Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Care & Feeding of the Creative Spirit: Part 2

Continuing from Part 1:

When I was in school, I had weekly lessons in composition and occasionally we’d talk about “the teaching of composition.” But nowhere was there any kind of “creative psychology,” preparing students for changes to their creativity as we mature, if we would have even listened (the “I’ll never change, that won’t happen to me” argument) other than the occasional wink-wink about any impending mid-life crisis.

When I was a composition student, I could sit in a practice room at school surrounded by other students who’d be practicing or running up and down the hall like a bunch of idiots: nothing really seemed to bother me. Now, listening to the soft rock beat of my neighbor’s stereo through my walls (thump thump thump) or the barking doberman next door sends me into a tailspin: how can I possibly write with all this racket?!

Then there’s that new voice you may have just discovered, one inside yourself that’s louder than all your neighbor’s stereos and dogs put together, the one that keeps saying “Who cares what you write? You think someone’s going to like that shit? What orchestra do you think is going to have the rehearsal time to learn to play this? You think you’re Beethoven or something?”

It’s the kind of voice that, when you look in the mirror and think “I look nice,” is saying to you, “Are you kidding? You look fat!”

This is what some writers call “The Inner Critic.”

Kill him!

In the old cartoons, they used to depict this voice as the little devil sitting on your shoulder, urging you to do things you knew were wrong, before the little angel would pop up on your other shoulder, the voice of your conscience, telling you you shouldn’t do that. The only problem with the Inner Critic is there’s no little angel around to talk you out of it. Pretty soon, you begin to believe that voice and if you’re not able to kill him off or at least drown him out (I know – white noise!!), it can kill your creativity faster than anything else in the world.

For the typical student – high school or college – long-range planning is generally “how do I make it through to the weekend?” When you become a senior, then there are either plans for grad school or career choices that need to be made. If that wasn’t a big enough change, there’s getting married and the even bigger change and responsibilities that take precedence with children.

From a creative (and selfish) standpoint, there are distractions and new responsibilities that reorganize your life, change your priorities. As the Bible says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child” and so on... “But now that I am a man” (it would be too complicated to diversify this quote politically correctly: but now that I am a man or a woman? Well, these days, anything is possible) “I have put away these childish things...” Okay, maybe “now that I am an adult”...

Art is a form of play. You let your imagination play. At one point, you have the freedom of youth to play anything you feel like playing – you experiment with possibilities, you take risks and it doesn’t matter: you can always try again – there’s plenty of time!

What happens when you turn 21, other than being able to vote and drink (legally)? Everyone expects you to act “like an adult.” (Let’s leave the immature adult who’s acting like a child out of the equation for the moment.)

Creativity is Play but now you have to Work. You get a job, hopefully earn a living, support yourself, have a family – these all take time from the creative play and sometimes sap the energy from it. And you find you dont have plenty of time any more. If you’re a mother trying to hold down a job and raise a family, you have NO time.

Your employer isn’t going to be too concerned about your plans for the Great American Novel or Symphony. “You do that on your own time.” And that’s if you have a job that doesn’t require more than an 8-hour day. Who would have time, if you’re like Toru Takemitsu, to sit down and play through the St. Matthew Passion just to get inspired?

Play is for children – that’s the image. Now that you’re an adult, it’s time to put the toys away.


At least not in some remote corner of the brain where you allow society to throw away the key.

How do you keep play in your life so your creativity can be nurtured by it? Well, there ARE weekends, but if you own a home, play is not exactly mowing the grass or cleaning the garage. If you have children, play can suddenly open up the whole world of your own childhood again like a kind of magic. If artists have been inspired by romance, may have been inspired by the birth of a child, though there are different responsibilities, from diapers and beyond.

Creativity is the work of play, the imagination free of the Everyday. Give your creativity something to keep the everyday reality out for a while.

When I was in my early-30s, I spent a month at a writer’s colony called Yaddo (the MacDowell Colony is another one and there are several in other parts of the country as well). There was a routine: breakfast was served at before 9am and lunch was handed to you in a box – then between 9 and 5, you stayed in your room and wrote. No one could go into anyone else’s room without prior arrangement and bother them. You could escape to eat your lunch downstairs or on the patio or you could stay in your room and eat while you’re working. The TV set in the parlor could only be on after 5pm (they made an exception: I was there the day President Reagan was shot). Dinner was served at 5. The rest of the evening was yours – you could socialize or continue to work, but no one was supposed to bother you in your room. One thing that helped was the recognition that creativity was the equal of work – not that it was “work,” because any artist knows how hard creative work is, but because it was being equated with that 9-to-5 sense of work.

Around the houses and cabins that comprise this colony in the woods were 50-60 acres with several different paths. Some of us would take brisk walks along the shorter path, a kind of inner circle around the mansion; other times maybe you wanted to spend more time and take the longer, outer circle. Rather than a brisk walk, perhaps it was a day to linger and look at the new spring growth (I was there in mid-March) or watch the birds. You could take as long as you liked or needed, but once you were back in your room, it was now time to work.

These walks were a double form of exercise: more than just cardiovascular, it got the blood flowing through the brain. And it eliminated the build-up of stress, sweeping out the day’s reality and allowing your creativity to stop and smell the roses.

It doesn’t have to be a full workout at the gym: all you need is a little just to dust off the brain and give it a little fuel so you’re good to go for the rest of the day.

So if you feel you have trouble, suddenly, being creative – take a walk. And tell that Inner Critic to take a hike! Go somewhere that relaxes you or energizes you, whatever works for you. You may have to drive somewhere, but the drive is not enough. In the winter if it’s too cold to get out and walk, maybe it’s time to turn that coatrack back into a stationary bike...

For some writers, reading other people’s words can inhibit the flow of your own. For others, it may inspire them or give them something to “take off” from. For composers, it’s not just a matter of not listening to someone else’s music. For instance, I have music spilling through my head all the time. I work at a radio station and play classical music in the evening, but there can be music all around you, not just from the radio but everywhere else you turn – the ubiquitous Muzak. And nothing is worse than getting some inane phrase stuck in your head you can’t get rid of, something that just repeats over and over again. They call these “ear worms” (kill them, too).

One thing that several writers about creativity have suggested is keeping a journal. Unfortunately mine becomes more a report on what happened rather than what I’m thinking about. Sometimes, it’s therapeutic to get issues off your mind (“off your chest” is the standard expression) – problems at work, trouble with a relationship. Julia Cameron, in her popular book “The Artist’s Way,” suggests you write first thing after you wake up: it’s not WHAT you write but THAT you write, and this works whether you’re a writer or a painter or a composer. You clear the stuff out of your brain, maybe writing about a dream or just nonsense just to get the mind moving. Eventually this will lead to ideas or something that can lead to ideas, something that could be the creative light-bulb you need to get the real creative work started.

Occasionally, I find myself just simply asking “Why am I stuck?” I might get into a question why I like one composer over another and maybe discover something that piques my creative curiosity (or leads me down the Red Herring Road). Maybe I’ll start hearing sound-images in my head – not necessarily themes but maybe musical shapes (or “gestures”), instrumental colors or kinds of texture which I then try to describe in prose or drawings. It is my dialogue with my self. It helps to activate my inner self, freeing it up for... PLAY!

After several years of not having composed anything (nor even trying to), I heard the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony play Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme.” It’s a piece I’ve never really cared for. But at the end of the piece, in the very last measures, there’s a chain of very high trills over a long sustained chord before everything resolves. Even though I’ve heard this piece many times and often found this passage unsettling because it’s so hard to play in tune, this time I sat up like I’d never heard it before. I’m not sure it was just the performance (which was very good) but I found this, now, very mysterious and before long (actually, I think, days later) a very mysterious piece started forming in my head. Now keep in mind, I had not completed a single piece of music in something like over 12 years, so this was definitely unexpected.

Some years before, I had read the opening of Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” where the world is sung into existence by a chief deity and a committee of sub-deities. It’s one of the most beautiful creation stories I’ve read, everything willed into being through a kind of astral music. One of these “sub-deities” brings in a note of discord, introducing evil into the world – and this theatrical aspect is what set the piece in my mind in motion. What exactly this had to do with the trills at the end of Chausson’s “Poeme,” I have no idea, but there it was.

It evolved into a piece for violin and orchestra about 12 minutes long which took 6 months to write but (several years later) still doesn’t have a title. I didn’t want it to become the Silmarillion Piece. But it worked for me and became the first piece I’d completed in about 16 years or so. Later, I began to see it as a conflict between my creativity (the solo violin) with the introduction of evil from my own Inner Critic.

In the process of working on this, it occurred to me it was taking soooo long getting back into the swing of composing again. It had been years, of course, and it wasn’t quite like “getting back on the bicycle” (a cliche I hate because, truthfully, I never learned to ride a bicycle in the first place) There were whole new things to learn, it seemed, things I hadn’t been doing for 16 years. Discipline was a big thing to have to learn, the idea of “showing up at the page,” the equivalent of going to work and working regardless of productivity or success. It was difficult not to be discouraged by how long this was taking. That “Inner Critic” was constantly reminding me that I once wrote a very complex 9-minute choral work basically in one day.

Perhaps you remember the claymation film that came out in 2000 (around the time I was working on this piece) called “Chicken Run”? One night, I happened to catch one of those “Making Of...” TV shows, how they put this stop-action animated film together. They take little figures made out of clay... set it up, take a shot, then move an arm a smidge, adjust the facial expression a bit, take another shot and so on – a very tedious process. They realize that with computers today it would be so much easier to make an animated film but they were committed to the look and feel of their claymation process. It didn’t bother them that, at the end of a very long working day, usually 8 or 9 strenuous hours on the set (which was basically the size of a kid’s Christmas train platform) they had... 3½ seconds of film footage. Let me say that again – 8 or 9 hours of work, 3½ seconds of film!

So I sat down to figure out how much music I was basically averaging in the process of composing, keeping track of the number of hours and then timing what I’d actually composed in that period of time. Though I could never manage 8 or 9 hours of composing time in a day (too fatiguing, mentally) even though much of that could be spent staring at what I’d written the day before, it still averaged out to about 3½ minutes of music for every 8 hours of clock-time spent working. So I figured if they couldn’t be discouraged at “Chicken Run” with that kind of progress, why should I? It’s a matter of having a vision and believing in it. It was a kind of revelation – like “poultry in motion” – that helped kill (for a time) that nasty little inner voice.

Several composers have told me, in one way or another, “the piece you finish is never the piece you started.” It takes on a life of its own, in most cases, and becomes something else from that initial idea. Sometimes this is a problem; sometimes it becomes a better piece. But life is like that, too.

We all have distractions: you have a job, now, and maybe a family to support and raise. Many people can’t always manage to get up an hour earlier to write that novel, but some can figure out what things to do to accommodate that dream: set up a special room in a quiet part of the house (if there is such a thing), a place you won’t be disturbed while the door is shut. Maybe ask the spouse to take the kids out for an hour – turn off the phone. Spend an hour concentrating on what you’re writing, composing, painting, practicing. One hour. You’d be surprised how much, once you get used to it, you can accomplish in an hour.

Of course it takes me sometimes almost that much time before I even realize where I need to start, figuring out where things were going when I left off the last time, but now my hour is up and I need to leave for work. So I started looking for other ways of prepping my time: before I stop, jot down some ideas where I need to begin. Spend as much time, when inspiration strikes, getting something down on paper that will jog the memory the next time, even if it’s drawings or squiggles or descriptive words. If you just think “yeah, I’ll remember that tomorrow,” chances are you won’t.

Take stock of yourself. I am not a morning person but I can’t work late at night after I get home from my second shift job: the neighbors are asleep, my brain is fried. I am also basically a lazy person. I spent years writing spontaneously with a facility that allowed me to sit down and write a 30-minute chamber opera over Thanksgiving vacation. If inspiration isn’t popping up any more on its own, prepare yourself with back-up – other things to work on, perhaps abstract things that might be the equivalent of a cross-word puzzle but could jog the mind into creating something.

Following some of the advice from Julia Cameron's “Artist’s Way,” I would do my “morning pages” and take those “Artist Dates,” things you do for yourself by yourself. I tried to avoid those “crazy-makers,” as she called them, the friends who would come by and complain about their problems until you’re just as miserable as they are (it’s not legal to kill them, but you get the idea).

There are some distractions you can’t get away from: children need you when they need you. Your spouse may understand but there are limits. Being an artist in a relationship means trying to find the balance between love and selfishness, in a way. Perhaps somebody is ill – illness is never anything you expect. These are often the most difficult to accommodate because they require immediate attention and can be the most spiritually draining.

Basically, you learn what you have to do – I have to make money, I have to do this job – also, I have to be with my family because there are also things you need to do – I need to be with my family just as I need to compose. I don't need this and could do with a little less of that. You learn to compensate but you also learn to put the different aspects of your life into some kind of perspective. You find some time when you can sit down and say to your inner child, “can you come out and play?”

If you don’t find these adjustments between your life as a student and as you grow older, you will find yourself stuck in Middle Age with a job you may or may not like but chances are “may not like.” Perhaps the kids are now grown and off to college or on their own and maybe your focus has shifted from taking care of your kids to taking care of your parents. At some point, you will realize you are the age your parents were when YOU were a kid going off to college and you thought they were so old. You couldn’t imagine it before, but there may come a time when you might actually prefer to stay home and read a book rather than go out and party.

The worst thing about Middle Age, life changes that make puberty look like child’s-play, is “The Rut.” The same stuff at work, the same stuff for dinner, the same problems at home, the same stuff on TV. You find yourself in a rut that gets deeper and deeper until you can no longer see up out over the top of it and you find it impossible to climb out of. It doesn’t mean running off and having an affair, buying a snazzy red sports car to reclaim your youth (cars that can be regarded as penis extenders) or dying your hair so you won’t look 50 but more like a 30-something who’s led a hard life. If you didn’t have the discipline to exercise before, chances are you won’t discover that discipline trying to work off the extra pounds when you start feeling stiff in the joints or when those 6-pack abs you always dreamed of have turned into a keg...

There are lots of ways to stave this off or turn things around before it’s too late, or before you run headlong into a wall – like a heart attack – where you have to change everything, or else! Eating right and living right all help your being happy, being engaged in your life, and vice versa. You need to recognize there is a problem and then figure out how to solve it. Big problems are easier to solve if you break them down into smaller issues that can be addressed with greater potential for success. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of everything that’s happening (or not happening) to you!

This is a Left Brain thing, looking at the details and working at it bit by bit. If you’re too Right Brained about it, you’ll see the Big Picture but react emotionally – and that emotion could be fear.

The dreams and goals you have today – and you should have them, no matter where you are in life – are just as important to someone who’s a student now as they will be 35 years from now. If career choices and circumstances beyond your control take you in other directions, don’t think of yourself as a failure. Look at what you’re doing, think about what you’d like to do and figure out some way of keeping that involved in your life.

Maybe I won’t write the Great American Symphony. Just because a pianist never quite made it to Carnegie Hall doesn’t mean she’s not a good pianist. There are ways your creativity can help you find some meaning in your life and enrich your family and community.

Without dreams and goals, life has no direction. Figure out where you want to go and what you need to do to get there. Can you always reach that destination? Maybe not – there are lots of twists and turns on those paths and you have to be prepared to react to them, maybe retrace your steps and find a different one. You need to be able to adapt, you need to be able to accept change, not be paralyzed by it. And this something can happen in your home-life, in your work-life as well as in your creative-life.

Everything you do is a risk: it’s the only way you move forward. If you don’t, you’re stuck. Don’t be afraid to take risks – but don’t be depressed if this one didn’t work. Maybe the next one will.

In a relationship, they tell you to “communicate.” You have problem? Talk them out. It’s the same thing with your inner-self, your creativity: you have problems? I’m not saying “talk to yourself” in that way (though with people on cell phones all the time, there’s less stigma attached to it), but yes, you need to communicate with your Self and listen to what the good inner voice is trying to tell you.

- Dr. Dick

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