Creativity: How to Put in the Time

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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!”

Creativity: Writing by Hand

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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.

Why does creating a simple idea take so long?

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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.

Creativity: After Completing a Major Project

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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:

  1. Does the creator create work of good quality?
  2. Does the creator meet the deadlines?
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. After this brief period, I look at my list of current projects. This helps me to regain excitement for new creativity.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

When a creative project is going 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.

Advice to Myself

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I have been writing a piece of music for some time that has brought no small amount of frustration. The creative process has fought me at every turn, each note being a battle within a seemingly never-ending creative war. This has happened before, and it will likely happen again. In fact, many creators seem to struggle with this at one time or another. Realizing this, I stepped back and asked, “If one of my students encountered this struggle, what advice would I give them?” So, this brief article consists of “advice to myself,” and I write it in the hope that it will help me and anyone else who encounters this fiendish bout of anti-creativity.

  1. When you write, do not write immediately. Begin imagining, thinking and getting into character. Let the music or the prose flow from these things.
  2. When you struggle to make the notes appear, stop making them and allow them to flow on their own. The best creativity is not forced by another; it flows of its own accord.
  3. Do not compose; transcribe. Transcribe what? The music that is already in your mind. You need not invent it; it builds itself. The problem is not a lack of ideas, but an excess of judgment regarding those ideas. Write them down and explore them.
  4. Do not control the process; trust it.
  5. Creativity is a process of discovery. Remember the archaeologist; he does not create a new piece of pottery, but simply digs it up and assembles it, one piece at a time.
  6. Explore each idea without judging it. Ask, “What if I invert these three notes? What if I speed up this rhythm? What happens if I introduce this theme near the middle of the piece, rather than at the beginning?” The question, “What if?” is the key to creativity.
  7. You will probably come up with garbage at first. Keep digging in the dirt. Eventually, something interesting will turn up.
  8. The creative process handsomely rewards patience; a good idea is worth the waiting and the effort. It is better to spend several months creating a good main theme (which will enable you to finish the piece within two more weeks), than it is to spend three months slogging through an entire piece with a weak main theme, only to throw it away out of frustration.
  9. When process fights me, it is usually because the main theme I have chosen is not very good. By this, I mean that the theme is inflexible; I am unable to do much with it. My composition teacher said, “If you get a good idea, you’ll know it because you’ll smile. Your brain will go, ‘I can write it this way, or that way, or develop it in another way.’” The best ideas offer numerous possibilities. One might even say that the best ideas are, in and of themselves, worlds to be explored. If I do not have a good melody, the creative process becomes a battle. If I have a good melody, the piece “writes itself.”
  10. Be willing to throw away a bad project. I have done this many times, and I have even done so with this particular project. Usually, the process works something like this:
    1. I spend several months on a project, frustrated at my lack of progress.
    1. I conclude that the project isn’t working, and I throw it away.
    1. I begin the project again with a newer, better idea.
    1. I complete the project within a matter of weeks, amazed that it has worked so well.
    1. This requires me to trust that the process will, ultimately, work out.
  11. Give the current project a break and focus on a different one. Write a simple piece that can be finished in a short amount of time; this will boost your confidence and remind you that you can still do this.
  12. Go outside for a walk. This can encourage more good ideas to visit you.
  13. Read, watch, or listen to something inspiring or energizing.
  14. Read about other creatives who have encountered this battle. It is more common than many might think!
  15. Watch bloopers. It reminds you that even professionals can make mistakes and recover.
  16. Show some of your ideas to friends or relatives. Your ideas may be better than you realize; I have heard it said, “Composers don’t always know what they’ve written.”
  17. Approach the process with a childlike curiosity and joy.
  18. Ask, “What is the central idea that I wish to convey with this work?” Focus on this.
  19. Do not criticize your work while you are exploring. My trumpet teacher would say, “Do not criticize when you create.” This is akin to criticizing the sand while one digs, or criticizing the small pieces of pottery before knowing how they fit together. It is often worth it to give each idea a chance.
  20. Good ideas are often simple.

There is certainly more advice to be had. I am sure I will find myself in need of it!

For Discussion

  1. What is some of the most valuable creative advice you have received?
  2. Have you ever felt as though the creative process fought you? How did you solve it?
  3. Have you ever discarded a project? Were you able to create a better one afterward?

Why do I get so many ideas right before I fall asleep?

If you wish, you may also read this article on Medium.

Why, indeed, does my mind suddenly awake when the rest of me should be falling asleep? I have a theory. Most of the day, the part of my brain that deals with logic, following established procedures, and critique, is awake. It is quite useful, as it allows me to recall the proper way to do household chores, the correct way to spell a word, and the practical range of a given instrument so that I write music that is actually playable. However, creativity is often a challenge during this part of the day. It can take real effort to cause it to awaken, and sometimes this does not even work. Why is this so?

One may recall the analogy from a previous article, about the traffic cop and the archaeologist. To expand upon this analogy: our minds are like cities. During the day, there is traffic everywhere. Cars move to their usual destinations, buses follow their predetermined routes, and cyclists move about their daily exercise routines. The traffic cop is quite at home in this environment; he knows the rules by which everything should operate, and directs the activity accordingly.

At night, however, there is little traffic. Because there is so little traffic, there is little need for anyone to direct it. This creates plenty of space for the safe movement of other vehicles or people. It is, therefore, the perfect environment for the archaeologist. It is the perfect environment for discovery. It is the perfect environment for experimentation with previously unexplored directions. One can drive on the wrong side of the street. One can ride his bicycle in a strange pattern. One may experiment with all manner of unusual methods. (I would, of course, advise against doing any of these things in the real world.)

During the daytime, our minds are full of the many tasks that must be accomplished. I must wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and perform numerous other jobs. Each job involves only a simple procedure that may not require much thought, but taken together, they can create quite the “traffic jam” if not managed in an orderly fashion. The logical mind is essential for this. In fact, an archaeologist poking around in this environment can cause many problems (have you ever dropped something or tripped over something while daydreaming?)!

During the nighttime, our minds are clear. The tasks of the day have been completed. For the moment, there is little else with which to concern ourselves. There is little “traffic” in our mental space, which allows more room for creativity. The mind finds no critical tasks in the outside world; being a pattern-seeking device, it attempts to create its own patterns. It is in this environment that the act of creation takes place. As mentioned in a previous article, the act of creation invents new systems, rather than using established ones.

How can one harness this, especially if one must be concerned with a deadline? One solution is to simply move one’s creative time to the evenings. Many creators have done this. I have done this. During my university years, there was little other time to create, as the daytime was filled with classes and rehearsals.

Another solution is to simply keep one’s mind clear during the daylight hours. Done properly, this can be a powerful tool, as it allows the mind to create during the time of day when it has not yet exerted itself. There are many methods for doing this, too numerous to list here, but I will outline several that have worked for me.

1. The Walking Method. One of my favorite methods is to write down fragments of ideas, and then go out for a walk. Being outside and walking gives my “traffic cop” a simple task to regulate, distracting it. This, combined with the constant inspiration of nature and the previously-written idea, allows my “archaeologist” to play with the idea nonstop and generate new ones. After my walk, I can simply write the ideas down. Composer John Mackey says his process is similar (he has written a fascinating article about this here).

2. The Gaming Method. I play a fairly mindless videogame with the sound (or at least the music) turned off. The repetitive nature of the game lulls my traffic cop into a sense of complacency, allowing the archaeologist to explore unimpeded. I have composed several works this way.

3. The Acting Method (pun intended — look, it rhymes as well!). I focus on the “emotional core” of what I am creating, and then get in character as an actor might. If I am writing a piece of music that sounds excited, then I will attempt to get excited. Mentally, I will place myself in the scene. From there, the music can flow quite freely.

What do I do when I get an idea before falling asleep? This happens frequently, and I have lost no small amount of sleep because of this. The “muses,” as some may call them, can be quite the insistent bunch! When this happens, I know that I am unlikely to get any sleep with the idea rattling around in my mind, so I simply get up and write down the idea. Usually, I do not flesh it out completely; I write only enough to be able to remember it the next day. It might not even be properly notated. I might only have written a simple melodic fragment, with instructions such as “add a distant glockenspiel tone here” or “texture this with high, quiet strings.” The point is not to properly work with the idea, but only to store it until I have more time to realize its potential. The aforementioned “walking method” may serve this purpose well.

All of these methods accomplish the same thing: putting the “traffic cop” to sleep when he is more likely to interfere than to help. After all, he is better used after the creative process has finished its work. He is, by nature, an editor. He directs the traffic, but only the archaeologist can create the paths.

Unusually for me, this article was written in an evening, and most of it flowed out of me in a single sitting. Perhaps I have put the traffic cop to sleep for now. And perhaps, now that I have written some ideas down, my muses will allow me to sleep tonight?

Update: they did not. My muses kept me awake for quite some time, bombarding me with new ideas. Perhaps I must simply get used to this?

When creativity does not go where predicted

             

You may read this article on Medium if you wish.

You have decided to write a mystery novel. You sit at your desk, pencil in hand, excitement about to pour onto the page. You focus the excitement into the first sentence. You tell us about a detective who has just begun the toughest case of his life. He collects the evidence, he interviews the witnesses, he follows the clues. You are near the end of the story. It is nearly time to reveal the culprit. Your pencil nearly meets the paper…and then halts.

What if this person really isn’t guilty? What if this isn’t the entire story? What if the detective was merely an unwitting pawn in a much larger, and more dangerous, game?

Your writing completely changes directions. Now, the conflict is not only between multiple characters, but between you and the creative process. The original idea for your story was fine. Readers would have loved it. You were ecstatic as you approached the ending. Yet now, your mind seems fixated, even obsessed, with this new idea. The story appears to have taken on a life of its own. Why does this happen?

Consider a housecat (I have used this analogy before): it does not appear when called. Even if one baits it with treats, there are no guarantees. The cat may appear to obey commands, but it is not truly loyal to you; it is loyal only to its treats and whims. If it ceases to obey commands or be persuaded by the treats you have offered, then something else has captured its interest. Therefore, the only way to keep its attention is to follow its interests, rather than your own.

So it is with the creative process. Attempts to control it in the same manner in which one controls a mechanical tool often meet with failure. The creative process is not a mere tool; it bears greater resemblance to a person. It cannot, and should not, be controlled. It need only be guided, and, where necessary, followed.

This requires a high degree of trust between a creator and the process. We are accustomed to control. We are used to predictability. This is not wrong, of course. Without these things, life could easily turn into chaos. For many professions, procedure is critical. One must be able to predict that an aircraft will function safely, or that a medicine will cure a disease, or that a building will not collapse.

Creativity, however, seems to function differently. As stated in a previous article, any attempt to impose set procedures onto it appears to destroy it. It cannot be led. It does the leading. Many creators spend their entire lives learning how to trust its lead, even when its destination is not clear.

How does one accomplish this when a deadline nears? In the professional world, “writer’s block” is no more valid an excuse than “doctor’s block” would be to a surgeon. A film soundtrack must be completed before the film is released. A book must be published by a certain date to maximize sales. A musical composition for the concert hall must be completed in time to allow the performers to rehearse it. How does one make the creative process reliable while still ensuring a good, original result?

The aforementioned trust is one side of the coin. The other side is the editor. We all know him. In a previous article, I called him the “traffic cop.” He is the one who guides the process once it has done much of its work. He is the one who ensures that a composition does not veer “off the rails.” He makes certain that the work is understandable to an audience. He guarantees that a work remains within the scope of what is called for. After all, one would not compose a symphony when only a thirty-second commercial jingle was required. One would not paint an ultra-realistic landscape if only a picture of a flower was needed. One would not write a novel if only a blog post was requested.

One may take small ideas and develop them further, of course. Some of my best ideas (though perhaps I should allow the listener to be the judge) have begun as simple tunes. Melodies originally intended only to introduce television shows have been arranged into full concert suites (the Star Trek music is notable for this). Conversely, melodies from large-scale symphonies or suites have become so popular that they are often repurposed for commercial applications (with examples too numerous to list here). The creative process is remarkably adaptable. In fact, this adaptability requires and reinforces a different sort of trust. The “cat” and the “traffic cop” must learn to trust each other, and the creator must learn to trust both.

For Discussion

  1. How have you learned to trust your “inner traffic cop” and your “inner cat”?
  2. Does your creative process resemble this, or is your experience different?
  3. Have you ever created an idea with one purpose, only for it to change later?

Why is it difficult to “teach creativity”?

If you wish, you may also read this article on Medium.

Why is it difficult to impart the creative flow to another? Why does it defy all attempts to systematize it? Why is it so difficult to explain what happens during the process? While I do not believe to have found all of the answers, perhaps this brief article will point in the right direction.

In physics, there is a principle known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that it is impossible to know all properties about a given particle at the same time, since the act of measuring a property will change it. Imagine that you are in a dark room, and that you have a bouncing ball in your hand. You can see nothing, but you must locate another bouncing ball that is floating somewhere in the room. The only way to do this is to bounce your ball off of the other, using the sound of the bounce to tell where the other ball is. The problem? As soon as your ball hits the other ball, they will both change positions and trajectories. This makes your measurement an approximation at best, and useless at worst. Thus, it is impossible to know the exact position of the other ball.

Creativity seems to behave in this way. Any attempt to define it, or to impose a system onto it, destroys the act of creating. Why is this so?

The brain naturally seeks patterns. If it does not find one, it will create one. It will innately impose structure onto the unstructured, and this is one of its great strengths.

When it is simply receiving information, it is receiving preexisting patterns and storing them for future use. This does not require it to create anything. When it generates information (through creativity), it is creating new patterns. Attempting to impose an existing pattern onto a pattern that the brain is attempting to create will interfere with the act of creation. In fact, it will turn the act of creation (a generative act) into a receptive act.

Consider the archaeologist (I am fond of this analogy): the act of digging in the dirt is like the creative process. When a priceless artifact is simply handed to the archaeologist, he will no longer need to dig. When a teacher attempts to impose a system onto a student’s creative process, he ruins the creativity and turns the unique act of it into merely another exercise in recall.

How, then, does a teacher “teach creativity”? Paradoxically, by not teaching it. A child will play with blocks, paints, or other objects without being told. He will make a fine mess in a sandbox without being taught how. We are born knowing how to “dig in the dirt.” Therefore, a teacher does not need to teach this skill. He need only show the student where to dig. As stated in a previous article, creativity and curiosity are not skills to be taught, but instincts to be recovered.

Instead of providing a detailed process through which a student will always arrive at a polished result, the teacher need only provide a prompt, such as “make up some sad music.” The student will explore sad-sounding motifs, harmonies, melodies, and colors on his own.

Notice the use of the word explore. One of the most unique, essential, beneficial, and enjoyable aspects of the creative process is its randomness. Uncertainty provides the environment that lights the spark of curiosity. Curiosity, in turn, fuels the exploration that is the very lifeblood of creativity. Certainty of outcome makes this exploration unnecessary, which, in turn, makes curiosity unnecessary. The student must feel free to, as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances, and get messy.” (Magic School Bus, anyone?) They must be free to be curious.

To summarize, creativity cannot be “taught”; it can only be “pointed at.” It cannot be systematized; it creates its own systems. It cannot be defined; it writes its own definitions. The key to imparting it to another is not to open the door for them, but to show them that they already possess the key. One need not control the creative fire; he need only ensure that it ignites.