A common belief appears to exist regarding composers, and it is best described through an image inscribed in the memories of many. The image consists of a composer hunched over his desk. His wild gray hair betrays a chaotic mental state and evokes an image of the “tortured genius.” His deepest emotions, thoughts, and desires pour out through the ink as he weaves melody, harmony, and rhythm into a musical letter from soul to soul. The musical symbols fly onto the page without any apparent effort, carrying the creator as if he lives in a waking dream.
This image is one of the most pervasive myths in the history of musical composition. While it is possible to compose in such a manner (and some have done so), it seems that many new creators become discouraged when this process does not work for them. In truth, the process of creation is far more complex, chaotic, and multi-layered. What, then, is a more accurate depiction of the process? Is it even possible to describe it, or will it remain ever a mystery? In the hope of clarifying it for others (or perhaps encouraging fellow creators who worry that they are “not doing it right”), I will attempt to describe how it works for me.
Writing a piece of music in the manner of writing a letter (from beginning to end) is normally one of the final stages of the process. For me, the creative process appears more like this:
1. The “big picture.” The creator decides the type of project he wishes to create. This could be his own decision, or it could be decided by the client. (For example, a filmmaker may ask the composer to score a documentary film about eagles; the director may tell the composer to go for a “sweeping orchestral sound” to evoke the grandeur of these majestic creatures.)
2. “Brainstorming” (or, as I call it, “digging in the dirt”). I attempt to find the “emotional core” of the piece and to “get in character” like an actor. Initial ideas usually flow from this. I develop these ideas with an attitude of curiosity. These ideas need not be in a particular order, or even make sense immediately. They need only be discovered. (Notice that I did not say “created.” In a sense, the ideas already exist, but are buried beneath a good deal of clutter and must be “dusted off.”)
3. The ideas begin to coalesce. The shape of the piece takes form, and the positions of the smaller ideas within the whole become more obvious. The initial plan for the project may need to be revised at this point; this is a good sign! It means the ideas have life. The creator should always allow the ideas “room to breathe.” N.B. At any of these stages, the ideas may only be written in cursory form. For music, they may be only leadsheets (melodies with chords written above them). The ideas do not “look like much” at this stage. After all, they have only recently been “excavated”.
4. Refinement. The ideas are expanded, experimented with, reorchestrated, and tested in a variety of ways. Some are thrown out, others may be given more import. More detailed sketches of the harmony may be added, counterpoint may be added, more specific colors might be specified, and generally, the ideas become more detailed. In a sense, each idea becomes its own “little composition”.
5. Orchestration. This part of the process moves quickly and fluently because it has already been “prepped” by the previous stages. This most resembles writing a letter because it may be done from beginning to end (by this stage, the order in which the ideas are presented has already been made clear). I rarely deal with “writer’s block” at this stage because it has already been dealt with earlier (if I do hit a block at this stage, it likely means that a previous stage was neglected or not sufficiently “fleshed out”). At this point, the project is already finished, and I am only arranging it (assigning each instrument its role).
6. Editing. I allow the project to “sit” for a while and then return to it, making small changes. Once this has been done, the project is complete.
The reader may notice that the title of this article is Writing is like orchestrating. Further, they may ask, “What does any of this have to do with writing?” The answer:
Many writers say, “I do not like writing. I like having written.” They describe the process as laborious, difficult, and emotionally intense. At times, it can be; I have experienced this myself. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided and a creator must simply “push through it.”
However, this usually occurs because I am trying to perform multiple tasks at once rather than separating them. For me, the actual writing of the story from beginning to end is the penultimate stage, not the beginning. Beginning a story in this way would be akin to starting a musical composition with a full conductor’s score, all instruments arrayed in front of me, all colors available, engraving needing to be perfect, and all other elements neatly aligned. Some can do this. I have even worked this way at times. However, it is usually too much for me to handle all at once and does not allow me to focus on the essential elements early in the process. I find that, at this stage, I must focus only on the emotional core of the project: the main characters, the setting, the size and scope of the project. I may sketch details as they occur to me (and they do), but I will almost never focus on them. It is too early to dust off a piece of the relic when there is so much of it left to discover! For writing the process looks something like this:
1. “Big picture.” Am I writing a novel? A short story? A blog post?
2. Sketching. What is the story about? What about my characters, settings, and main ideas?
3. Large-scale plot. Plot ideas come together. Threads become clear. Character interactions become apparent. I now have a large-scale outline of the project, though it may have significant gaps.
4. Scene list and synopsis. Order of the story is refined, gaps are identified and filled in. Unnecessary scenes are deleted or interpolated into other scenes. After this, a detailed synopsis is written for each scene. These can be multiple paragraphs. Further revisions are made as I go. Each scene is essentially a “little story” in its own right.
5. Writing. The story is written from beginning to end, one scene at a time. At this stage, it flows naturally and is generally easy (or at least, not as laborious as it may have otherwise been). The process has been broken into its component parts and completed step by step, layer by layer, before the writing begins. The writing, in fact, is one of the final stages. Revisions and refinements can still happen at this stage.
6. Editing. The project is set aside for a time, edited by me afterwards, and then sent to another editor.
At this point, the following chart may be helpful for comparing the two creative processes:
To me, the similarities between the two processes are remarkable. Perhaps this is because they are both expressing a story, but simply doing so with different languages. It is also remarkable to notice the amount of work that can be put into even a simple project. My short stories scarcely take more than 45 minutes to read, yet each one takes roughly a month to create!
I believe this explains why I must carefully plot every detail of a story before I write. If I begin by simply writing, I end up attempting multiple thought processes at once and participating in a slow, laborious process. It would be akin to digging up a completed large artifact, rather than smaller pieces that are later glued together. The “layered” approach allows me to enjoy the beauty within each piece, and all the more as they are brought together.
Is creating difficult for you? Do you find it laborious? Try separating its layers. Sometimes, creating one layer at a time is the best way to keep the project easy and retain the joy of creation. And if creation is to be our work, should we not take joy in it?