Creativity: How do you know when a project is finished?

How do you know you have said what you wish to say?

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You may read this article on Medium if you wish.

One of my piano students asked me this question some time ago: how do you know when a project is finished? I thought it was an excellent question, and also a very difficult one. To my knowledge, I have never been overtly taught this, nor have I heard a definite answer from history. Truthfully, I wonder if anyone can know the answer. Perhaps this is simply one of the great mysteries of creativity that will remain for the entirety of time? Nonetheless, I do love puzzles, and this appears to be one of the most interesting puzzles of all.

The answer I gave him (after much thought) was this: it is finished when your instincts tell you it is finished. By itself, this was a useless answer. Connected to the concept of language, however, it makes more sense. With spoken language, the have the concept of a sentence. We know a sentence is complete when we have expressed the thought we wished to express in a manner comprehensible by our listener. I will extrapolate from this concept.

Any story can be summarized in one sentence. When I write a story, there comes a point at which I distill the entire story into a single statement. This is my one-sentence summary (this is a great piece of advice I received here.) If the essential elements of the story cannot be reduced to this level, then the story is likely too complicated and needs to be paired down.

Any essay can be similarly reduced. Many a school student will recall the concept of a “thesis statement” from their essay-writing days. This statement distills the entire paper into a single sentence, encapsulating the core argument and goal of the piece.

 In both cases, the entirety of the piece may be expanded from this first sentence. It is the “seed” from which the rest of the writing grows. Therefore, the piece may be said to be finished when the ideas put forth in the summary are fully developed without any extraneous material. In short: it is finished when the author has said what he needs to say, no more and no less.

How does this apply to music? Let us explore this using the same concept. The musical analogue of a sentence is the melody. It is both complete sentence and main character. Can a musical composition be distilled into a single melody? If so, how? I would argue based on personal observation that the answer is “yes.” In fact, this appears to occur whether or not the composer has so planned it. One of the most famous melodies in all of history is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Nearly everyone can hum, sing, whistle, or even play, this melody. Even those lacking any musical training of any kind are likely to instantly recognize it, and it is nearly impossible to forget it once heard for the first time. It is a very short and simple tune. By itself, it constitutes a complete musical thought.

What many do not realize is its use in a much larger musical composition: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The entire composition is roughly an hour and a half long and makes use of numerous other melodies and moods. These ideas are developed in ingenious ways, and the core idea of Ode to Joy is not even introduced until the final movement. In this sense, the symphony could perhaps be interpreted as a struggle to find joy amidst difficulty. This, Beethoven achieves with aplomb.

This, however, does not completely answer the question. Written language is concrete. It depicts clear images and emotions that do not vary from person to person. It is highly specific. If I say the word “cup,” for example, nearly everyone will imagine a cup. Of course, they may imagine different types or sizes of cups, but they will all fundamentally imagine the same device. If I wish to plant a more specific image in their minds, I can describe it with increasing precision until, theoretically, all imagine exactly the same object.

With music, this is nearly impossible. Music is not a language attuned for specificity. It deals less with the concrete, and more with the abstract; the emotional, rather than the logical. Its grammar rules are less defined (if one may even call them “rules”) and images evoked will vary wildly from listener to listener. In fact, without a title or program notes, two listeners could imagine completely different images. Using Ode to Joy as an example: if two people listen to it without knowing its title, they will likely both say, “It made me feel happy,” or, “It sounds exuberant!” However, when asked for a specific image, one might say, “It reminded me of the day I got married. That was such a joyful occasion!” and the other, “I saw an image of people dancing and smiling.” Both describe the same emotion, but completely different images evoked by and associated with it.

And yet, the melody will have achieved its intended result. It will have depicted and evoked joy. It need not be specific, because it relies on the human imagination to “fill in this gap.” In this manner, it is a most efficient language. And in languages both spoken and musical, the answer to the first question is the same: the project is finished when the author has said what he wishes to say in a manner that is understood by his audience.

This begs the question, “How does one know if he has said it well enough?” Consider the example of an ancient artifact, excavated by an archaeologist. At some point, he has the entire artifact in his possession. He may have begun with mere pieces, but in the end, they have been glued together in a manner that makes the object appear like new. At this point, it could be considered finished. In a sense, however, it could always be dusted off just a little more, or made just a bit shinier, or have some aspect of its beauty made slightly more obvious. In other words: the archaeologist has put all of the pieces together. He has a clay pot. There is nothing he may add to it that will significantly change its aesthetic or function. He may dust it off more or polish it more, but the digging, assembly, and essential cleaning have been completed.

His apprehension of this, of course, requires that he see the object clearly. He must have a good objective sense of the intended finished product and its effect on a viewer. This is a skill that is developed over time, and it appears to be one of the last to blossom. The simplest way in which to develop it is to put distance between oneself and the project after completion. The creator may take several days, weeks, or even months, to work on a different project. After this period has elapsed, he re-examines the first project. My composition teacher was fond of calling this “Letting the pie cool after baking it.”

Another way (though the two methods do not exclude one another) is to simply hire an editor. It has been said, “You cannot edit your own work.” I tend to believe that this is true, though with some minor caveats. The editor has no emotional attachment to the project, and can therefore be objective. The best editors understand the creative process and are not only competent to identify errors in grammar, spelling, and the like, but are masters of knowing a creator’s intentions. Rather than simply deleting a section that does not work, they will tell the author that it is unclear and perhaps make suggestions. This way, the creator preserves his voice and ideas in a way that is still understandable to his audience.

When the process is complete, how does one know that the project is truly finished? How does one know that there is not one more spot to be shined, one more spell-check to be run, or one more chord to adjust? How does one know that it will have exactly the intended effect on the audience?

One can make no guarantee. At some point, one must simply press “Publish,”, or present the artwork, or complete the composition. Reinvestigating the work years later may reveal yet more room for improvement – this is good, as it means one’s artistic instincts are improving! This does not necessarily mean that one’s previous creations are “trash,” but simply that newer material may be better. And this is one of the artist’s lifelong battles: the persistent struggle for unattainable perfection. Perfection may be compared to the speed of light, in that one may approach it infinitely, but never reach it.

Carrying the analogy further: all humans carry “baggage,” and all subatomic particles carry mass. The only particle to move at lightspeed is the photon, which carries no mass. Perhaps, then, the only way for an artist to achieve perfection is to be, inherently, perfect? This, we will never achieve in this life, but our works need not be perfect to be beautiful.

When a creative project is going well

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

We have all experienced this. A project is “firing on all cylinders.” The “neighborhood cat” (our inspiration – our “muse,” if you’ll pardon the pun) has not only come to you, but is now spending every waking minute with you. You need scarcely bait him anymore, as he comes of his own accord and nearly never leaves. He wakes you up during the night demanding attention (you hear an idea in your mind and simply must write it down). Many creatives find this part of the process annoying, just as we might find such a creature annoying (though adorable). How does one manage this aspect of the process?

By embracing it. It is unpredictable. Sometimes, inspiration does happen while we are writing. This is wonderful. For me, however, it seems to appear mostly when I am not working. I will write during the day, often “beating myself against the wall” and making little progress, only for the idea I seek to fall into my lap right before I fall asleep that evening. Like a cat, inspiration cannot be truly controlled. It can only be embraced.

I am grateful to have married someone who understands this (my wife is an artist). She does not need to ask, “Why are you waking up again? That’s the third time tonight!” She knows exactly why and simply smiles to herself when it happens. This is also, perhaps, why creatives are considered strange (I must, of course, address such a scandalous rumor: it is completely, utterly, and absolutely…true). Our muse may come to us at the most inopportune times. I will be having a conversation with someone, and will suddenly need to leave the room for a moment. Why? To write down a melody that has begun to play in my mind. Sometimes, I will even start conducting. I simply cannot help it. My wife and I will be taking a walk, and she will be speaking to me. After a few moments, she tells me, “You’re far away.” She is right; I have just paid an unintended visit to my inner world. After all, a cat that visits you demands attention, and is woefully ignorant of the word “no.”

What happens if one refuses his muse? Simple: if one does this enough times, the muse will stop visiting. The cat will conclude that it does not receive any treats, and will look elsewhere. The only way to guarantee that he spends time with you is to consistently have a treat ready. (This is one of the main reasons to have a creative routine: one cannot wait for the cat to arrive. He must continue to display the treats and remain present when the cat arrives.)

Conversely, what happens if one continues to indulge his muse, even after a period of inactivity? The muse never leaves. He continues to demand more treats, more time, and more attention. This can result in lost sleep, forgetfulness, and all manner of other odd “symptoms.” In fact, if one is not careful, this can have a most negative effect on relationships and personal safety (I do not advocate allowing the process to endanger these things, of course – one must be reasonable).

Do these aspects of the process make it worth it? In my mind, absolutely. There is simply no “rush” comparable to that of hearing one’s musical compositions performed well, to an enthusiastic audience response. There are few greater joys than learning of a reader’s delight in a story I have written. Yet ultimately, I do not feel that I can take credit for this. It is not the product of my own labor, but that of my muse. The muse brought the ideas to me; I merely transcribed them and cleaned them up.

And his muse, in the end, is what a composer must trust.

When creativity does not go where predicted

             

You may read this article on Medium if you wish.

You have decided to write a mystery novel. You sit at your desk, pencil in hand, excitement about to pour onto the page. You focus the excitement into the first sentence. You tell us about a detective who has just begun the toughest case of his life. He collects the evidence, he interviews the witnesses, he follows the clues. You are near the end of the story. It is nearly time to reveal the culprit. Your pencil nearly meets the paper…and then halts.

What if this person really isn’t guilty? What if this isn’t the entire story? What if the detective was merely an unwitting pawn in a much larger, and more dangerous, game?

Your writing completely changes directions. Now, the conflict is not only between multiple characters, but between you and the creative process. The original idea for your story was fine. Readers would have loved it. You were ecstatic as you approached the ending. Yet now, your mind seems fixated, even obsessed, with this new idea. The story appears to have taken on a life of its own. Why does this happen?

Consider a housecat (I have used this analogy before): it does not appear when called. Even if one baits it with treats, there are no guarantees. The cat may appear to obey commands, but it is not truly loyal to you; it is loyal only to its treats and whims. If it ceases to obey commands or be persuaded by the treats you have offered, then something else has captured its interest. Therefore, the only way to keep its attention is to follow its interests, rather than your own.

So it is with the creative process. Attempts to control it in the same manner in which one controls a mechanical tool often meet with failure. The creative process is not a mere tool; it bears greater resemblance to a person. It cannot, and should not, be controlled. It need only be guided, and, where necessary, followed.

This requires a high degree of trust between a creator and the process. We are accustomed to control. We are used to predictability. This is not wrong, of course. Without these things, life could easily turn into chaos. For many professions, procedure is critical. One must be able to predict that an aircraft will function safely, or that a medicine will cure a disease, or that a building will not collapse.

Creativity, however, seems to function differently. As stated in a previous article, any attempt to impose set procedures onto it appears to destroy it. It cannot be led. It does the leading. Many creators spend their entire lives learning how to trust its lead, even when its destination is not clear.

How does one accomplish this when a deadline nears? In the professional world, “writer’s block” is no more valid an excuse than “doctor’s block” would be to a surgeon. A film soundtrack must be completed before the film is released. A book must be published by a certain date to maximize sales. A musical composition for the concert hall must be completed in time to allow the performers to rehearse it. How does one make the creative process reliable while still ensuring a good, original result?

The aforementioned trust is one side of the coin. The other side is the editor. We all know him. In a previous article, I called him the “traffic cop.” He is the one who guides the process once it has done much of its work. He is the one who ensures that a composition does not veer “off the rails.” He makes certain that the work is understandable to an audience. He guarantees that a work remains within the scope of what is called for. After all, one would not compose a symphony when only a thirty-second commercial jingle was required. One would not paint an ultra-realistic landscape if only a picture of a flower was needed. One would not write a novel if only a blog post was requested.

One may take small ideas and develop them further, of course. Some of my best ideas (though perhaps I should allow the listener to be the judge) have begun as simple tunes. Melodies originally intended only to introduce television shows have been arranged into full concert suites (the Star Trek music is notable for this). Conversely, melodies from large-scale symphonies or suites have become so popular that they are often repurposed for commercial applications (with examples too numerous to list here). The creative process is remarkably adaptable. In fact, this adaptability requires and reinforces a different sort of trust. The “cat” and the “traffic cop” must learn to trust each other, and the creator must learn to trust both.

For Discussion

  1. How have you learned to trust your “inner traffic cop” and your “inner cat”?
  2. Does your creative process resemble this, or is your experience different?
  3. Have you ever created an idea with one purpose, only for it to change later?

How patient can I be with myself today?

Ask the following question out loud: “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Now, ask it again.

Now ask it one more time.

Say it when you wake up every morning, and perhaps also before beginning the day’s work.

Of all the skills that go into learning a new skill, accomplishing a difficult task, or achieving a goal, few are more important than simple patience.

Are you enduring a difficult trial, and do not know when it will be over? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you attempting to learn a complicated piece of music, and it is not working? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you creating a new work, but it is taking longer than anticipated, or the ideas are simply not flowing? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

It is tempting to fall into the trap of, “I must solve this specific problem”, or, “I must force the ideas to come quickly”, only for them not to come or the problem not to be solved (or even for it to be compounded). If the solution to a problem is like a cat, then simply calling it to come to you, or attempting to force it to do so, is unlikely to be effective. The only reliable way to entice a cat to come to you is to bait it with its favorite food…and then wait for it to come to you. (Read more about this idea here.)

This does not mean that a writer should not keep writing in an attempt to break writer’s block. It simply means that constantly writing serves a different purpose than it, perhaps, is thought to. The purpose of freewriting to break a block is not to actually use the material that is freewritten (much of which is likely to be utter rubbish). The purpose of freewriting is to identify the “favorite food” of the cat. The phrase, the concept, the small group of words, the character, the anything, that will entice the creativity to flow again.

This, of course, requires patience. The same patience exercised by an archaeologist who digs in the dirt to find a valuable artifact. The same patience exercised by a poet shaping words to find the perfect verse. The same patience exercised by a violinist who practices a given bow technique over and over and over until the bow glides across the string.

And this is the patience that a composer, a writer, a painter, a choreographer, or any other creative professional, must master. We do not wait patiently. We must write patiently. A composer must sketch melodic fragments…patiently. An illustrator must scribble random lines, shapes, and objects…patiently. Freewriting seems most effective when done quickly…but with an underlying attitude of patience. To the creative person who is stuck, who is frustrated, who feels no inspiration, but who keeps writing anyway, know this: you will find a great idea. You will identify the favored treat. The cat will come to you.

How patient can I be with myself today?

With all of these things, patience is the real game that one must play. The only one against whom I am competing is myself (and no competitor is more fearsome for an artist than himself), and patience quiets this inner competitor. It gives assurance not that a project will be completed by tomorrow, or that a certain skill will be mastered by next week, or that a trial will be over by the end of the month, but it does provide hope through a reminder that these things will be completed…sometime. They will be completed eventually. They will, indeed, be completed.

And when we complete something, we often forget about the effort that it took to complete it. A former student of mine who was a United States Marine said, “After the training is over, it just seems like it was a bad dream.” It did not “scar” him, and he did not appear to agonize over it. It was simply over, and he now possessed the skills that it was intended to teach him. A mountain climber may not remember the pain or endurance required after he reaches the top and beholds the glorious, cloudless sunrise. A child does not remember tripping and falling on his face while learning to walk. He simply knows that he can walk now.

In many things, patience is a key ingredient, and mastery of it is often one of the greatest determinants in success. As students, may we always ask ourselves, “Will I remember this struggle five years from now?” As teachers, may we always strive to remind our students of this simple, critical skill. May we provide ample opportunities for our them to practice it, and may we especially model it for them through our own patience with them. May we remind them that, whatever their current struggles with learning may be, they will not remember most of them five years from now. Let us remind them that struggles are often brief, but that the skills gained from them last a lifetime.

How patient can I be with myself today?

How do we write?

“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:

  1. A person who does not consider himself to be creative, but is curious about the process,
  2. A person who wants to create something, but is frustrated with his efforts,
  3. An experienced creator who has hit “writer’s block,” or
  4. A new creator still learning his artistic language.

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 has never been heard before? How does an artist draw or paint a picture that has never 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:

  1. What brought this idea to mind?
  2. What was I thinking about immediately beforehand?
  3. How can I make this happen again?
  4. 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:

Curiosity.

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.

For Discussion

  1. Is your creative process more “canine,” “feline,” or a bit of both?
  2. What are your keys? How did you discover them?
  3. Have you ever encountered a creative block? How did you move past it?

Further Reading

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.

Works Cited

1. “John Williams Lets His Muses Carry Him Along”, The New York Times Aug. 19, 2011 https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/john-williams-lets-his-muses-carry-him-along/

Why do I write?

“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.

Why communicate?

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 world.

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 wishes.

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 inspired.

I invite us all to hear, and to share, our inner orchestras.

For Discussion

  1. Why do you create?
  2. Has your imagination ever surprised you? How?
  3. How might this experience differ for someone who creates in isolation, versus someone who creates through collaboration?

Works Cited

  1. Jennifer Kunst, Ph. D. “You Have An Inner World: So What?”. Psychology Today. July 8, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201507/you-have-inner-world-so-what
  2. Karl Paulnack, 2003 Address to the Parents of the Freshman Class. August 28, 2003. https://staff.ithaca.edu/kpaulnack/transcripts/2003welcome/