Prophecies depicts a scene where a young man is given a
series of visions within a dream. He stands within a realm beyond reality,
represented as a dark tunnel within which he travels. An ancient warrior meets
him there, showing him future events and the young man’s role in them. After
each vision, the young man acknowledges his task and resolves to perform it.
While initially timid, his confidence grows until he feels resolute and
determined. The visions end, and the young man awakes.
I stood on a beach beneath a gray sky. A light,
uncomfortably chilly breeze ruffled my nerves. I saw, in the distance, the
skyline of a destroyed city. A single small boat was docked at a nearby pier.
An elderly man stood on the pier and motioned for me to walk over and get into
the boat. We both stepped inside, and the boat began to silently move on its
own. (Was he controlling the boat with his mind? Or was the boat itself somehow
The man began to speak, though his words were completely
unintelligible to me. In spite of this, I knew that he was describing, in
exacting detail, the history of the city and the civilization that built it. It
was as though my mind “decoded” his words after they had passed through my
ears. He carried within him a deep sadness, buoyed by a “matter-of-factness,”
and I somehow knew that this man was hundreds of years old.
One of the most common afflictions for the creative type is the fear of failure. It can be debilitating and destructive, and it manifests itself in many ways. But what exactly is this fear? Why do we have it? Why is it so much more pronounced with creative types? And most importantly, how does one overcome it? I have pondered these questions, and believe I can illustrate the issue through a short story. I call it The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist.
The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist
The composer sits expectantly in front of his blank staff paper, pencil in hand, poised to write the first note. An idea flashes into his mind, almost too quickly for him to transcribe it. Instinctively, the pencil moves toward the page. The lead almost contacts the paper, but an invisible wall halts the pencil a mere split-second before.
“Stop!”, a mental voice screams. “That’s garbage!”
The composer is bewildered. He listens to the idea again. It is garbage. He crumples it up and disposes of it in the blast furnace of his mind. He starts again, this time with a different idea.
“That’s garbage, too. Those chords are way too conservative. Make it more dissonant.” The composer does so.
“There you go. Sort of. It sounds more modern, at least.”
The composer has, for the time being, pleased his inner traffic cop. As he continues the project, however, he struggles at every stage. He fights the process, rather than participating in it, the ever-present traffic cop belittling him and critiquing his style, technique, and even the topic behind the music. After months of struggle, the composer gives up on the piece. He throws it away, never to return to it. He perhaps never even returns to writing music. What should have brought pleasure and enjoyment has brought only pain and disdain.
In another scene, an archaeologist digs in the desert. The coarse sand has squirmed, grain by grain, into his boots. The monotony of the desert deprives his senses of anything entertaining or inspiring. The searing sun wears away at his spirit, and the dehydration parches his skin. He has just arrived at the spot where he wishes to dig. Taking his shovel, he sticks it into the ground, heaves a great pile of sand, and casts it aside, leaving a gaping hole in the ground.
There is nothing in it. The archaeologist is frustrated. “Nothing here, I guess.” He digs some more, finding a small piece of…something? He holds it up to the sunlight.
“It’s just a piece of clay with random-looking scratches on it.”
He casts this aside, just like the sand from before. He continues digging, this time with greater frustration. His frustration is so great, in fact, that he swings the shovel slightly too hard, hitting something else and shattering it. He picks up several broken pieces.
“These just look like a jumble. The markings on them look fragmented and make no sense. They’re not even complete. They have no beauty in them.”
He casts aside these pieces as well. Now boiling with frustration, he drops his shovel and storms away, never to dig again.
What does this
If any of us have experience digging for fossils or ancient artifacts (or if we watch the Discovery channel), the second story will sound utterly ridiculous. What archaeologist or paleontologist would give up like this? Which one of these professionals, in their right mind, would find a small piece of something, and casually dismiss it simply because it did not appear complete?
Neither of them, of course. And yet, this is exactly what an artist’s “inner traffic cop” does. This is what perfectionism does. This is its folly, and its danger. It exists because an artist knows what great art looks like. He wants to create something like it. He sees the result in his mind, and does not wish to waste time not getting the result.
What the result will not show, however, is the process through which it was found. That process is frequently met with much disorganization, confusion, and even pain. As the archaeologist must dig through much sand to find the clay pieces, the artist must often create much nonsense to find the beauty. As the archaeologist must find many disconnected clay pieces before putting them together into a beautiful ancient vase, the artist may need to find many disconnected ideas before bringing them together, into a coherent whole. After all, every novel is made up of sentences, every painting is made up of individual brushstrokes, every melody is made up of small motives, and every symphony is made up of individual melodies. The traffic cop sees what the disconnected fragment is. The archaeologist sees what it could become.
Like the disconnected clay pieces, the creative process and the initial ideas it produces are often delicate. They are easily disturbed and even shattered by more forceful aspects of our personalities, and perfectionism is often one of the most forceful aspects of an artist’s personality. It is the proverbial “bull in the china closet.”
This begs the question: why can one not compose a memorable melody, write a great story, or paint a beautiful picture, in a single try? Why must we “dig” for our ideas?
I believe we have to dig for ideas because the imagination is inherently disorganized. Since it is constantly influenced by data it receives from the outer world, and is constantly shifting its inner world based on it, the ideas are “buried” underneath much mental clutter. This aspect of the creative process may be compared to finding a specific set of compatible sentences amid piles of recently-returned library books.
Does perfectionism have its place? I believe so. The creative process is like an unmapped jungle. It has no roads, bridges, or other infrastructure. The only way to traverse it is for curious explorers to travel it. This simple curiosity is the “method” by which the grammar of each artistic language was developed. One of the first artists asked, “What color will result if I mix this blue with that green?” A composer, “What will it sound like if I combine the cellos with a solo horn?” A novelist, “What if I write this surprise ending?” (Ironically, without this risk-taking exploration, no art would exist for the traffic cop to criticize.)
Can a traffic cop direct a jungle? Of course not. This is the realm of the archaeologist. It is the place where one asks questions, digs in the dirt, and explores. In this way, the creative process is often chaotic and leaves quite a mess. By itself, it cannot guarantee that a comprehensible order is built. It cannot guarantee that an audience will understand what is being presented. It cannot guarantee that the artist will connect with others through his work. The initial results of its efforts are often jumbled, incoherent, or incomplete. The process is characterized by much questioning. “I wonder what happens if I do this? What happens if I go there? I think I’ll observe this – ooh, shiny!” This process is the very lifeblood of creativity.
However, imagine attempting to direct traffic this way. The result would be total pandemonium. Can an archaeologist dig in the middle of a busy city street? For the sake of the traffic, I would hope not. So, who guides the creative process once its initial stages are complete? Who takes over once all of the individual pieces are found? Who ensures that the audience will understand what has been created? The traffic cop. He guides the cars to their destinations. He ensures that signs are clear. He guarantees that no one gets lost. He is the one who permits understanding between the artist and his audience.
I have found it helpful to think of it in this way: as an archaeologist digs up more pieces, he begins to find patterns within them that suggest how they ought to connect to one another. As he connects them, a coherent vase, urn, or tablet begins to form. In a sense, the finished product almost builds itself.
It is at this point, once all of the essential pieces have been placed, that the traffic cop is most useful. He identifies the cracks in the finished product and tells the archaeologist how to glue them together. He ensures that the vase does not simply crumble as soon as it is removed from the dig site. He ensures that the finished product is comprehensible to an audience. To a composer, he might say, “This transition is clunky.” To an artist, “This color isn’t obvious enough; it’s almost invisible in this bright light.” To a novelist, “This character’s decision doesn’t seem realistic.” And then, it falls back to the archaeologist to apply the remedies: smoothing out the musical transitions, darkening the paint colors slightly, or revisiting a character’s odd decision.
And so, the traffic cop can only direct existing traffic, but cannot create it. The archaeologist maps the area, builds the cars, and paves the roads, and the traffic cop directs them smoothly. In this way, the finished product and the creative process itself are actually improved. The traffic cop has his uses, but he is not meant to dig for fossils. The archaeologist has his uses as well, as long as he does not attempt to direct traffic. As long as they are carefully separated, perfectionism and creativity need not be enemies. In fact, their relationship is downright symbiotic.
How should we,
For me, and for my students, I have discovered that a shift in attitude is necessary to put perfectionism in its proper place. Rather than thinking, “I must create something,” (even though we must), I have found it helpful to think, “I will explore something.” As mentioned in the previous article, the key to creativity appears to be curiosity. Curiosity is incompatible with perfectionism. An artist cannot cultivate both at the same time. One cannot simultaneously say, “I wonder what this piece of pottery connects to?”, and, “This piece of pottery is useless”. Rather than asking ourselves, “Is this good enough?”, let us ask ourselves, “I wonder what I can do with this?”
Perfectionism is quite dangerous at this point in the process, when many ideas are too fragile and unformed. We must allow ourselves to see what the next few notes suggest, what the resulting hues from our paintbrushes will be, or what a given character’s decision will lead to down the road. After all, is there any penalty for playing a sour note? Is there any real consequence for painting an unbeautiful color combination? Will anything terrible result if we write an imperfect word? Not at all. In fact, one must be willing to dig through the dirt to find the gold.
Late in the process, when an idea is more fully formed and, therefore, less easily disturbed, perfectionism is incredibly helpful. It allows an artist to assess a project objectively, with regard to how it will be perceived by an audience. (And I believe that our inner traffic cop is a manifestation of how we imagine our audience will react.) It helps the artist to better communicate with, to connect with, the audience. Over time, this perfectionism also allows the artist to improve his craft.
Therefore, let us listen to the traffic cop, but only once the infrastructure is built. Let us explore with the archaeologist, but without presenting unfinished or chaotic work to our audiences. Let us keep each one in his proper place, so that we may create art that both deeply expresses and immediately connects.
Has perfectionism posed a problem for you? How?
Has an audience ever reacted in a way that you
didn’t expect? Put another way: has your inner traffic cop ever turned out to
have been wrong?
How would you characterize the relationship
between your inner traffic cop and your inner archaeologist?
Lemon Ginger is written for, and dedicated to, two of my adult piano students. Through
their time in lessons, they have become good friends and brought much laughter
to my studio. As they have discovered that they enjoy drinking lemon ginger tea,
they proposed that I title this piece after it. I hope that this simple melody
depicts the calming feeling of consuming this delectable drink.
“I developed from very early on a habit of writing something every day,
good or bad…and I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let
the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry
us along.” -John Williams1
“How do you write?” This question is typically asked from several different directions:
A person who does not consider himself to be
creative, but is curious about the process,
A person who wants to create something, but is
frustrated with his efforts,
An experienced creator who has hit “writer’s
A new creator still learning his artistic
Many answers to this question focus on the technique of an artist. What type of paintbrush to use, how to mix colors, which instruments the orchestrator should score for, the underlying structure of a statue, and many other aspects of the grammar of an artistic language. However, none of these answers get to the core of the question being asked. After all, children create drawings, paintings, constructions with blocks, and many other works of art without any real training in technique.
Most of the time, the question does not mean, “What are the technical aspects of your artistic language?” Rather, it means, “How do you come up with the ideas that your language expresses in the first place?” In other words, “How do you go from having nothing to having something? How does a composer write music that hasnever been heard before? How does an artist draw or paint a picture that hasnever been seen before? How does a writer dream up a story that has never been told before?” I think the real question, and the hope behind it, is:
“I have an inner world that is vivid, and that I must express, but how do I find the key that will unlock it?”
After hearing this (in so many words) from many students, and after encountering numerous “writer’s blocks” myself, I began to ponder it. I imagined myself creating a new work, and then, when an idea sprang to mind, I froze that exact moment in time and studied it. I asked questions such as:
What brought this idea to mind?
What was I thinking about immediately
How can I make this happen again?
How can I explain it to anyone, even someone who
believes they are not creative?
Thus, I have found it helpful to think of it
in this way:
The key to some artists’ inner worlds works like a dog: loyal, reliable, and predictable. It comes when beckoned, produces a result one can count on, and sometimes even surprises its owner. However, it must be taken care of and exercised regularly.
Others have a key that behaves more like a cat. It rarely comes when called, does not obey commands, and, at times, actively ignores its owner. Its moods shift from moment to moment. It is self-maintaining and fiercely independent. It respects no schedule but its own. Though it is unreliable, the results it produces are often surprising and could even be called ingenious.
Most artists I know have a “cat-like” process. However, while the inner world is patient, the outer world waits for no one! Deadlines abound. The company you are contracted with needs a new logo by next week. The ad agency needs a 30-second musical composition by tomorrow. You are about to perform an improvised monologue onstage in front of 1000 people in fifteen minutes. But the ideas simply do not come! We wish we could make our creativity more reliable. We wish it would come when called. We also wish that, even if our process had this predictability, it would retain the spontaneously ingenious quality that we have seen from it in times past (“sudden inspiration”). We wish we were master over it, rather than the reverse.
But cats do not come when called. Cats do not obey commands. Cats do not care about what we need them to do. They find their naps, toys, and, most importantly, food, far more interesting. What we want or need is utterly irrelevant to their existence. So, how do we get what we need from this creature?
We have to bait him. Isn’t it remarkable how quickly a cat comes when he smells catnip? Or his favorite food? Or hears the sound of his favorite toy? (Our cat comes when he hears the clinking sound of a spoon inside of an ice cream cup.) He may not care at all about what the owner actually wants or needs, but he absolutely does care about the reward. The most hyperactive fuzzy rocket becomes the most patient, obedient, and utterly well-behaved feline upon the slightest enticement of his favored treat.
All one must learn is what this favored treat is. Are you a painter? Perhaps the favored treat is a set of colors, a favorite paintbrush, a texture, or the thought of a vast landscape. Do you write music? Perhaps a rhythm, a series of several notes, or the sound of a particular instrument is inspiring. Are you an author? The key may prove to be a character, an event, or a concept. And of course, these may all cross-pollinate. A composer may hear a melody in his mind upon looking at a painting. A writer may be inspired by a melody. An artist might paint the character she imagines as an author describes him.
And what is the key to finding the favored treat in the first place? The answer is quite simple:
Allow me to illustrate. Many times, I will look at an object, and my mind will transform it into something entirely different. A simple tree becomes a great spire that shoots past the sky and blossoms at its top into a gargantuan orbital spaceport. The blue sky transforms into a starry night, complete with the exhaust plumes of distant starships slowly navigating the dark. My eyes will see only a simple object, but my mind will ask, “What if it were this instead of that?” Similarly, a composer might play a few notes at the piano, and then ask, “What if I use an A-flat instead of a B-flat?” An artist might ask, “What if I use blue here instead of dark red?” A choreographer: “What if I reach with only my left arm here, instead of using both arms?”
Children do this naturally, almost by instinct. No one has to teach them how to dig for dinosaur fossils in a sandbox. No one has to tell them that they are a space explorer on a distant planet in search of extraterrestrial life. No one has to convince them that they are a knight, clad in magic armor, wielding their father’s ancient sword, tasked with striking a fatal blow to a fearsome dragon. They already do this with the same ease with which they breathe. Curiosity and creativity are not skills that one must learn. They are instincts that one must recover.
For this reason, creators often improvise randomly. They may not use or remember most of the material they improvise, but they do not need to. They only need to find the few notes, the fragment of a scene, or the character trait that will cause their mind to go, “Aha!”, and launch them into their inner world. Many of these artists find it helpful to create something every day, even if it does not turn out well. They are simply creating as many objects as possible for their mind to be curious about, which result in many opportunities to find the favored treat. The more “what-ifs” they can ask, the greater the odds of finding a great idea. The famous composer John Williams even says that he writes every day. (I found this interview with him to be quite illuminating.)
Some artists find this key very early in life and are able to use it reliably for the rest of their days (thus giving their art an appearance of “canine reliability,” yet producing the results of “feline genius”). Others find it and use it for a time, only to find that it eventually stops working. Yet others seem to find it once, and then lose it, only to find it again, on and on, as though the shape of the lock constantly changes. These artists constantly reinvent themselves, whether out of necessity or simply out of a deep desire to explore (which is, of course, not a bad thing).
Thus far, the key to my inner world seems to be rather complex: An entire scene will play out in my mind, often not making sense with any laws of physics. Music will play along with the scene, like a soundtrack. The composition process is simply a matter of transcribing the ideas, organizing them, and editing them so that they make sense to a listener. Where do these scenes come from? I have no idea. Sometimes, they are spontaneous. Other times, the music will come first, and the scene along with it (or afterward), as though the musical tones are foundational pieces of matter and energy that construct the world in which the scene takes place. Other times, I will look at an object or simply outside at nature, and will hear a tune in my mind (which I often scramble to transcribe before forgetting it). Many things inspire me, from paintings and sculptures, to scenes from nature, to people, to stories and characters, to raw emotions themselves. My inner world seems to possess many locks, and require many keys. A great bit of the fun of being an artist is discovering these keys. Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy teaching so much: I see great joy in my students’ faces when seeing them discover this for the first time. It is as though, like the children in C.S. Lewis’s famous Chronicles of Narnia series, they have opened a door that they never knew existed, behind which exist limitless, boundless, untethered possibilities.
Many know they have an inner world. Some find its locks. I hope these ideas help you find the keys.
Is your creative process more “canine,”
“feline,” or a bit of both?
What are your keys? How did you discover them?
Have you ever encountered a creative block? How
did you move past it?
The Inner Game of
Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
The Creative Habit
by Twyla Tharp
*N.B. I have not read The
Creative Habit, but I recommend it here because it is frequently referenced
in creative circles. This means I should probably go ahead and read it.
My music is often inspired by “visions” (for lack of a better term) that I see. Entire scenes will play out in my mind, and the music will come with them as a soundtrack.
For “Light Showers”, I saw a young woman walking outside during a sunny day, clad in a raincoat and carrying an umbrella. Rain begins to fall. Each drop sounds a musical tone as it lands, and after a short time, an entire symphony plays around the woman.
She smiles, removes her raincoat, and transforms into a little girl wearing a brightly-colored dress. She dances in the rain, having a wonderful time. As she dances, the same young woman from before watches the girl from a window. Her face betrays a melancholy expression, as though she is watching a dream or a memory.
The rain stops and the sun returns. The little girl dons her raincoat again, transforms back into an adult, and continues on her way.
“For heights or depths no words can reach, music is the soul’s own speech.” – Anonymous
Why do I write? This is really two questions. One of them is, “Why do I communicate?”, in a general sense. The other is, “Why do I communicate in this way?” And this line of thought spawns many other questions, but they all lead back to the first two. Therefore, I’ll just start with those, in the hope that answering them, answers them all.
We communicate, quite simply, because we have something to say. Many times, it is out of practical necessity. (“Honey, can you pick up some flour on your way home from work?”) Other times, it is “small talk.” Yet other times, we attempt to influence others. And of course, there are many other reasons, too numerous to write about here. Yet all of these reasons and modes of communication share a common purpose: to forge a connection with someone else.
We communicate because we are relational creatures. Humans were simply not meant to be alone. We all feel compelled to share our thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and desires. We all possess tales to tell, and all of these aspects of ourselves feed our imaginations. An imagination is not merely an instrument. It is a world. It is, and creates, a world within itself. In this way, we all possess an inner world,1 and language is the vessel through which our inner world is shared. If an inner world exists behind a locked door, then language is its key.
Why use music?
But why do creators communicate? Because we, too, have something to say. It is a matter of necessity, but it goes beyond the practical. It is because we feel there is something we must say. Something we are meant to say. If we do not say it, we feel confined. This confinement can manifest itself emotionally as depression, frustration, anxiety, or a feeling that there is a “missing piece” in the artist’s life.
We all communicate most naturally
in our native tongue. It is what we know best. We can manipulate the language
as we choose, using patterns to weave nuance, metaphor, and analogy as we wish.
It is the most effective means we know of to convey an aspect of our inner
world to someone else, whether relaying a simple piece of information, planting
an image, or expressing a raw emotion.
For an artist, this everyday
language stops short. Our true native tongue is, in fact, our art, and our
inner world can only be shared through this art. Many use painting, drawing, or
sculpture. Others dance. Some create movies. A writer or poet, of course, uses
words, but in a way that makes them dance across the page. The writer makes
others see, hear, and feel what they imagine with only a well-chosen metaphor.
I, on the other hand, am not such a
person. Words in social settings feel unnatural to me (although I probably hide
it well). Words on a page are not my first choice, nor are they my foremost
skill. My words can describe, but not often evoke imagery. They can dance
around a subject, but do not dance across the page. They can help a reader to understand the subject, but they can
never quite express the subject. Words,
for me, are simply guides. I use them to point to something else; something
that, for me, is more powerful.
My true language is music. It
allows me to bypass my linguistic and social clumsiness. It does not merely
allow the listener to understand a subject, but to experience it right along
with me. It is breathless, yet lives, wordless, yet speaks, legless, yet
dances, colorless, yet paints. For me, music encapsulates all of the other
languages. For me, it is the most fundamental language of all. “For heights or
depths no words can reach, music is the soul’s own speech.” The soul’s own speech. Not simply the soul
of a person, but the soul of a subject. The soul of a story. The soul of an inner
Incidentally, this is why arts education is so critical. Improved academic
performance is a wonderful side effect of it, but it is not the most important
reason for teaching the arts. Artistic languages allow one to communicate deep
thoughts and feelings that are otherwise inexpressible, and to connect with
others on a level that is otherwise inaccessible.2 Most would agree
that social skills are fundamental life skills. In this regard, artistic
ability is one of the most fundamental social skills there is. To teach someone
an artistic language is to open a world of wonder to them for the rest of their
lives. It is to give them a powerful tool that allows them to learn about
themselves and others. To deprive them of it is to deprive them of a
fundamental means of communication.
Consider a leaf carried by the wind.
It appears small and simple, yet houses an entire microbial world which
constantly shifts and changes as the wind carries it. In the same way, the
human brain appears inert, yet it sails oceans, soars among the clouds, and
dances with the stars above many skies. My inner world is not a world; it is many worlds. Galaxies, universes, characters, stories. Fanciful
tales, slowly told, epic journeys crossing mountains, seas, stars, worlds,
empires, kings, and times. Within this small, oft timid, and socially awkward
mind lies a vast expanse, bold with its ideas, gregariously soaring wherever it
When someone asks me, “Which
instrument do you play?”, I answer, “Piano and trumpet,” but this is not the
whole truth. Within my mind, I hear an entire orchestra. I compose for and conduct the symphony at the same time.
Outwardly, I play only two instruments. With my inner orchestra, I play them all.
However, it seems quite empty to inhabit
this vast expanse alone. Every orchestra needs an audience. Inner worlds are
enriched through connection with other inner worlds. Indeed, my inner world is
made more comforting, more vibrant, more complete, by the presence of others. This
is why artists share them. This is why I share mine, and I share it in many
ways. I share it through writing, to bring others to its doors. I share it
through composing music, to take others on a grand tour. I share it through
teaching to give others the keys to unlock their own inner worlds.
And so, my fellow traveler, I
invite you to share this experience with me. I invite you to hear the symphony,
and with it, to run, to sail, to soar; to laugh, to cry, to dance; to hear and to
tell grand stories, to be transported across many lands. I invite you to be
I invite us all to hear, and to
share, our inner orchestras.
Why do you create?
Has your imagination ever surprised you? How?
How might this experience differ for someone who
creates in isolation, versus someone who creates through collaboration?