Creativity: How to Put in the Time

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In the music profession, advice related to the amount of practicing one must do each day abounds. One may have heard that it requires 10,000 hours of practice with an instrument to acquire a “virtuoso” level of skill with it. One may have also heard that several hours of practice per day are required; advice ranges from three to six hours, or even up to eight, depending upon the instrument in question.

There is no doubt that much practice is required to achieve mastery, and that few are willing to invest this much time in learning such a craft. It puzzles me, however, that I have rarely heard this advice given to composers. If one does not speak in these terms, then in what terms does one speak in? How does one achieve creative mastery without thinking in this way? Why is this so, and what might it imply for other aspiring creative professionals?

The language of composers and those in several other professions appears to be different. Composers often speak of the projects over which they currently labor, as well as the projects that they complete. Visual artists speak in the same terms. Authors may speak of their daily word count, though there seems to be no universal agreement regarding what it ought to be; rather, most authors speak in terms of their latest completed work.

The commonality between these professionals is the language of completion. Each creative project is a specific goal that may be broken into simple steps. Each step becomes a sub-project, and the sub-projects are completed before they are brought together to form a coherent whole. My composition teacher never recommended a number of hours for a student to “practice composition”; he simply set deadlines for completion of the projects, and the student had to invest whatever time was necessary to meet these deadlines. Some projects were simple, taking less than an hour to complete. Others were longer-term projects, requiring hours of time invested every day for several months. In many cases, a student worked on multiple projects at a time that varied in length and difficulty. “Putting in the hours” was a means to an end, but was not, itself, the goal.

I have always thought and worked more effectively on these terms. I find simply “putting in the hours” to stifle creativity, as it becomes a directionless, aimless exercise in maintenance. Maintenance of skills is, of course, vital, but it appears that it may be more effectively achieved in service of a greater goal. After all, would one send a ship on a long journey without a destination?

In fact, as I work to complete various projects, I find that I end up investing ample time in the practice of my craft. The time investment is a by-product, or simply a necessary step, rather than the goal. Completing my latest work required several hours of composition daily, which, in turn, required the use of melody, counterpoint, harmony, form, knowledge of instrumentation, editing and engraving, and other aspects of the craft. My skills were maintained and strengthened, and I received for my efforts a completed, saleable project.

To conclude, “putting in the time” seems to be only half of the equation. The other half, and perhaps the more important half, would appear to be the achievement of goals. After all, no one speaks of Beethoven thus: “Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time; he spent more hours composing than any of his contemporaries.” Rather, we speak of his ingenious piano sonatas, his epic symphonies, and his innovative use of musical structure. The focus is on his accomplishments, rather than on his processes.

Perhaps this is how a creator should approach all of his work. As one of my trumpet teachers was fond of saying, “Think product, not process.” And, as one of my composition teachers said, “It doesn’t matter how long it took him; all that matters is if it’s any good or not!”

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?