Creativity: Writing by Hand

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.

Why does creating a simple idea take so long?

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.

Creativity: After Completing a Major Project

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:

  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.