Mantras & Filters: Overcoming Composer’s Block

I’ve finally figured out how to break through the filter of self-doubt on a fairly reliable basis. For me, what works is a series of mantras—nuggets of wisdom from people smarter than I am that I can repeat until the filter unclogs.

Written By

Dale Trumbore

Path blocked

Composing at two different residencies in the span of less than a year brings the problem of “composer’s block” clearly into focus. I experience it not as a block or wall so much as a mental filter through which all ideas must pass, a filter clogged by a steady stream of self-criticism: This sucks. This sounds like second-rate [other, more accomplished composer]. I should only write choral music, because clearly I’m terrible at writing for “real” instruments. Who let me into this residency, anyway? The judges must’ve needed another female composer; maybe I was the only one who applied?

It gets bad. At a residency, when composing is the main—or only—activity on the schedule, the music flows more easily than usual, and when the block hits, that hits harder, too. The beauty of residencies, though, is that they come with a finite amount of time. There’s only so much time before self-pitying and the accompanying doubt—I’m wasting my residency!—become more cumbersome than the act of getting notes down.

I’ve finally figured out how to break through the filter of self-doubt on a fairly reliable basis. For me, what works is a series of mantras—nuggets of wisdom from people smarter than I am that I can repeat until the filter unclogs. Here, in the order in which they are usually deployed, is everything I know and tell myself when composing feels impossible and my brain kicks in:

This music absolutely sucks.

Mantra #1: Wallow.

So you’ve been sitting at the piano/computer/desk for a while, and nothing’s flowing? Take a—brief—moment to wallow in how much it sucks. Everything sucks. The music is terrible. Composing is hard. Life is hard.

Mantra #2: Take a break.

Okay, enough wallowing. Go—briefly—do something else. You’re allowed to take a break. You should take a break. Feeling creatively blocked is the only time when cleaning seems like an appealing activity to me, so I take advantage of it when I can. My house gets cleaner, and I view it as a win-win situation. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk. Read a book. Listen to someone else’s music—music that knows what it’s doing. Change locations. Go for a drive. Take a shower. Watch some trashy television, but only one episode. Do any task where your hands or body are occupied with a banal task, and your mind is free to roam.

I’ve forgotten how to compose.

Mantra #3: Just sit down (at the desk, at the piano, at the computer).

This can be the hardest step, I think, especially when writing hasn’t been going well. At home, my “office”—barely a separate room from the living room—is about ten feet away from where I usually eat breakfast. The hardest part of getting started each day can be walking those ten feet and doing work. So just sit down. Sit at the piano. Sit at the computer. As Jane Yolen and countless other authors have said, “Butt in chair” is the great secret to writing. Tell yourself you can even sit at the piano/desk and not write anything. Just sit down.

Mantra #4: Fix the things you know how to fix. —Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

In case of emergency, first go back and work on what you already have. Edit. Make sure slurs and dynamics are present and in the right place. Make minor fixes. Clean things up. Often just editing an older section of a piece results in re-familiarizing yourself with this material, which suggests another way to approach or rework it later in the piece. Skip ahead to a part of the piece where you know what’s happening. Skip to something you can take care of, something you feel confident about.

This music is utter crap.

Mantra #5: Shitty first drafts.—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Okay, now that you’ve tricked yourself into sitting back down and getting back into the work by any means necessary, it’s time to create. For this, I use writer Anne Lamott’s mantra of “shitty first drafts”: no one’s going to see what you’re writing, so it’s fine to write particularly horrible music. Maybe you know the sound you want, but you’ve forgotten how to notate it, or you can’t remember at this particular moment whether it’s even physically possible to produce that noise on this instrument. You can get stuck in the filter telling yourself that this makes you an ignorant, wretched composer, or you can say—out loud is particularly helpful—“shitty first drafts,” get it down, and remember you can always burn it later. (Or hit the delete key.) But just write something.

What is going on with this section? What is this music even doing?

Mantra #6: Delete, delete, delete.

As you think about the music, play it back, work through it—What feels right? What feels wrong? If it feels wrong, get rid of it. It’s terrifically freeing to delete what just plain doesn’t work. Better yet, save it somewhere else so that you can come back to it if you do miss that material (a tip from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he also quotes Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings”). But the chances are, you won’t miss the material, and you’re better off without it. At one point, this essay was at least three paragraphs longer; now that those paragraphs are gone, not only do I not miss them, I can’t even remember what they said.

Mantra #7: Trust yourself.

You’ve composed in the past; you’ll do it again. Trust that whatever you write next will be better than 1) whatever you’ve deleted, and 2) whatever you’ve written in the past. You learn from the music you’ve already written, and you fix whatever didn’t work in those pieces in your next piece, so your music is constantly improving. The knowledge of how to compose doesn’t go away. Trust that knowledge.

Mantra #8: Do what’s easy.

Think “easy” in the artistic sense, not in the “sitting on the couch and watching Netflix” sense. The most elegant solution to a problem is often the simplest one, especially if it emerges from embracing your strengths and choosing what comes naturally over something that feels forced. You’ll never reach this solution if you don’t delete the crap first, though, or if you judge your instincts without trusting them.

This isn’t complex/long/original/good enough.

Mantra #9: Don’t judge. Or: Write first, judge later.

Do you like it? That’s all that matters. I have a few quotes stashed away for whenever the filter goes but this work is terrible. It doesn’t matter that I really want this cadence here; the rest of the world is going to find it horribly clichéd and take away my composer card. Plus, I’m pretty sure this other composer already did this, and they did it better than I’m doing it.

I love this quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “Stop worrying if your vision is new / Let others make that decision—They usually do.” This quote from Philip Glass helps, too: “The main thing is to love the work that you do, because you may get no other reward.” Write for yourself. Yes, of course, you should keep the musicians for whom you’re writing in mind as you write them a piece. But in the moment of composing, the music itself is for you.

Even when we feel that we don’t know what we’re doing, even when we’re trying to judge everything that comes out of our fingers or our brain—even with all of that, it feels good to have written, and it usually feels good in the process, too, once we finally sit down and start. It’s supposed to feel good; this is why we write. That’s why we’ve chosen to be creators: no matter the pain and frustration of composing, it’s more painful to be stuck in the filter, not composing.

I have one final mantra, derived from one of my favorite quotes about composing—in the moment, and as a career:

I would tell any young composer: Go for it now. Don’t wait. Don’t say, ‘Well, I’m going to do that when I have time.’ Keep the writing going, and let everything be in a mess if it’s in a mess. Just don’t stop.

—Dale Warland, from this interview with Abbie Betinis

Mantra #10: Let everything be in a mess.

I think of this one as “shitty first drafts,” but for life. Composing is what matters. Sometimes I take this phrase very literally: so the dishes are in the sink, and there’s laundry all over the floor, and the area surrounding the piano is covered in sheet music. It doesn’t matter. Let it be in a mess, and if your score is a mess, let that be in a mess, too; you can fix it later, and you can clean later, but you will never get back this time that you have right now to be composing.

Put your butt in the chair. Write a shitty first draft. Everything that’s not working? Delete, delete, delete. Write first, judge later (or don’t judge at all). Trust yourself; you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. Reward yourself when you’ve done the work. Come back to it the next day, and let everything be in a mess. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

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