Artistry and expertise are domain specific. This means that someone who’s particularly creative as a musician will not necessarily be creative as a writer or a painter or a chef. But there are major commonalities in the creative process across all disciplines. I’ve noticed that music composers and creative writers sound very similar when they talk of the challenges faced and the rewards gained in their endeavors. There may be a kind of creative mindset that is needed to be successful, regardless of whether your medium is music, words, paint, or food.
Much music making around us is reproductive, rather than creative. Formal groups from professional orchestras to school choirs perform the published works of composers. Aspiring rock bands play “cover” versions of others’ songs, and even the most popular artists can feel obligated to offer in live performances exact replicas of what they recorded in the studio. As much as audiences enjoy hearing the familiar, there are some insights into music that can only be gained by creating original material for oneself. Unfortunately, immersion into reproductive music performance can make composing or improvising new music a scary prospect. But a disinclination to creativity is not natural. On the contrary, young children are natural creators, be it through singing spontaneous songs, drawing personally expressive pictures, or thinking up imaginative stories. To paraphrase Picasso, the problem is remaining creative when we’re grown up.
The parallels between creative writing and creative music making are striking to me. I’ve tried to do both, and my struggles have led me to take a real interest in the similar processes involved. I’m not the only one. I recently came across a podcast by WNYC’s Radiolab called “Help!” This episode–subtitled “What do you do when your own worst enemy is…you”–includes a stimulating discussion of the artist’s struggle to be creative. We’ve all been there. We stare at the blank page (whether literally or figuratively) and there are no ideas flowing. Instead of tapping into deep emotions to drive our creative expression, we experience feelings of self-doubt, disinterest, or just desire to do email/Twitter/Facebook!
It seems that many artists successfully overcome these writer’s block experiences by separating from themselves. Some have conceived of it as being visited by a muse. Or receiving inspiration from a source outside of themselves. Or simply accepting the ideas that are “out there” and looking for an artist-portal through which they can enter reality. In the “Help!” podcast, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert tells of an interview she did with singer-songwriter Tom Waits when she was a writer for GQ magazine. Here’s a clip in which she recounts Waits’ philosophy that each song is its own entity and must be dealt with as such:
Unlike Waits and Gilbert, other creative artists look inward. They believe the ideas come from within, and that their job is to allow that part of themselves to speak. In her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron describes her solution to writer’s block as thinking of writing as taking dictation, not giving it. “Once writing becomes an act of listening instead of an act of speech, a great deal of the ego goes out of it,” she says. “We retire as the self-conscious author and become something else–the vehicle for self-expression. When we are just the vehicle…we often write very well–we certainly write more easily.” This sentiment is echoed by author Oliver Sacks, who wrote among other books the wonderful and provocative Musicophilia. At one point in the “Help!” Radiolab podcast, he describes one of those break-through moments:
Whether conceived of as coming from within or without, interfacing with that expressive source is a key to creativity. It requires us to suspend our own critical voice. In his series of Inner Game books, author Timothy Gallwey describes all performers as having both a Self 1 that’s controlling and judgmental, and a Self 2 that’s free and naturally expressive. (Gallwey’s ideas are anecdotal to be sure, but I’ve found many to line up well with what the research says about managing performance anxiety.) Sometimes that critical voice is plainly negative and floods our minds with self-doubt and defeatist thinking. Other times we more subtly sabotage ourselves with the mindset of perfectionism. We may even believe that perfectionism is an asset that ultimately ensures our work will be of the highest quality. But more frequently a perfectionist mentality prevents artists from having the freedom to be creative at all. One of my very favorite writers is Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird (which I love) she offers advice to struggling authors who cannot let their thoughts flow into a first draft because they’re too concerned that the initial wording doesn’t sound like a polished final product. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” she says. She gives great encouragement toward quieting the inner critic to allow more free personal expression. She also calls perfectionism a “mean, frozen form of idealism” but says “messes are the artist’s true friend.”
The hard and messy work of creativity can be especially difficult for musicians whose training and performance activities have been dominated by the realization of other people’s music. They may need to learn a new kind of mental discipline in order to silence the self-critical voice. But even experienced composers–and writers and painters and chefs–struggle with the creative process. Many are constantly devising new strategies to disable that judgmental force within, and strengthening their resolve to battle against it (with this metaphor, I must acknowledge Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art…I’m a fan). It seems that most artists believe that creativity involves both inspiration and perspiration, though there’s less agreement about how much of each is required, and from where the inspiration comes. For her part, Elizabeth Gilbert offers: “I think the angels reward people who are at their desk at six o’clock in the morning working.”