Creativity frustrates me. It is a fickle friend prone to mood changes like no woman I know (including myself!). Attempts to summon and control it are futile and it has an odd sense of humor as to when it chooses to show up (yes, I was extremely creative when it came to making and decorating cookies this past Christmas, but why is my writing this week so boring?).
Perhaps creativity is like a muscle that has to be flexed and used often in order to be most efficient. Its true, my writing is a bit of a roller coaster with ups of mad 10+ hour writing sessions and downs of nothing at all for weeks. For years now I have been trying to achieve a balance in my composition practice. Write everyday, just like practicing, is what the greats supposedly say. Stephen King reportedly writes 10 pages a day, even on holidays and birthdays. Hemingway is famous for his 500 words a day. I don't know any stats for composers, but I like the idea of writing everyday, no matter what. And it would make sense that like say running every day, your creative muscles may be sore and achy at first, but would then adapt and flourish.
I, like so many, am vulnerable to the seduction of New Year's Resolutions. So this week (yes, one week late to the new year) I arose early every morning and after an hour or so of coffee and piano, dug into a new piece. Somewhat atypical to my usual writing habits, the first few days were great and I got a good minute, minute and a half into the piece, but now, as the composition needs to expand and expound, I find myself lacking in a major way the creativity to do so. This makes sense; I'm only a few days back into it, I shouldn't expect grand ideas to be pouring out of my pores- I would never run a sprint workout my first week back. But oh how little my patience is! And instead of pushing through it, I find myself pondering creativity and the creative process.
And I have two immediate thoughts.
The first is a flashback of an interview with the Indigo Girls in the amusing crossword documentary Wordplay. Amy Ray says that solving a crossword gives you “a sense of faith that writer’s block is not really real.” As in if you spend enough time working out clues, you can solve the crossword; same thing with music. With enough time the melody, harmony, form, are all solvable. That has always stuck with me.
The second thought is of a video I saw on a Virgin America flight (of all places) last spring. It was a talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert on this very subject of creativity. For those who are unfamiliar, Elizabeth Gilbert rose to fame a few years ago after releasing the memoir Eat, Pray, Love. While I loved the concept of the book, I did not consider it a great read. An interesting side note, Ms. Gilbert was also the inspiration of the movie Coyote Ugly. Her article for GQ magazine, "The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon," reflections of her time as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon was the premise (loosely) for the movie, and was actually a quite enjoyable read, but I digress.
While I wasn't crazy about her book, I was bored on my flight and am always interested in other creative types' thoughts on these things so I ordered another drink and settled into my semi-comfy seat to listen to Ms. Gilbert muse on the creative genius. By the end of the 20 minutes I found myself curious, inspired and relieved.
While Ms. Gilbert touches on the madness of artists, the pressures, and the expectations, what I found most interesting was the ancient concept of an external genius. From the transcript:
And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back. But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome -- people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK?People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons." Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.
So brilliant -- there it is, right there that distance that I'm talking about -- that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn't take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.
I'm not responsible? It was my muse?!? I love that idea! Then again... perhaps I am just looking for excuses. Ms. Gilbert then touches on controlling the creativity and relates this story:
And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment. And we were talking about this, and you know, Tom, for most of his life he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.
But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles he told me, and this is when it all changed for him. And he's speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, you know, it's gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn't have a piece of paper, he doesn't have a pencil, he doesn't have a tape recorder.
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, "I'm going to lose this thing, and then I'm going to be haunted by this song forever. I'm not good enough, and I can't do it." And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, "Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?" (Laughter) "Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen."
And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it kind of back where it came from, and realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom.
Interesting... In fact the whole thing is rather interesting and I highly encourage you to pause for 20 minutes and consider her ideas (which in themselves are not new or innovative, just explained in a very accessible way). I'm very curious to hear what others think of this concept of the creative genius and the idea of "muling" through 10 pages, 500 words, or 32 bars a day in order to allow it to speak.
For more on Ms. Gilbert's talk, the TED talk series, or if you'd prefer to simply read the transcript, click here.