily, which, in turn, required the use of melody, counterpoint, harmony, form, knowledge of instrumentation, editing and engraving, and other aspects of the craft. My skills were maintained and strengthened, and I received for my efforts a completed, saleable project.
To conclude, “putting in the time” seems to be only half of the equation. The other half, and perhaps the more important half, would appear to be the achievement of goals. After all, no one speaks of Beethoven thus: “Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time; he spent more hours composing than any of his contemporaries.” Rather, we speak of his ingenious piano sonatas, his epic symphonies, and his innovative use of musical structure. The focus is on his accomplishments, rather than on his processes.
Perhaps this is how a creator should approach all of his work. As one of my trumpet teachers was fond of saying, “Think product, not process.” And, as one of my composition teachers said, “It doesn’t matter how long it took him; all that matters is if it’s any good or not!”
You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.
I am quite strange. My wife would most heartily agree (as would nearly everyone else who knows me). However, my strangeness within the musical community is of a different sort. Nearly every other composer I know begins a project by sitting down at a computer and inputting notes using a mouse and keyboard. Others record their ideas by playing them and recording them, using an electronic piano connected to their workstation. Yet others forego the notation entirely, opting to go straight into the digital audio software and record each track layer by layer. These appear to be the tools of choice for the modern composer or music producer.
I create my music by hand. In music school, I had physical staff paper, on which I scribbled ideas with a physical pencil. I sat at a piano and “roughed out” the harmonies, painstakingly manipulating every note. Early in my studies, I would write even the final score with a pencil and paper, using notation software afterward only to neaten things up and copy the parts for the performers.
I still do this. Although I now use a tablet with an electronic pen, the process is still very much the same as it was years ago. I open OneNote, import a PDF file of blank staff paper, and begin sketching. There are no software bugs to worry about, no workarounds, no strange procedures; only me, my imagination, and the music. Once finished with this phase, I write the piece in a more complete form using StaffPad notation software (which, by the way, is some of the best notation software I have ever used). Why do I prefer this? It combines the natural feel of writing by hand with the advantages that one often wishes technology would confer. It plays back my ideas, allowing me to create detailed audio mockups. It copies parts for me. It allows me to copy and paste where needed, reducing the possibility of error (though I prefer not to overuse repetitive patterns in my music). For me, this software is true to its slogan: “Write naturally.”
After completing the project this way, I export it into software called Sibelius, which allows me to make the final product look “ship-shape” for performers. I may add program notes, performance notes, and other special markings. I may also make musical changes, though these are usually light edits (by this point, the music itself has already been thoroughly edited).
The creative work, however, is done almost entirely by hand. Apparently, this is unusual. If I love technology (which I very much do), why do I feel the need to rely on techniques often considered archaic? I have pondered my reasons for this, and, while I have found several possibilities, none of them fully explain this phenomenon. I write many of my stories (or, rather, chunks of them) by hand as well. In fact, since childhood, I have written most of my initial drafts, be they stories or music, by hand. Perhaps the fundamental reason for this is simple: I have been using this technique for the longest time, and it therefore feels most natural.
This was no more clearly illustrated to me than when I took a course in electro-acoustic composition. The course was taught completely within an audio production environment and relied completely on software. It was quite enlightening and provided me with a number of valuable skills (and was quite a bit of fun). The professor was absolutely brilliant. However, I noticed that my creativity struggled during the course in ways that it had not struggled before. For most of the first semester, I could not figure out why this was. After completing several projects that, while they received passing grades, were not my best work, I realized that the electronic tools simply felt unnatural to me. I was not sure why. I am still not.
By the end of the course, they felt natural. (I believe this is a testament to the professor’s great patience.) However, I still prefer to compose my scores by hand, performing audio production, engraving, and other software-reliant functions after the fact. Though one may be tempted to believe that writing by hand slows my process, I can in fact perform it very quickly. In fact, I can compose music more quickly through a “handwriting first” approach than through a “directly-to-software” approach. I believe this is simply because my creative process works more effectively through handwriting, while my ideas do not flow as freely within a software environment. Perhaps this has more to do with the nature of my muse than with the process itself.
Why does my muse prefer handwriting to software? Perhaps this is akin to asking, “Why does my cat prefer one treat over another?” Truthfully, I do not believe it matters. If your muse comes to you, then your process is fine, whether it is considered strange or not.
You may read this article on Medium if you wish.
Many would likely hear my music and think it simple. They are correct; it is often exceedingly simple. Much of it sounds as though it was written in only a matter of days, or even in a single sitting, as though I were writing a letter. If one were to hear my latest project, they might believe it was written in mere hours. And indeed, I sometimes hear the question, “How long did that take you?”
For that project, the answer is, “Roughly four months.” The piece is less than fifteen minutes long. The melodies are simple, the structure of the piece is straightforward (though not without the occasional surprise), and the piece demands little in the way of virtuoso technique. And yet, the time required to complete the project seems incredibly disproportionate to the result. Why is this so?
I will return to the analogy of the archaeologist. If he seeks a large, complex statue, and it is intact, he is likely to find it in short order. One simply cannot hide a large object of that nature from trained eyes and practiced excavators for long. If the archaeologist seeks a smaller object, however, he may search for quite some time. After all, it may be buried beneath many other objects, or perhaps even buried within a larger, more complex object. Even after recovering it, he may need to clean the mud off of it, dust it off, and polish it before it will reveal its true beauty.
So it is with creativity. The simplest ideas often take the longest to compose because they are not truly composed, but are discovered. It is easier to discover a large, complicated object (if it is intact) than it is to dust off a small, simple object. The large, obvious object possesses intricate beauty that is often plain from the beginning. The small, simple object takes much time and effort to even locate, and then requires meticulous detail work to reach its potential. Simple ideas require much care and are often challenging to work with. Writing a simple, memorable, beautiful melody is difficult. It is work. It takes time and requires great patience. Some audiences may even criticize the composer as “overly simplistic”, “passé”, or even “amateurish.” Given this risk and the amount of effort involved, why would one bother to write simple ideas at all? Why expend such a large amount of work for such a small return?
Because the return is not small. The simplest ideas speak most loudly. They affect audiences most directly. They are instantly memorable, and because of this, they endure. A simple eight-bar melody could be played live only once, but could then be “stuck” within the mind of an audience member. Contentedly, he hums the tune to himself as he walks out of the concert hall. From here, the tune makes its way into the ears of a passerby, who hums it to another, who hums it others, who whistle it to yet others. By the performance of one single, simple tune, the composer has now benefited countless individuals, some of whom did not even attend the concert. The melody has acquired a life all its own and continues to spread. In this way, a simple tune is one of the only beneficial pandemics.
Is there a place for complex ideas? Of course. There are numerous masterworks that are extraordinarily complex that have endured among audiences for centuries. Interestingly, the greatest masterworks are usually based on only a few simple ideas, which are then developed in complex fashion. A fugue, after all, possesses only a few short motives, each of which may only be several measures in length, but the motives are developed in ingeniously intricate ways (the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach come to mind). To use a linguistic analogy (and music is a language), this is akin to a discussion of an ageless topic. For example, the concept of “joy” is simple. Discussing it or experiencing it, however, will reveal countless meanings and permutations of the topic that are not immediately apparent. Joy can be explosive. It can be contented. It can be sustained or short-lived. It can come from within or without. It can be intrinsic or acquired. Like a color, it possesses many shades. An observant creator will know how to explore this. A master composer can take a simple motif and convey a variety of emotions through use of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and a great plethora of other expressive tools. A writer will put an apparently simple character through numerous trials; by the end of the novel, the reader feels as though the character is a personal friend. A painter can pull the viewer into the image so vividly that it seems real.
How do I know when I have found the right idea? It continuously plays back in my mind, changing as it does so. The tune flies, runs, walks, dances, sings, and chirps its way through the entire orchestra. My mind simply cannot let it go; the possibilities prove inexhaustible. It is but a single spark, but lights an inspirational fire such as cannot be put out. Once this happens, the piece almost “composes itself”, often very quickly.
But reaching this point can take significant time and be fraught with frustration. It will feel as though no progress is being made, no inspiration found, no joy partaken of. One might compare it to beginning an exercise routine; for the initial stages, it will simply hurt. One will see no results. One may even wish to give up. But through persistence, the results begin to show. With music composition, they even begin to compound, and the process accelerates. Eventually, it reaches a “critical mass,” after which it often completes in a creative flash.
For me, this most often happens with a single, simple idea. While they appear small or insignificant, and may even be initially derided, they require great patience to cultivate and will grow into far more than the simple seeds from which they began.
You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.
My readers may note the dearth of posts regarding creativity from me for the past several weeks. The reason for this is simple: I was composing a rather major musical work that took roughly four months. To meet the deadline, I had to put all other creative projects on hold (including blog posts) for the final month. I am happy with how the project turned out, but after completing it, I am rather exhausted. This fatigue led me to ponder the reason this occurs, and the place of rest in the creative professional’s life.
Why does one require rest after completing such a large project? Why is it not sufficient to simply continue on to the next project without delay? What, precisely, is being refreshed, and how? How much rest is sufficient? Is this sort of creativity even good for the creator? These questions are quite broad, and likely cannot be adequately explored by a single article. However, it may be worthwhile to offer some brief thoughts.
I have read about two types of creative routines. I will call them “Sustained” and “Burst.” The sustained creator engages in smaller acts of creativity that, due to their consistency, add up over time. This person may work on one or multiple projects, and will complete them at different times. The most important aspect of this is the habit itself: the creator must maintain the momentum.
“Burst” creators perform the opposite act: they will be at rest, and then will suddenly begin work on a project (usually a major one). This project will consume all of their creative hours, and perhaps even spill into the rest of their schedule (to the irritation of a gracious spouse). This may continue for weeks, months, or even years. The creator, in a sense, becomes “possessed” by the process. Once it is complete, the creator feels spent. He puts the project away, elated at having completed such a monumental work and excited for the effect it will have on his audience. After a brief time of renewed energy, he is suddenly exhausted. He may attempt to create something else, but this attempt often ends with a result that is merely derivative of the recently-created large work – if it results in anything at all.
Thus, the creator takes a well-earned rest. With the significant amount of advice given to writers on the Internet, one could be forgiven for believing that such a time of rest is harmful. It is not. In fact, it is essential. For a major work, a creator “puts his soul on the page.” It is an extension of himself, and requires intense concentration for a prolonged period of time. Would one begrudge an athlete his repose after a lengthy demonstration of endurance? Would one think ill of a doctor for taking several weeks off after working long shifts for many months? Would one even be able to sustain such an intense pace without rest?
I would suspect not. It seems often assumed that, because creators love their work to such a degree, they should enjoy the act of continued creation regardless of when it occurs. Many see it as more akin to recreation than to work. Of course, it is most enjoyable. There are few thrills in life greater than that of penning the first notes of a symphonic suite, typing the first words of a novel, or putting the first stroke of the paintbrush onto the canvas. There are few things that bring more delight to a creator than seeing their creation travel gradually from formless to form, from nonexistence to existence, from idea to completed work. There are few things more gratifying, rewarding, and joyful for a creator than the praise of an audience member. There are few things that invigorate a composer more than to hear a listener humming the melody he has written after the concert, or an artist to see many people gathered around her painting to admire it, or an author to hear of his readers’ delight in a favorite character. It is completely true that creators love their work!
However, it must be duly noted that it is still work. Like any profession, it must be practiced to proficiency, even if one is terrible at it in the beginning. It must be engaged in every day with consistency, whether one “feels like it” or not. It is enjoyable, but it still possesses challenges that must be overcome.
And like any work, one must, from time to time, rest from it. The most efficient cleaning cloth must still be cleaned, wrung out, and permitted to dry; it cannot simply keep going indefinitely. As I write this, it strikes me that both creative types require this same rest. Therefore, the real question might be, “Which creative process is superior?”
I believe the answer is, “The one that works for you.” Numerous creators have used both processes throughout history. Ultimately, the only questions that matter are:
- Does the creator create work of good quality?
- Does the creator meet the deadlines?
- Does the creator avoid “burnout”?
Of course, Burst Creativity carries an added risk: the loss of the creative routine once a project is complete. This, in turn, can make it more difficult to begin another major project, and can also cause smaller projects to suffer. It may even cause the creator to despise the process!
How does one mitigate this risk? As someone who has “burst-created” many projects, this is a question that I often ask. My solution has actually been to become more of a sustained creator, but with occasional bursts when necessary. After all, it is easier to speed up an object that is already moving than to begin its motion anew. Here is my process:
- When finished with a major project, I may take a short period of complete rest. I do nothing of real value during this time. It is a time of relaxation and slowed pace.
- After this brief period, I look at my list of current projects. This helps me to regain excitement for new creativity.
- I begin working on a simpler project (or continue an old one). This is usually a project that I believe I can complete within a short timeframe. Sometimes, this “project” may only be an exercise that is not intended for an audience.
- I complete the project, which makes me feel even more energized and encouraged. Because this project was small, it did not require as much creative energy, and so will not require as much rest afterward. My creative momentum will be maintained.
This process allows me to ease back into the creative flow, rather than forcing it. It gives me the satisfaction of completion without necessitating another significant rest period (and therefore, a disruption to the creative momentum), and it still allows me to “burst” my creativity when necessary. It seems that this “recovery phase” is key. Neglecting Step 1 may “run me ragged,” and make future projects sounds derivative of previous ones. Neglecting Step 2 can cause me to create aimlessly, prolonging the delay in regaining creative momentum (since the project is not completed). Attempting a project that is too difficult in Steps 3 and 4 can cause discouragement, which makes it more difficult to “awaken the muse.” And the muse can only wake up if he has received sufficient sleep to begin with.
It seems that this blog post has served well as a simple, quick creative project. What a delightful way to begin the week! I hope it has encouraged you as well.
You may also read this article on Medium, if you wish.
We have all experienced this. A project is “firing on all cylinders.” The “neighborhood cat” (our inspiration – our “muse,” if you’ll pardon the pun) has not only come to you, but is now spending every waking minute with you. You need scarcely bait him anymore, as he comes of his own accord and nearly never leaves. He wakes you up during the night demanding attention (you hear an idea in your mind and simply must write it down). Many creatives find this part of the process annoying, just as we might find such a creature annoying (though adorable). How does one manage this aspect of the process?
By embracing it. It is unpredictable. Sometimes, inspiration does happen while we are writing. This is wonderful. For me, however, it seems to appear mostly when I am not working. I will write during the day, often “beating myself against the wall” and making little progress, only for the idea I seek to fall into my lap right before I fall asleep that evening. Like a cat, inspiration cannot be truly controlled. It can only be embraced.
I am grateful to have married someone who understands this (my wife is an artist). She does not need to ask, “Why are you waking up again? That’s the third time tonight!” She knows exactly why and simply smiles to herself when it happens. This is also, perhaps, why creatives are considered strange (I must, of course, address such a scandalous rumor: it is completely, utterly, and absolutely…true). Our muse may come to us at the most inopportune times. I will be having a conversation with someone, and will suddenly need to leave the room for a moment. Why? To write down a melody that has begun to play in my mind. Sometimes, I will even start conducting. I simply cannot help it. My wife and I will be taking a walk, and she will be speaking to me. After a few moments, she tells me, “You’re far away.” She is right; I have just paid an unintended visit to my inner world. After all, a cat that visits you demands attention, and is woefully ignorant of the word “no.”
What happens if one refuses his muse? Simple: if one does this enough times, the muse will stop visiting. The cat will conclude that it does not receive any treats, and will look elsewhere. The only way to guarantee that he spends time with you is to consistently have a treat ready. (This is one of the main reasons to have a creative routine: one cannot wait for the cat to arrive. He must continue to display the treats and remain present when the cat arrives.)
Conversely, what happens if one continues to indulge his muse, even after a period of inactivity? The muse never leaves. He continues to demand more treats, more time, and more attention. This can result in lost sleep, forgetfulness, and all manner of other odd “symptoms.” In fact, if one is not careful, this can have a most negative effect on relationships and personal safety (I do not advocate allowing the process to endanger these things, of course – one must be reasonable).
Do these aspects of the process make it worth it? In my mind, absolutely. There is simply no “rush” comparable to that of hearing one’s musical compositions performed well, to an enthusiastic audience response. There are few greater joys than learning of a reader’s delight in a story I have written. Yet ultimately, I do not feel that I can take credit for this. It is not the product of my own labor, but that of my muse. The muse brought the ideas to me; I merely transcribed them and cleaned them up.
And his muse, in the end, is what a composer must trust.