Advice to Myself
I have been writing a piece of music for some time that has brought no small amount of frustration. The creative process has fought me at every turn, each note being a battle within a seemingly never-ending creative war. This has happened before, and it will likely happen again. In fact, many creators seem to struggle with this at one time or another. Realizing this, I stepped back and asked, “If one of my students encountered this struggle, what advice would I give them?” So, this brief article consists of “advice to myself,” and I write it in the hope that it will help me and anyone else who encounters this fiendish bout of anti-creativity.
1. When you write, do not write immediately. Begin imagining, thinking and getting into character. Let the music or the prose flow from these things.
2. When you struggle to make the notes appear, stop making them and allow them to flow on their own. The best creativity is not forced by another; it flows of its own accord.
3. Do not compose; transcribe. Transcribe what? The music that is already in your mind. You need not invent it; it builds itself. The problem is not a lack of ideas, but an excess of judgment regarding those ideas. Write them down and explore them.
4. Do not control the process; trust it.
5. Creativity is a process of discovery. Remember the archaeologist; he does not create a new piece of pottery, but simply digs it up and assembles it, one piece at a time.
6. Explore each idea without judging it. Ask, “What if I invert these three notes? What if I speed up this rhythm? What happens if I introduce this theme near the middle of the piece, rather than at the beginning?” The question, “What if?” is the key to creativity.
7. You will probably come up with garbage at first. Keep digging in the dirt. Eventually, something interesting will turn up.
8. The creative process handsomely rewards patience; a good idea is worth the waiting and the effort. It is better to spend several months creating a good main theme (which will enable you to finish the piece within two more weeks), than it is to spend three months slogging through an entire piece with a weak main theme, only to throw it away out of frustration.
9. When process fights me, it is usually because the main theme I have chosen is not very good. By this, I mean that the theme is inflexible; I am unable to do much with it. My composition teacher said, “If you get a good idea, you’ll know it because you’ll smile. Your brain will go, ‘I can write it this way, or that way, or develop it in another way.’” The best ideas offer numerous possibilities. One might even say that the best ideas are, in and of themselves, worlds to be explored. If I do not have a good melody, the creative process becomes a battle. If I have a good melody, the piece “writes itself.”
10. Be willing to throw away a bad project. I have done this many times, and I have even done so with this particular project. Usually, the process works something like this:
a. I spend several months on a project, frustrated at my lack of progress.
b. I conclude that the project isn’t working, and I throw it away.
c. I begin the project again with a newer, better idea.
d. I complete the project within a matter of weeks, amazed that it has worked so well.
e. This requires me to trust that the process will, ultimately, work out.
11. Give the current project a break and focus on a different one. Write a simple piece that can be finished in a short amount of time; this will boost your confidence and remind you that you can still do this.
12. Go outside for a walk. This can encourage more good ideas to visit you.
13. Read, watch, or listen to something inspiring or energizing.
14. Read about other creatives who have encountered this battle. It is more common than many might think!
15. Watch bloopers. It reminds you that even professionals can make mistakes and recover.
16. Show some of your ideas to friends or relatives. Your ideas may be better than you realize; I have heard it said, “Composers don’t always know what they’ve written.”
17. Approach the process with a childlike curiosity and joy.
18. Ask, “What is the central idea that I wish to convey with this work?” Focus on this.
19. Do not criticize your work while you are exploring. My trumpet teacher would say, “Do not criticize when you create.” This is akin to criticizing the sand while one digs, or criticizing the small pieces of pottery before knowing how they fit together. It is often worth it to give each idea a chance.
20. Good ideas are often simple.
There is certainly more advice to be had. I am sure I will find myself in need of it!
1. What is some of the most valuable creative advice you have received?
2. Have you ever felt as though the creative process fought you? How did you solve it?
3. Have you ever discarded a project? Were you able to create a better one afterward?