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.
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.
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.
Are you a “Mr. Muscles” or a “Mr. Books”? How did you discover this?
Have you ever created a project using a process that was unfamiliar to you?
Have you ever had to throw away a project? How did you know this was necessary?
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?
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:
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.)
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
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.”
How would you describe your creative process?
Has it changed, or has it remained the same?
What inspires your best work? How did you
Have you ever had a discussion like this with
another artist? Did you differ on any points?
Make a list. There’s something about making
lists that just flows.
Just write something. Anything. Even if it’s
garbage. If all you’re getting is dirt, keep digging.
Come back to an old idea you’ve written and see
it in a new light.
Get in character, like an actor. Find the “emotional
core” of whatever you are creating.
Make up a title. For some reason, having the
title of something really helps music come to me.
For music: write words that describe the
emotional core of the music.
For prose: imagine what the soundtrack for a particular
scene would sound like if it were a movie.
Start humming or singing randomly.
“Write out loud”: your book is a movie, and you
are the narrator.
Improvise on your instrument.
Look at visual art. Paintings, sculptures,
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?”
Come back to an old idea. See it in a new light.
Read, and then “riff” on something you have
read. A character, a scene, a concept. How would you end this story?
Listen to music.
Listen to music, and then “riff” on one melody
or fragment you have heard. How would you have written it differently?
Imagine you are one of your own students. How would
you tell yourself how to solve this problem?
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.
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
If nothing is going well, take a break. Do something
fun. When you come back to creativity, you’ll feel refreshed.
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.)
Return to an old idea. See it in a new light.
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.
Start with a small, simple idea.
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
To my third-grade teacher: thank you. I don’t know where you
are, or if you’re even still teaching. Whatever you’re doing, I hope you are
very happy and have many joyful years ahead of you.
I was a quirky kid. I am now a quirky adult. I didn’t often pay attention in class, I hated doing homework, I didn’t always do well on tests, and I wasn’t very social. (In fact, I was downright awkward.) My mind traveled paths that no one else would have even made sense out of, and this is probably because they didn’t make sense.
Everyone else solved their math problems. I drew rocketships. At recess, everyone wanted to play kickball (which I did sometimes), skip rope, or just plain run around. My friends and I imagined we were space explorers on a distant planet, fighting off vicious, monstrous space aliens bent on our destruction. Everyone else was interested in sports. I was interested in robots, monsters, and anything having to do with space. Everyone else listened to you as you spoke to them of the real world. I listened to my muses speak to me of my own universe.
I was a terrible student. You really put up with a lot. And yet, you never discouraged me. You never judged me. You even called me creative. Somehow, I even passed your class.
One day, you gave me a book of science-fiction stories to take home. I read them all. And then, I read them again. And again. And again. I devoured them like a meal that constantly regenerated. I thanked you over and over while everyone else was silently reading their books. Each time, you politely said, “You’re welcome. I’m glad you like them.” My classmates probably thought it was odd (and it definitely was). To others, this book was strange. To me, it was an inexhaustible treasure-trove of pure imagination.
It inspired me. I wrote some of my own stories. And then I wrote some more. And more. And more. Over the years, I created an entire universe inside of my head, complete with characters, backstory, epic events, heroes, villains, ancient technologies, war, peace, joy, sorrow, and redemption. This continues even to this very day. You didn’t just give me a book of fun stories to read. You gave me a spark. You lit a fire. It has burned every waking second since then, and I hope it never goes out.
I’m not sure what you saw in me. I’ve heard stories of teachers telling students to “come back to the real world,” “pay attention,” “get out of your bubble,” “come out of your shell,” “stop entertaining these silly fantasies of yours,” or any other of innumerable ways to silence a world that they simply did not understand (I’m not sure I understand it myself). I don’t know where you got your nearly bottomless patience. I don’t know why you put up with me for as long as you did. Truthfully, I’m curious about why.
But whyever you did it, the result was extraordinary. You didn’t merely teach me or entertain me. You inspired me. I have become a musician, and brought joy to people through my music as well. I now consider it my fundamental language, and I use it to inspire others. And every time I see a student who is like me, I remember you. I remember the patience you showed. I remember how inspiring it was to read those stories. I remember your encouragement to me, and I try to pass that along to my own students. I teach them music that they enjoy, and I see the same light in their eyes that I remember in my own when I discovered I could express my inner world.
So, to my third-grade teacher: thank you. I hope to see you again one day, but even if I don’t, I hope you know the gift you have given me. I hope that you know the joy you have brought. And I hope that you, too, have found a way to express your inner world.
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?
“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?