The Artist’s Battle Within

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.

Tom WaitsMuch 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.”


14 responses to “The Artist’s Battle Within

  1. Bob,
    Thank you for this post. I was involved with quite a conversation on twitter yesterday with several other musical folks about this very topic so it was especially interesting to me to hear your own opinions on the topic. One point you brought up several times but that I hadn’t put a lot of thought into, is the fact that artistic inhibition crosses into all creative endeavors – it doesn’t just affect musicians. It is helpful for me to think about that – it offers some different angles from which to approach our own issues in music.

    I am also very interested in reading the Lamott book now. Thank you for that recommendation and for quoting those wonderful quotes.

    Thank you again, Bob. I look forward to more!


    • Erica – Thanks for stopping by again! Yes, the parallels between music making and writing have become more apparent to me, especially as I’ve sought to make my own writing less scholarly and dull (which is seemingly valued in academia!) and more accessible and interesting. Honestly, over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot from my writing-crazy daughter (now 10 years old). Just the fluency of generating ideas and her complete lack of inhibition! We sometimes do fiction writing prompts together…one of us comes up with a prompt, we both write for 5-10 minutes, then read each others’. She just jumps in writing at breakneck pace, while I stare at the blank page…and think…and plan. A minute or so into it, I hear, “Why aren’t you writing, Dad?!”

      Interestingly, in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about how writing was an important part of her relationship with her father. You can imagine how that registered with me.

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t always chime in, but I often follow your twitter conversations with folks about these kinds of topics. Really enjoy your perspective!


  2. I find it incredibly difficult to silence the ‘inner perfectionist’, to the extent that I have to strongly resist the urge to spend all night editing this post only to then remove it completely (I have honestly done that on a number of occasions)… so you can imagine how hard I find it to make the music I really want to make!

    Because this is such a big problem for me I hadn’t ever written an entire song until recently, despite having been a musician for years and wanting to do so. I have always had plenty of initial ideas but was never able to get them out. I realised that whilst I have the creative capacity to imagine the music I desire to create, I hadn’t yet developed the physical act of putting ‘pen to paper’ because I’ve always been so afraid of showing people work that I don’t believe to be perfect. I decided recently that I absolutely have to get over this, so I started writing songs that are incredibly simple and generic and just doing it all in one go and then showing people straight away without giving myself time to hide it! It’s incredibly liberating and I feel like it’s slowly opening me up, and hopefully I’m getting closer to writing the things I really want to write.

    For me the inner critic seems to stem from imagining how others will perceive my work, so in a way it is probably related to social anxiety. I wonder if writing anonymously could therefore stimulate creativity…

    • Joshua – Thanks so much for sharing your experience here. I too have spent way too much time editing (over-editing?) things like emails, blog comments, and the like. And I can relate with your music writing experience too. I expect a lot of musicians can. I wonder…when musicians spend so much time performing the masterworks of great composers, does that actually deter them from composing for themselves? Might they feel that unless they can immediately create something of the quality of the professionals, that they shouldn’t bother trying?

      I’m pleased to hear how you’ve overcome your inhibitions. Very inspiring. Seems like you’re gaining some great insights through it all. I think you’re probably right about the social anxiety connection. The writing anonymously is an interesting thought indeed!


  3. Hi Bob, once again you’ve written a very thought-provoking post. You know I see many parallels in the creative process across all forms of art, including music and creative writing.

    You’ve got me reflecting on my creative past as a musician vs. my creative writing now. I did both 20 years ago but the focus was on music. I’ll confess a frustration that I seemed to be going nowhere as a songwriter, my talent and skill was in performing. I now have musician friends, however, who know they aren’t much for songwriting but bring true creativity to their play, and songwriter friends who know instruments well enough to compose but are not comfortable enough with their skills to perform for an audience. Oh how blessed are those whose talents led them to develop skills in both performing and composing!

    You have me wondering what the equivalent of “performing” is for a writer. Perhaps acting, or storytelling, or dramatic reading. I interviewed two professional storytellers on their road trip. Both did what you might call creative covers, taking known stories and writing their own take on them. But I still view them as writers.

    I’m about to leave for my first MFA residency, and during that time all the faculty give readings of their writings, and students are expected to as well. I’ll get to see the performing and writing simultaneously.

    • Patrick – Thanks for your comments. I really value your feedback. I too am now very intrigued by your question about the performance equivalent for writers. I’ve been mulling it over for quite a while now…

      I think of composers as creators who then give their work over to performers to realize it for an audience (of course some musicians perform their own original compositions). Composers have opportunity for much reflection and revision. Improvisers do the creating and performing simultaneously. If a writer is a composer, then I suppose dramatic reading is the equivalent of public performance. But perhaps the really great thing about writing is that the author can skip over a performer and communicate directly to the “audience.” Maybe readers “perform” the work for themselves. A private performance–or even “personal performance”–rather than a public one.

      Wow…great food for thought. Thanks for bringing this up!


      • Interesting thought in this reply, Bob. The out-of-the-box conclusion then is: maybe there’s a reasonable place in our world for composers to write specifically for popular (read: amateur) audiences who don’t listen but who just read and play for themselves. In other words, composer writes music for players to sit and read and enjoy, and maybe just to read through a couple times and not bother perfecting.

        That would be comparable to authors and readers of books. Any idea that every composition should be for concert and that all students should prepare pieces for concert… that would be like telling all readers to prepare dramatic readings for all the books they read. Or maybe this highlights a difference between music and lexical written language, but it is an interesting thing to ponder…

      • Aaron – Good points all around. I’m with you…it’s interesting to explore the similarities and differences across the arts. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I found this thought provoking post thanks to a tweet by Patrick Ross. I believe there are many common experiences to be found among artists of varying disciplines. I have lived/worked with musicians, artists (including craftspeople) and writers as well as experimenting in all three areas myself. There are definite shared problems, blocks and anxieties as well as common sources of inspiration. I am a prime example of someone who has allowed perfectionism to stifle three novels by over editing and never sending them off. The creative journey is fascinating, exciting but at the same time can be full of anxious doubt when it comes to sharing creative work whether through performance, text or images. Of recent times my focus has shifted to creativity and its relationship to wellbeing. I’m gradually learning to quieten the inner critic and instead listen to the inner muse you mention. I encourage a freedom of expression without expectation or preconceptions.

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting post. Good to have discovered it via Patrick.
    Kat 🙂

  5. Oh and I have a nine year old daughter who is also enthusiastic about writing. It is wonderful to share this as well as art and music with her. For two and half years I managed a creative writing project for 4-18 year olds in the county. The young people I encountered were a constant inspiration with their unrestricted imaginations and many of the younger age groups had the natural ability to shun conformity & criticism.

    Kat 🙂

  6. Kat – Thanks for reading and posting a comment! I appreciate you sharing your own experiences as examples of these issues. Isn’t it something how that inner critic is always ready to speak up, but that inner muse is so hard to get in touch with?! And I can see how consideration of these things has led you to the idea of wellbeing. Interesting. And thanks for sharing the additional comment about working with kids. I’m sure that has been a very rewarding experience.

    So great to connect with you here, and now also on Twitter!


  7. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week — 6/24/11 « The Artist's Road

  8. Bob, This is all very profound! What you said about the perfectionist mentality preventing the artist from having the FREEDOM to be creative, combined with Anne Lamott’s quote, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” …yes! That’s it! I see this to be true in my own creative experience. And even in my home life…it’s the perfectionist voice that won’t allow me to redecorate my kitchen. Since I cannot see the completed perfect design in my mind, I must not even start …just as you were in your writing exercise with your daughter.

    About the writer’s performance, I believe it is like the artist’s. It is the moment the piece is revealed to the public’s critical eye….the point of exposure.

    I am enjoying these posts very much. I believe you are quite correct about the many creative disciplines having common experiences and struggles. I can totally relate.

    • ed – Thanks for your comments. I really enjoy hearing the perspective of a visual artist like yourself. I’m intrigued by the similarities–and differences–between the arts. I think about how, with a piece of music, the work never really physically exists as a whole at any one moment. It’s revealed across time and listeners mentally create a representation of the whole. With a work of visual art, say a painting, the whole thing exists for viewers, but visual perception still happens across time (how viewers apply their attention to the painting). To the extent that artists want to communicate to an audience, they probably have to consider these things. As you can tell, I kind of enjoy thinking about it all! Glad you do too!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s