Advice to Myself

You may also read this article on Medium, if you wish.             

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.

Creativity: Do you hate everything you write?

You may also read this article on Medium if you wish.

When I ask a student to compose a short tune, I frequently hear, “I don’t think it’ll be any good.” Conventional wisdom is to encourage such a student: “Of course it will be good! You will come up with something great. Have confidence!” This, of course, is well-intentioned. After all, what teacher would not wish for his students to feel empowered?

However, this may actually cause more harm. Consider what happens immediately afterward: the student, feeling encouraged, makes another attempt at creativity…only for it to fail yet again. He is, again, unhappy with what he has composed. This has reinforced the idea that “it will not be any good,” and, even worse, it has damaged the trust he has placed in his teacher. If enough of these failed attempts occurs, they, like weeds in a garden, will begin to grow and choke out any remaining spark. They will form a psychology within the student that says, “You are not creative,” and this may continue for the rest of his life. Yet worse, the student may come to believe himself beyond the help of a teacher, which may lead him to give up creativity in the arts altogether.

How does one defeat this monster? How does one aid students who fear that they will not create anything good? How does one help students to create art that they are proud of?

Consider an archaeologist mentoring an apprentice. The apprentice says, “I’m excited for the dig, but I’m afraid I won’t dig up anything good.” The more experienced archaeologist says, “Oh, relax! You’ll dig up a valuable artifact on your first try, I’m sure. We will write an award-winning paper about it, and become world-famous.”

Such a scene, of course, is ridiculous. The more experienced archaeologist would more likely say, “You might not find anything valuable today. In fact, you probably won’t. We are digging in the dirt, so most of what you get will likely be just dirt.” In fact, such a conversation is unlikely to even take place. Any archaeologist, whether a beginner or a master, will know that the very first thing he touches will be dirt. He will likely touch a large amount of dirt, possibly for quite a long time, before finding even a fragment of something valuable. This is implied. No one even needs to ask.

And yet, with creativity in the arts, we are often quick to treat this differently. Students who fail to create a masterpiece on their first try believe they do not possess “the gift,” and they abandon their creative pursuits.

So, what do I tell students who fear that they will create something “bad”?

I tell them, “You probably will…and there is nothing wrong with that.” I tell them about the archaeologist, and how most of what he digs up is mere dirt. I tell them that they will forget about the dirt once they find an idea they do like. I tell them that their first few compositions are unlikely to be very good, but that they should persist nonetheless. I tell them to compose or improvise every day, whether they are proud of the result or not. I tell them that even the “great masters” did not compose great works one hundred percent of the time. Every composer has written a piece of which he is not proud. Every artist has painted a picture he dislikes. Every actor, dancer, or musician has given a lackluster performance. (In fact, a simple Internet search is likely to reveal many such performances. Viewing these can encourage a young student, as they see that experienced performers are still quite human.)

Some allow these failed attempts to define them. After experiencing such failures, they fear that they will never find anything valuable again. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if one stops digging in the dirt, of course he will never dig up anything valuable again!

But others do not. They feel discouraged, they may take a short break to clear their minds, they may refocus on certain aspects of their technique to fix problems – but, ultimately, they do persist. They wake up the next morning and write anyway. They show up at a dance rehearsal even though they are embarrassed. They audition for the next role even though they feel that they do not deserve it. They say, “That last performance was absolute dirt. I suppose I will just keep digging until I find something.”

And, eventually, they do find something. They recover their stride. They regain their confidence. They keep creating. And through this, they find a new freedom. They find that dirt is not merely an annoyance: it is an essential part of the process. After all, where is the creativity if the answers are simply given to us? Where is the fun in such a process?

Do you fear that your initial compositions will not be good? You are probably correct. Create them anyway. Do you think your first story will be confusing nonsense? It probably will be. Write it anyway. Do you believe that your first painting will have crooked lines, poor color choices, or unrealistic textures? It will likely exhibit all of those problems, and more. Paint it anyway. Create every day. Explore every day. Be always on the lookout for new ideas. Dig in the dirt. Enjoy the process in the same way that a child enjoys playing in a sandbox. Through this, you will discover the ideas that you do like. You will, in time, create something that you are proud of. Your technique will improve. Your imagination will awaken. You will grow in your understanding of your inner world, and in your ability to share it with others. You will be able to encourage others struggling with self-doubt from your own experience. And, in the life of an artist, there are few better teachers than experience.

New short story: “Arsabal”

I have recently published a short story to Amazon, which you may view here. Those with Kindle Unlimited can read for free, or anyone can purchase a copy for $2.99. If you enjoy it, please feel free to leave a review. Thank you!

Short Description

On a distant world where tradition rules all, a young military recruit must undergo a mysterious trial. Success will induct him into a cadre of legendary warriors; failure will cost him everything. What deep secrets does this trial protect? Why are all who observe the trial forbidden to speak of it? Will he prove himself worthy, or perish in the attempt?

Creativity: Should You Plan Your Project or Not?

Many times, I have heard (and given) the advice, “If inspiration isn’t forthcoming, then just start writing anyway.” I still believe this, and would echo the words of Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”1 However, I believe the process may be more nuanced than this.

Consider the following, highly imperfect metaphor (I do love metaphors): two people attempt to build a house. We’ll call them “Mr. Muscles” and “Mr. Books.” Mr. Muscles is quite a muscular man who works out every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy. With great confidence, he begins laying the foundation. After a few hours of work, he realizes that he has not dug deeply enough into the ground. So, he uproots what he has built, digs more deeply, and begins again. Later, he begins to pour cement for his driveway. He finishes this, only to discover that the mixture is too weak and will be too brittle. So, he alters the mixture and pours the cement yet again, but this is made more difficult by the fact that his first mixture has begun to harden. This process continues for the entire time he builds the house: he constructs it, constantly making changes and corrections as he goes. The process takes him significant time and strength, but he completes the project.

Mr. Books is not as strong, nor is he as confident. He does not spend his time working out, but rather, spends his time reading and learning. When he decides to build the house, he imagines the way he wants it to look and feel. He uses his extensive knowledge to plan every detail ahead of time: how much of each material he will require, the optimal mixture for the cement, the depth to dig into the ground before the foundation may be laid, and so on. This takes significant time and mental effort. Once he has completed all of this planning, he begins building. It requires little to no backtracking or editing: he simply executes what he has already planned.

For our purposes, let us assume that each house is perfectly livable and safe. Both men have accomplished their tasks in a similar amount of time. Both have exerted a similar amount of effort, though in different ways.

Judging by most of the advice given to writers and composers, one might be led to believe that all creative types should be a “Mr. Muscles.” He is the one who writes every day, even if he is dissatisfied with the result. He creates first, edits later. He does not work with plans, nor does he accomplish much of the work in his own mind. He thinks and plans by engaging in the outward act of creation itself.

I know very few writers who resemble Mr. Books. He constantly creates, but only in his mind. He constantly ponders what he learns, though does not always express his discoveries. He only creates outwardly when he feels he has something to say. He cannot simply sit down, throw words or notes onto a page, and be happy with the result. For him to say something, he must mean it.

Which one am I? It took me years to come to the realization, and for a long time, I wondered if it meant that I was “deficient” as a writer. However, I have since come to realize that it has actually afforded me great creative freedom, and has set me free from judging myself in this way.

I am a “Mr. Books.”

In simple terms, I find that I cannot compose, and write it down, at the same time. I am not sure why. I have had this “problem” (if one may so call it?) for years. Here is what I mean: If I sit down and simply start writing, I will usually end up with a chaotic mess in short order. It is akin to digging for archaeological finds while blindfolded, without even knowing if I am at a dig site. There is a small chance, of course, that I may acquire something useful at random, but it is far more likely that I will retrieve nothing from the ground but dirt.

My process differs from this in one key respect. I do not begin the writing process by writing. I begin it by simply deciding upon a concept, however unformed or “big-picture” it may be. Within this framework, I begin imagining freely (again, not writing anything down, save for the most salient aspects of what I imagine). I simply “play the orchestra” in my mind. For writing a story, I imagine myself as one of the characters and do a mental walkthrough of the scene, as though I am an actor or a movie director. Much of the actual work is done this way, and may take quite some time (days, weeks, months, or even years for some pieces).

Once I am satisfied with the composition in my mind, the writing process itself simply becomes a matter of copying it onto the page. The composition has already been (mostly) finished. All that remain are to transcribe and tweak. Ironically, that process can take as long as the initial composition, but with far less pain involved. I wonder why this is so?

Here is my theory: the act of writing itself is a thought process. The human brain can usually handle but a single thought process at a time. When one attempts to create and write it down at the same time, one forces the brain to divide its attention, and in the most taxing way possible: pitting the “logical mind” and the “creative mind” against one another. Ask any daydreaming student sitting in a math class: this never ends well. Either (a) the creative mind will win, causing the result to be a mess, or (b) the logical mind will win, causing the result to possibly have structure and sound pleasant, but be emotionally “dry.”

Waiting to write separates the two processes, allowing them both to function at their best. The creative mind is able to imagine freely, soaring where it wishes and exploring every possibility. Once the project has been completed this way, the logical mind uses its knowledge of grammar to make the imagined into reality. My composition teacher would have called this “the architect and the engineer”: the architect (the creative mind) says, “I want to build this.” The engineer (the logical mind) says, “Alright, here’s how you build it.” The two sides of an artist’s brain need not be enemies, as is sometimes taught. Without grammar, all language would simply be gibberish, and no communication could take place. An artist adept with both sides of his mind will ensure that he has something to say, and the means to say it. (You can read more about this topic here.)

How do I know when the process is finished in my mind? It is difficult to answer this, but I can tell if it is not complete. If I am writing, and notice that I am having to fight for every note or push for every word, it probably means that I have go back to the drawing board. I need to spend more time thinking or planning. I need to flesh out my characters, describe a scene more vividly, plot out of the story in a more detailed fashion, get more deeply into character for the music, or improvise more with the orchestra in my mind.

Sometimes, I notice that the concept itself is “broken,” and that I simply have to scrap the entire project and begin anew. This is quite painful at first, as it involves an admission that I have just wasted much time. At times, I have thrown away months of work for this reason. However, this often results in a far better project, and a more enjoyable process, the second time. In fact, nearly every time I have thrown away a project with which I have struggled, I have composed a new and better project within mere days or weeks.

For the other “Mr. Books” reading this article: you may be asking, “How can I maintain my skills and confidence by writing every day, even if I am scared that I won’t really mean it?” For me, I have found that having multiple projects at varying levels of completion helps. One will be in the planning phase, one will be in the transcription phase, and perhaps another will be in the editing phase. While this is going on, I might sketch random ideas that visit me throughout the day, to save for later. I may also write down concepts, or even plans, for future projects. This ensures that I always have something to work on, and makes it easier to maintain creative momentum. Interestingly, it allows me to adopt some of Mr. Muscles’s confidence and strength, while also using Mr. Books’s planning to minimize the pain of the process. I suspect many creatives have a little of both individuals within themselves.

Strangely, this brief article was written in a single sitting, with but a small seed of an idea with which to begin. (I did, however, return to it for a light edit afterwards.) I did not have a plan for it, nor did I spend any time sketching for it. Amazingly, it did not end up turning into a chaotic mess (though perhaps I should leave this for the reader to judge). I found that, as I wrote, new ideas occurred to me which I had previously not considered – the act of writing did, indeed, help the creative process. Perhaps my mind works differently with writing English than with writing music. Perhaps I will attempt to figure out why that is the case next? This appears to contradict some of what I have just written, which, ironically, further reinforces my belief that creativity is like a cat: it is unpredictable, does not come when called, and often does appear when least expected.

For Discussion

  1. Are you a “Mr. Muscles” or a “Mr. Books”? How did you discover this?
  2. Have you ever created a project using a process that was unfamiliar to you?
  3. Have you ever had to throw away a project? How did you know this was necessary?

Works Cited

  1. “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors”. Writers Write.

“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!

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?