“Forcing” Creativity

              Many years ago, I had a discussion with a fellow composer regarding the creative process. We were both students in an electro-acoustic composition class, and there were two other students who were not composition majors. As far as we knew, they had never composed music before. The professor asked us if we had any advice for them.

              I started by saying that composing music was a planned process, and that the structure of a piece should be mapped out before composing. This seemed to make sense to them.

              My friend completely disagreed. He said that his process was random, chaotic, and that his initial ideas would determine or clarify the structure as he went along. He did not want to “force’ his ideas into a given structure. Over the years, I’ve reflected on this and concluded that we were both “right.” Here’s how:

              My composition teacher (not the same professor for this class) said that the most terrifying thing for a composer was a blank page. This is not because we can’t think of anything, but the opposite: we think of everything, all at once. We see numerous possibilities. We could write a joyful piece. We could write a lament. We could compose something silly. We could compose something serious. We could tell the story of a reluctant young hero who rises to the occasion and defeats a terrible evil. We could write a piece with no particular story behind it at all. We could create something with elements of all, or none, of these things. The “decision paralysis” can be overwhelming. How does one break through it? How does one turn this waterfall of potential ideas into a coherent creation?

Building Sandcastles

              My friend simply stands beneath the waterfall with a bucket and catches a small amount of what falls. He looks inside and notices bits of dirt, pebbles, and even small living creatures, within the water. He begins with these things and shapes them to his liking, until he has a structured creation that he is happy with. He builds sandcastles out of the sediment. He builds mini-statues out of the pebbles. He populates his “city” with the living creatures.

              I stand beneath the same waterfall with a set of specially-shaped pipes, buckets, and cups. The water flows into them in a predetermined pattern, almost like a Rube Goldberg machine. As I observe the result, I notice bits of sediment in places where I did not plan them. I notice pebbles stuck in corners and crevices. I notice some of the pipes leaking, or maybe even the entire structure struggling to maintain its shape. With each “leak,” I have several options:

  1. Keep everything as it is, though the structure is clearly flawed. (“Muscle” the ideas into the structure, even if they do not entirely work. The project will be complete, but the result may appear insincere or “manufactured,” thereby not affecting the audience. This can be a disadvantage of constantly working under tight deadlines: the creative process tends to leave behind these sorts of problems, and tight deadlines leave little or no time for fixing them.)
  2. Preserve the structure by fixing the leak. (Delete musical ideas or elements that have nothing to do with the larger narrative, or do not serve a clear purpose. The result will probably be “lean” and easy for an audience to follow, but may also lack spontaneity or be too predictable.)
  3. Preserve the leak by creating another pipe around it, allowing it to continue to flow. (Change the structure of the piece so that the new idea makes sense. However, this may necessitate adding more structure, or more ideas, elsewhere. One may have to foreshadow the idea in another place, or even rewrite the entire composition, for the ideas to work. This begs the question, “Is this idea worthy of such effort?” Incidentally, this is why many artists speak of needing to get rid of their favorite elements of a project. Other times, leaving a “nonconforming” idea in can cause a piece to be too complicated and impossible for an audience to follow so that they don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t moved by it and can’t remember it and it doesn’t communicate at all, kind of like this run-on sentence.)

What’s the Plan?

              How does an artist determine whether or not to begin with a structure in mind? It seems to come down to personal preference. I have tried both approaches, and had more success when using a predetermined structure (even if I change it later). If I begin without an understanding of the structure, I end up sketching randomly and getting no ideas that I am happy with. If I somehow finish a project this way, it often takes a long time, causes massive frustration, and ends up as a rambling mess. I stood below the waterfall without my pipes, and all I got was wet.

              Others find that beginning with a structure is too restrictive. They stand below the waterfall with buckets and pipes, and find that no water flows at all. The pipes are too narrow to catch anything the artist likes.

              Yet others find that a hybrid approach is effective. They start with a structure (or only a partial one) and allow their initial ideas to flow. The structure simply focuses their creativity enough to break the decision paralysis. Once they have their initial ideas, they use a less structured approach to develop them. I find that this resembles my current process.

My Creative Process

              Let’s say I’m composing a theme for a heroic character. I might write down words or phrases that describe his mental state. What is he hoping to accomplish? What does he fear? What sort of movie scene would quintessentially depict him? Taken together, these thoughts help me to “get in character” as an actor might. I am, in a sense, exploring the character’s world. As I do this, themes, rhythms, colors, fragments, and other musical ideas will appear, as though my mind is improvising a soundtrack to the scene. The structure of the scene usually determines the structure of the piece. In this way, the structure is more “discovered” than planned. From there, the composition process involves transcribing the most salient ideas, and then editing and organizing them so that they make sense by themselves. One could even see this as a process of translating the scene from one language to another: from sight to music. (I find the act of writing a story scene to be similar, except that I am translating the images and emotions into words instead of music.)

              Ironically, this blog post was written without any real plan. I simply remembered the discussion (more or less) and began to puzzle it out. After getting some initial ideas, I wrote them down using much the same structure you see now. Once it was finished, I did some quick editing. Perhaps this illustrates one of my composition teacher’s most important points: rigid adherence to a procedure for its own sake is not a good idea. Structures, procedures, and techniques are meant to serve the artist, not to be served by him. As the great composer Claude Debussy said, “Great art makes rules. Rules do not make great art.”

For Discussion

  1. How would you describe your creative process? Has it changed, or has it remained the same?
  2. What inspires your best work? How did you discover this?
  3. Have you ever had a discussion like this with another artist? Did you differ on any points?

27 Ways to Break A Creative Block

  1. Make a list. There’s something about making lists that just flows.
  2. Just write something. Anything. Even if it’s garbage. If all you’re getting is dirt, keep digging.
  3. Come back to an old idea you’ve written and see it in a new light.
  4. Get in character, like an actor. Find the “emotional core” of whatever you are creating.
  5. Make up a title. For some reason, having the title of something really helps music come to me.
  6. For music: write words that describe the emotional core of the music.
  7. For prose: imagine what the soundtrack for a particular scene would sound like if it were a movie.
  8. Start conducting.
  9. Start humming or singing randomly.
  10. “Write out loud”: your book is a movie, and you are the narrator.
  11. Improvise on your instrument.
  12. Look at visual art. Paintings, sculptures, photos.
  13. Look at visual art and write descriptions of it, or depict the art musically. Ask, “If this sculpture were a character in my story, what would he be like?”, or, “If this painting had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?”
  14. Come back to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  15. Read.
  16. Read, and then “riff” on something you have read. A character, a scene, a concept. How would you end this story?
  17. Listen to music.
  18. Listen to music, and then “riff” on one melody or fragment you have heard. How would you have written it differently?
  19. Imagine you are one of your own students. How would you tell yourself how to solve this problem?
  20. Change tasks. If composing isn’t going well, orchestrate something you’ve already written. If writing isn’t going well, flesh out an existing character or concept.
  21. Take a walk outside. Look around. Imagine being able to change anything at will. The tree in front of you is no longer a tree: it’s a space elevator. The birds aren’t birds. They’re dragons. Let your imagination explore.
  22. If nothing is going well, take a break. Do something fun. When you come back to creativity, you’ll feel refreshed.
  23. Remind yourself of what one of your teachers has told you. I recorded some of my trumpet lessons (with my teacher’s permission, of course); when I had a practice session that wasn’t going well, I listened to one of the recordings to remind myself of what was truly important. (In many cases, I was simply overthinking the whole process.)
  24. Return to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  25. Give yourself a deadline and be absolutely inflexible. To get my creativity back after a long period of disuse, I wrote a short piece every day, beginning to end, having at most only a couple of hours each day. This helped me to stop being perfectionistic and simply focus on completing projects. This also provided great material for future projects, since I now had plenty of ideas to develop later.
  26. Start with a small, simple idea.
  27. Listen to music you’ve already written, or read a story you’ve already written and are proud of. If your creative block lasts a long enough period of time, it’s good to remind yourself that you can still do this!

Music: “Hummingbird”

I saw a glowing hummingbird hovering around a flower, taking nectar from it. The bird finished, and then darted about before joining a number of other hummingbirds of all sorts of colors. They were too numerous to count; seen from a distance, they would have appeared as a resplendent and rapidly shifting cloud.

They flew together into a large vortex that spiraled up into the sky, which appeared to lead into another realm. I wonder where they went?

Music: Twirling Dance

“Twirling Dance” depicts the following scene:

I saw a young woman dancing outside near a lake, clad in an iridescent blue dress. The environment around me had a distinctive cerulean glow all around, as though I were looking into a celestial realm of sorts. She continued to dance until suddenly transforming into a small bird.

When she transformed, the environment also transformed into a tunnel through space itself. The bird swooped throughout the tunnel, flying in all directions, before transforming back into a young woman. This time, she danced upon the lake itself. When finished, she froze in place and became a statue.

The original art depicting this scene was created by my dear wife.

Music: “Flurries”

I saw snow falling in large, light flakes, blanketing the grass. It was late evening, with the distant sun barely an ember of orange within the deep gray backdrop of sky.

The snowflakes grew into each other upon hitting the ground, as though they were fast-growing yeast or sinew. Each flake carried a story and reflected, as a mirror, the environment surrounding it.

The flakes poured from the sky, which was a nexus  – a wormhole of sorts – between multiple realms or realities. The story carried by each flake was a history, or a tale, or simply a thing of beauty, from its realm. Some of the flakes carried their realm’s entire history. Were the flakes creating a new realm or universe as they fell and melted into one another?

Each flake appeared to be alive, sentient, and conscious.

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How patient can I be with myself today?

Ask the following question out loud: “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Now, ask it again.

Now ask it one more time.

Say it when you wake up every morning, and perhaps also before beginning the day’s work.

Of all the skills that go into learning a new skill, accomplishing a difficult task, or achieving a goal, few are more important than simple patience.

Are you enduring a difficult trial, and do not know when it will be over? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you attempting to learn a complicated piece of music, and it is not working? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you creating a new work, but it is taking longer than anticipated, or the ideas are simply not flowing? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

It is tempting to fall into the trap of, “I must solve this specific problem”, or, “I must force the ideas to come quickly”, only for them not to come or the problem not to be solved (or even for it to be compounded). If the solution to a problem is like a cat, then simply calling it to come to you, or attempting to force it to do so, is unlikely to be effective. The only reliable way to entice a cat to come to you is to bait it with its favorite food…and then wait for it to come to you. (Read more about this idea here.)

This does not mean that a writer should not keep writing in an attempt to break writer’s block. It simply means that constantly writing serves a different purpose than it, perhaps, is thought to. The purpose of freewriting to break a block is not to actually use the material that is freewritten (much of which is likely to be utter rubbish). The purpose of freewriting is to identify the “favorite food” of the cat. The phrase, the concept, the small group of words, the character, the anything, that will entice the creativity to flow again.

This, of course, requires patience. The same patience exercised by an archaeologist who digs in the dirt to find a valuable artifact. The same patience exercised by a poet shaping words to find the perfect verse. The same patience exercised by a violinist who practices a given bow technique over and over and over until the bow glides across the string.

And this is the patience that a composer, a writer, a painter, a choreographer, or any other creative professional, must master. We do not wait patiently. We must write patiently. A composer must sketch melodic fragments…patiently. An illustrator must scribble random lines, shapes, and objects…patiently. Freewriting seems most effective when done quickly…but with an underlying attitude of patience. To the creative person who is stuck, who is frustrated, who feels no inspiration, but who keeps writing anyway, know this: you will find a great idea. You will identify the favored treat. The cat will come to you.

How patient can I be with myself today?

With all of these things, patience is the real game that one must play. The only one against whom I am competing is myself (and no competitor is more fearsome for an artist than himself), and patience quiets this inner competitor. It gives assurance not that a project will be completed by tomorrow, or that a certain skill will be mastered by next week, or that a trial will be over by the end of the month, but it does provide hope through a reminder that these things will be completed…sometime. They will be completed eventually. They will, indeed, be completed.

And when we complete something, we often forget about the effort that it took to complete it. A former student of mine who was a United States Marine said, “After the training is over, it just seems like it was a bad dream.” It did not “scar” him, and he did not appear to agonize over it. It was simply over, and he now possessed the skills that it was intended to teach him. A mountain climber may not remember the pain or endurance required after he reaches the top and beholds the glorious, cloudless sunrise. A child does not remember tripping and falling on his face while learning to walk. He simply knows that he can walk now.

In many things, patience is a key ingredient, and mastery of it is often one of the greatest determinants in success. As students, may we always ask ourselves, “Will I remember this struggle five years from now?” As teachers, may we always strive to remind our students of this simple, critical skill. May we provide ample opportunities for our them to practice it, and may we especially model it for them through our own patience with them. May we remind them that, whatever their current struggles with learning may be, they will not remember most of them five years from now. Let us remind them that struggles are often brief, but that the skills gained from them last a lifetime.

How patient can I be with myself today?

Music: Lonely Waltz

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Lonely Waltz is a brief and simple waltz. The classically-oriented listener may notice the influence of (and a blatant tribute to) Maurice Ravel, an early 20th-century French composer (one of my favorites).