Tag: writer’s block

Creative Productivity Challenge Day 5: Confidence

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Some people think confidence is the key to success. It’s a handy rationale because we can always blame our lack of productivity on our lack of confidence. And if we believe that confidence is something we either have or don’t have—that it’s a finite trait determined at some formative age—than we don’t need to blame ourselves or take responsibility.

Let’s overturn those assumptions. Let’s explore how we get past the fear and do the work—even when we don’t feel “ready.” Because that’s what our best work demands.

We’ll cover:
3 tips for increasing your creative confidence

A. 4 C’s of Confidence: commitment, courage, capability, confidence
B. Use fear as an indicator
C. Stop hiding

And PSSST: Here’s your special BONUS to help you take your next project forward: YAY!
It may take a few moments once you sign up—have patience

Resources for Day 5

The Art of Play

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

“How can I make the act of creating new art feel less like work and more like PLAY?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot—with my students, with my collaborators, to myself. It’s a question that I return to when I feel stuck—creatively and productively – as an artist and a teacher. My investigations into this question have often been noisy, lopsided, awkward, occasionally flatulent, and—on the whole—a source of profound joy.

I’m excited to be able to share with you a few ways I’ve tackled this question, and I’ve offered a few (incredibly specific) questions of my own, in the hopes of learning more about how YOU use play in your life, work, and art.

Making things BY myself, FOR myself.

It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. Why not just make something you feel like making?

Back in high school, I learned how to make music in broad, crude, strokes, by recording myself playing instruments, making strange sounds, and layering them together in ways I found interesting. Over time, for whatever reason, it settled in my head that composing was supposed to be a different kind of activity—quiet, thoughtful, cerebral, methodical. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be quite different—a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. In rediscovering this process, I recalled the importance of simply making things that seemed interesting, whether they would be shared with people or not. These sketches could be non-musical, too—a video of funny faces, a painting of Hank Williams, a cube made out of mirrors. Why not just make something you feel like making?

What would you try doing, out of sheer curiosity, if you knew nobody needed to see/hear it?

Making things WITH people.

Sometimes, in moments of creative weakness, I get fixated on the idea that a “score” is not only a necessary means of making music, but a very specific type of means, like a blueprint. But a score can be so many other things, right? A puzzle. A Choose Your Own Adventure book. A cake recipe. An invitation to a costume party. A map without a key. A random sequence of numbers. A series of hand gestures. A water balloon fight. A matchbook. A clock. While going off in shamelessly speculative directions as to what a score could be, it occurred to me that a score is not really the interesting thing about making art, however; it’s people. So perhaps, I thought, making music directly, with people, all together, might lead my collaborators and I to creative terrain that the interface of a score couldn’t—a kind of creative space where everyone was collectively testing, discovering, and building new ideas together.

This led me to my current obsession—using games as a way to create new pieces. I’d been employing simple theater and music skill-building games in my elementary school classroom—after all, who doesn’t like to play games?—but had never tried using this strategy to create things with adults. I found that by setting up simple rules and interactions between people, my collaborators and I could develop interesting, surprising, and often quite beautiful relationships and ideas. Not only could these games be used to make works that combine media (sound, acting, movement, visuals)—they could be used to make work with just about anyone, from professional musicians to a classroom of kids. How cool is that? I’m in love with the idea that people of vastly different levels of experience could create something together through the simple act of playing a game.

How could you create a piece WITH people, as a group, without needing to write anything down?
What are some “games” that you play regularly in your work? In your process? In your life?
Could somebody else play these games with you?
Could somebody else use ideas from your “playbook” to make something of their own?

Making things FOR people.

Oh—a score can also be a gift box!

Wanting to make something with people who live far away presents a compelling challenge. I got excited about the idea of incorporating distance into the process of such collaborations by making pieces that were simply boxes filled with stuff. A box could contain anything—instructions, written music, cryptic symbols, magazine clippings, bubble wrap, knick-knacks, etc. A box could be like a little ecosystem, or a junk drawer, following any sort of logic or non-logic. A box could contain surprises, traps, secrets. The idea was that a person receiving a box could make a composition of their own from the contents within, and maybe even send me a box in return so I could do the same. (Some wonderful folks have done this.) But what if the box gets lost in the mail? What if the recipient hates everything in the box? What if the recipient chooses to ignore it, or forgets to open it? I had to accept all of these as possible outcomes, and it led me to think about the idea differently—as a gift, a gesture of love, goodwill, appreciation for someone, from me to them, in the form of art.

Clay box examples

Some sample boxes Clay has created. What would you put in yours?

If you made an art gift for someone, what would that look like?
(For a family member? For a colleague? For a stranger? For anyone and everyone?)

Making things WITH KIDS.

Getting a job teaching elementary school music has profoundly changed how I make things. When I started teaching, I immediately asked the question: how can I make projects collaboratively with these kids and give them the tools to make new art of their own? The complex array of challenges that such a question presents, I think, is what got me thinking about play in the first place.

A class of third graders listened to nine notes by Beethoven and drew what they thought it looked like. These drawings were interpreted by a professional string quartet.

Every year, I ask my students to make their own “note”—a recorded sound with their voice and a corresponding image to represent that sound.

What could you make with a classroom of 8-year-olds as your collaborators?

Asking questions with lots of answers.

Among many things, working with children got me thinking about “the art of the art assignment” (a title I am stealing from a book that I’d highly recommend). How could a simple prompt—a question, a task, a challenge—serve as a springboard for creativity? Presenting such questions to people, and collecting answers—in the form of sound, video, words, thoughts—has always been inspiring to me, and I take tremendous joy in sandboxing with the material folks are kind enough to send my way. This culminated most recently in me mailing a sound “workbook” to volunteers from all over the country, containing twenty simple exercises that could be interpreted on any instrument. Some examples:

Exercise No. 1—Say hello. Sing hello.
Exercise No. 6—Devise a situation in which your instrument unintentionally/accidentally makes sound.
Exercise No. 9—Describe “home” in three sounds.
Exercise No. 16—Write down a secret you’ve never told anyone – match the syllables to notes on your instrument; perform. (Destroy copy; save recording.)
Exercise No. 20—“The sound of ___.”

I was overwhelmed by the creativity and beauty of the responses and am slowly (oh, so slowly) building little collages out of my colleagues’ responses to each exercise.

What are some challenges / tasks / questions that might inspire you to collect things?
If you designed an art scavenger hunt for people, what would it look like?
If people designed an art scavenger hunt for you, what might THAT look like?
What could you do with the things you collect?

Ok, enough about me. How do YOU find ways to play in your creative practice?

Creative Productivity Challenge Day 4: Process

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

High standards and a pursuit of the ideal are the hallmarks of any creative practice, but perfectionism can prevent us from appreciating or even achieving extraordinary results. How do we allow for the playful, exploratory, and experimental part of the process as well as for the critical, and analytical part?

What’s your process like and how do expectations factor in?

What tools or approaches help you to “ship” the work—to complete your work and get it out in the world?

We’ll cover:
4 principles for perfectionists

A. Shitty first draft
B. Recognize the process
C. Expectations: who/what are you measuring your work yourself against?
D. String of pearls

Resources for Day 4

Creative Productivity Challenge Day 3: Purpose

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Flow: it’s that magical place when we are “in the zone” and operating at peak creativity—we’re focused, our mind is quiet, we’re working with marvelous ease and time seems to disappear.

How can we set ourselves up to get to the flow state more consistently?

What if the flow state were more accessible than we realized?

We’ll cover:
3 ways to boost your motivation, creativity, and access to flow.

A. Know your WHY
B. Know your Hero’s Journey
C. Know your FLOW

Resources for Day 3

On Starting

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Starting is difficult.
Do I start at the beginning?
Do I start in the middle?
Do I start at the end?

Let’s start: on July 1, 2007, I launched a podcast project called 60×365 for which I composed and posted a new one-minute composition every day for a year. In an interview with NewMusicBox at the conclusion of the project, I shared some early reflections about its impact on my creative practice:

One thing that excited me right away was knowing that this project would force me to compose a lot more. Making a new piece every day is a huge commitment. Like many of my colleagues, I was having trouble finding time everyday to sit down to compose at all. I had hit a mental block on a couple of projects and felt like I was stuck in a rut. 60×365 presented a way to try out some new ideas while developing some discipline and routine in my creative life.

Now, ten years later, my practice has further evolved. The experience gained from 60×365 continues to guide my work.

Imagine a blank sheet or a blank screen or the silence waiting for sounds.
Now imagine a composition that is nearly done, needing just one more idea.
Which is more difficult?

I think about productivity quite a lot, looking for ways to be more organized, more efficient, more motivated. I’ve read about and experimented with different systems (Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban). I’ve tried different apps (Remember the Milk, Trello, Habitica). Sometimes the systems and strategies work for me, and sometimes they don’t. Often they work for a while, then gradually fall away and the search for a new tool, a new hack, a new methodology begins. It’s easy to get lost in this search, using it as an excuse to put off the actual work. One must be careful with this search. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of contradictions and caveats:

Over time I have assembled a mashup of tools and systems that help me to stay organized and keep track of various projects and deadlines. Knowing what work needs to be done does not automatically motivate me to start working, however. A tidy to-do list does not help me confront the reality that the music I imagine composing is very different from the music I sketch at the start of a session.

So I keep searching and I begin to understand that what I’m really searching for doesn’t exist. I want to discover the magic combination of planning actions and productivity apps that result in an effortless efficiency in the face of creative projects. While certain combinations do make it easier to organize and track projects, no combination changes the reality that good music takes hard work.

Do I compose better first thing in the morning?
Do I compose better late at night?
Do I compose better when I have one long session?
Do I compose better when I split it up into multiple shorter sessions?
The unhelpful answer to all of these questions is “sometimes.”

There are two principles that I’ve developed to guide my practice. The60×365 project helped me identify these, and hard work since then has cemented them as foundational elements of my working routine. They are not focused on motivation or inspiration. They are not organizing principles subject to the whims of a given day. They are:

1) Start with anything and work from there.
2) Throw out anything that isn’t working, without prejudice.

The first principle emphasizes composing over thinking about composing. Thinking about the work is not the same as engaging with the work. The decision about how to start can get in the way. Starting with anything is better than not starting. I know how to work, and am not afraid to do the work once I’m in it.

The second principle supports the first. Being ready to throw out something that doesn’t work means that there is no wrong place to start. Every moment spent composing is a chance to learn more about composing. The more we learn, the better we become.

Allow me to illustrate with two anecdotes.

We face the challenges of starting all the time. We face it in all parts of our lives. Even something as trivial as doing the laundry has the challenge of a start.
A pile of clothes in the basket waits to be washed.
A pile of clothes in the dryer waits to be folded.
An idea waits for your sounds.
Half-finished sounds wait for one more idea.

The biggest challenge of 60×365 was finding an idea for each day. Without an idea I was unsure how to start composing. Many days I had to use the basic constraints of the project (a one-minute electronic composition, due today) as enough to get started, and trust the skills developed over years of practice to create the finished composition. October 1, 2007 was one of those days.

There are many different ways to start. That day I started by going to the Freesound Project and downloading their “random sound of the day.” It was a hi-hat loop by John Scott. With no real plan, I loaded it into my DAW and poked at it in different ways until an idea began to emerge. After a number of experiments, I could see what the music wanted to be. At that point, I took a break to make an evening cup of tea. (This is part of my process, letting the subconscious mind take over for a little while.) When I returned, I knew what to do and worked to pull the whole piece together.

I’ve found this to be true again and again: get past the difficulty of starting by simply starting. How to do that looks different every time, so there’s no secret trick to it. Sometimes starting looks like the situation I just described: make a random choice and develop the music from there. Sometimes it looks like starting with something easy, or with something challenging. Different projects, different moments, require different solutions. The only consistency is that starting is the transition from merely thinking about composing to actually composing.

There’s no time to wait for inspiration.
There’s no such thing as a problem that solves itself.
There’s no substitute for putting in the work.

Morneau graphic

Image by David Morneau

A little context is required for this next anecdote. In early 2016, I began to collaborate with composer Melissa Grey. We quickly discovered that we work very well together, in part because we approach the craft and discipline of composing in very similar ways, which includes our separate discovery and embrace of these principles. Our collaborative working method takes many forms, from improvising to drawing large maps by hand to composing side-by-side at one computer. This particular story of working with Melissa is about the creative freedom that comes from a willingness to discard ideas that aren’t working.

Recently, we were preparing for a major performance that would combine some of our existing music with new compositions. We had created a map and structural plan for the show and were working to fill in the details. On this particular day we had tasked ourselves with composing a short remix. We knew the constraints of the task: use the tracks of the source composition, sketch it in a single day to remain on schedule. There had been a brief conversation the day before about one possible idea. Because it was my turn to drive the laptop, I setup a new session and made a quick loop of a recorded voice as an approximation of our idea.

After listening, to it Melissa remarked that it sounded mediocre and derivative, which it did. We began to revise and adjust, looking for the way forward. Before frustration could take hold, Melissa looked at the clock and said, “Let’s give it another hour, then we’ll start fresh with a different approach.” That was a freeing moment for us. The pressure of dealing with this particular loop was taken away by the decision to set a time limit and then discard if it still didn’t work.

An hour later, we realized that we had eliminated the original loop almost entirely. The music before us was very different from the original idea. Several hours later, we had shaped and refined and polished the sketch into its unexpected and charming form. The willingness to discard the original idea freed us to follow the music as it developed.

In this case, there was no need to explicitly discard anything. The absolute willingness to start over allowed us to explore and experiment. There was no pressure to get the idea right at the beginning. We gave ourselves the luxury of discovering the right idea as we worked. This was a powerful moment.

Morneau graphic

Image by David Morneau

In economics, sunk cost is a cost already incurred that cannot be recovered. “So far, I’ve spent eight hours composing from the initial concept.”
The sunk cost fallacy is making a decision that too heavily weights the sunk cost against future benefit. “Even though the initial concept is not working the way I’d imagined, I can’t start over without losing those eight hours.”
Instead, consider: “I’ve gained eight hours of experience composing, and I can start over right now with the benefits of this experience to aid me.”

Here at the end, the goal is to compose, which is very different from thinking about composing or planning to compose or making a to-do list of all the bits that need to be composed. Start from anywhere, so long as you start. Be ready to throw everything away and start again. How you practice these principles will depend on who you are, and it will vary from day to day and from project to project.

60×365 helped me discover and articulate these principles. Collaborating allows me to continue refining them. Working well teaches me to work well. There is no shortcut around that reality. Embrace it: work hard and good work will follow.

Creative Productivity Challenge Day 2: Self-Messaging

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

From negative self-talk to self-compassion.

What’s your negative self-talk like—the craziest stuff on loop in your mind?

If you’re like me, you have a nasty voice in one ear making outrageous statements about your efforts, your capabilities, your projects (not to mention your looks, manners, weight, etc.). How do you deal with this?

Doing our best work demands that we get past the voices of our fears, self-limiting beliefs, and self-defeating assumptions.

What has helped you?

We’ll cover:
3 counter-intuitive approaches to taming our nasty internal gremlins

A. Identify your negative self-talk messages
B. Turn Pro
C. Grateful Flow

Resources for Day 2

When Everything Utterly Sucks

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Somewhere in the homestretch of writing a new composition, I inevitably become convinced that the entire piece is garbage. By now, when I start a new piece, I know that this Day of Utter Suckitude is coming; it happens no matter how much I’m loving the piece, or how smoothly the writing has gone thus far. I become convinced—temporarily, falsely—that not only is there nothing redeemable about this awful piece, but that composing itself is meaningless, I’ve committed myself to a worthless career, and I’m a bad composer. I become briefly convinced that perhaps I should seek out another job, one where at least I’d be getting free health insurance.

I know exactly how ridiculous this all sounds written out, but that doesn’t help me reason it away in the moment. This feeling usually lasts 24 hours, or at most a couple of days. Each time, it feels like I’ll never escape

The Day of Utter Suckitude is different from the small, nagging instinct that a section of music would be better if I re-wrote it. That voice can be trusted. You can recognize the Day of Utter Suckitude because it encompasses an entire piece, finds nothing good about any of your work, and sends you into an anxious tailspin. Sometimes the Day of Utter Suckitude manifests so suddenly it gives you composing whiplash; you’ll wonder how a piece that seemed brilliant a week ago has become something you’re now certain you should destroy as quickly as possible.

“I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?”

During the Day(s) of Utter Suckitude, someone you know will ask how your writing is going. Because you have chosen this career—you got yourself into this mess—you may not respond truthfully. You’ll want to say: “Terribly! It’s going terribly. The piece sucks, and I’m pretty sure that everything I do is devoid of meaning.” You’ll want to say: “I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?” You’ll wonder if this is the curse that comes with having your dream career: that for a few days during the creation of each new piece, you’ll loathe everything about your work. You don’t feel as if you can confess any of this to another person, however, unless you’re talking to another composer who is also a very good friend, so you grit your teeth in response. You say something like, “It’s… going. It’s fine.”

Even writing this essay, I can feel it coming; tomorrow, when I re-read the current draft, I will decide that it, too, is the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that later, by draft four, I’ll have moved past that feeling; I’ll have revised a great deal, and it’ll feel like it belongs to me again. This particular brand of panic always passes, and the piece pulls through every time. When I’m done, it may not be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I’ll have fallen back in love with it.

Sometimes when I’m stuck in the worst part of my composing process, I think about the start of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. You enter a dark room and a door slides shut behind you. As the room lowers—it’s secretly an elevator—a narrator explains that the room has no windows or doors, which “offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out!” Of course, he says, “there’s always my way.” You look up to discover that the ghostly narrator has hanged himself from the ceiling rafters—dark for a children’s ride, no?—but then a hidden side door opens, and you’re free to move onto the actual ride itself.

Give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

This is the goal when we’re stuck: to find a way out. Even if I’ve convinced myself that I write bad music and no matter how much I temporarily loathe whatever I’m working on, that hidden door always opens. You don’t need extreme measures, either. You give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

Each Day of Utter Suckitude is like anxiety: it mimics the feelings of actual physical pain and actual disaster, but it isn’t any of these. It can’t be solved, at least not immediately, by pushing yourself harder. Like anxiety, it may not have a permanent antidote and there may be no quick-fix solution. The only way out is, usually, to acknowledge the feeling, to greet it like an old acquaintance you don’t particularly like—“Hello, good to see you, but now I have to excuse myself”—and then to step away.

Step away from the desk

Step away from the desk
Photo by Taduuda

Right now, I’m in the thick of this with a piece I’m writing. I have the sensation that what I’m working on is not very good, is in fact maybe the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that after I’ve fleshed it out and revised the orchestration, after I’ve edited it multiple times, I’ll have changed my mind. The first rehearsal I attend will be like greeting an old friend I actually like: I’ll see all of its flaws, sure, but I’ll also love it in a way that can’t be erased.

But here, right now, I hate this piece with all of my being, and as usual, that makes me wonder if perhaps I’m very bad at writing music. I have to remind myself that this is the process. In my non-composing life, too, I experience anxiety, but I’ve learned to remind myself that I am in anxiety when it happens. It is temporary; it will pass. Here, writing this piece, I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

Instead of letting “bad” days derail the composing process altogether, I’m learning to recognize when to push through and when to be gentle with myself and let the piece rest. Whether I push myself to keep composing or decide to take a break, my process is not disrupted. One bad day won’t derail the process; it is the process, and a single bad day or even a bad week of composing doesn’t ultimately have any bearing on how good a finished piece will be.

Embracing a routine where you hate your own work seems a little ridiculous. You may want a book on getting rid of the doubt entirely, a list of “10 Ways to Be Productive” that leaves no room for days where you loathe what you’re writing. You may reason that if you just optimize your time, determine an ideal morning schedule, and make a really effective to-do list, you should be able to skip over the stage where it feels like everything you write is wrong.

But composing, or any artistic pursuit, is a practice. In this kind of practice, as any musician knows, there is a stage where you’re confronted with your own inadequacy, followed by a stage where you meet your own faults without resistance. That’s the sweet spot, and that’s where you begin to improve. In the practice of composing, that brief, late-game feeling that everything we’ve written is garbage might have a purpose after all. It can lead us to finish the piece strong, to shore up its weak spots and make our way confidently to the double bar.

So much of our instinct when we’re stuck is to want to push through, to work through the doubt as fast as possible, to try to outrun it. But once you’ve learned your process, you’ll know what’s coming. You’ll know when to push through and when to give a piece 12 to 24 hours to marinate on its own before you return to it. I can’t drag you out of the really bad days with good advice. I can only tell you to trust your process, even—especially—when the process feels like doubt, like failure. This, too, is part of the process, but you know what comes next. You know what follows feels like falling back in love. You know that if you wait here just a moment longer, you’ll always find a way out.

Creative Productivity Challenge Day 1: Creativity Habits

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Let’s get past the Procrastination and get to the Productivity!

Whether it’s a new piece we’re writing, a work we’re learning, an ensemble we’re launching, or a fundraising campaign we’re spearheading, let’s look at what helps us to bring our best and get the work done.

In today’s session we’ll cover: 5 creative habits for getting work done.

A. Time blocking
B. Work distraction free (so social media, unplug and don’t use your cell phone as an alarm clock)
C. Divide & conquer
D. Pomodoro technique
E. Backwards planning

When, where, and how do you do your best work?

What factors contribute or detract from you doing your best work?

Consider a priority creative project you’re working on (or procrastinating with) now—what are the obstacles you face and what could help you overcome them?

There’s no magic bullet and no one-size-fits-all solution. But the more ideas and approaches we share as a community, the better it is for all! No need to struggle in isolation—join the conversation. Please ask questions and contribute your perspective, and any approaches or resources that have worked for you!

Let’s prepare to make 2018 our best year yet!

Resources for Day 1:

Creative Productivity Challenge Dec 4-8, 2017

How is it that some composers and performers are simply more productive than others? Why are some artists able to get so much more done? Is it a matter of genes? Of motivation or confidence? Of how our brains are wired?

We all grew up with stories and examples of wildly prolific artists—Mozart, Picasso, Joyce Carol Oates. What’s worse, interviews with artists tend to glamorize the first flash of inspiration and the finished masterpiece, avoiding the often protracted slog in between: the setbacks, self-doubt, wheel spinning, wrong turns, and all the attempts to give up.

When our work is stalled, we may blame it on our lack of time and support, our distractions, negative self-talk, perfectionism, procrastination, and fear. (Or at least I do.)

And it’s easy to imagine that other artists have all this figured out and that for them, creative work is a joy and ideas and solutions come easily. While this may be the case for some lucky bastards, all too often, artists struggle alone and isolated.

Creative productivity is a topic that’s often avoided because it’s connected to other sensitive mysteries such as talent, inspiration, self-esteem, and potential. Some folks don’t want to look too closely at their creative work habits for fear this will bring up the very demons they turned to music in the first place to avoid. One way or another, we all have demons that need to be faced.

This week, we’re courageously diving into the deep end to examine how artists get creative work done, despite inner critics, day jobs, and low self-esteem.

This week is your opportunity to explore strategies to help you work at your best and access the flow state more often. We’ll be focusing on ways to organize ourselves, our time, and our ideas to make more room for the muse to show up. We’ll look at how we tap into inspiration and how we get past what Steven Pressfield terms Resistance, the force that can prevent us from realizing our potential.

News flash: there’s no magic bullet, no “one size fits all” solution. But there are tools and resources and we’ll be sharing them—along with stories to illustrate our common struggles and triumphs.

During NewMusicBox’s Creative Productivity Theme Week, join us for a special 5-day challenge to help you boost your artistic output, get more done, and make the new year your best yet. A host of writers are contributing posts this week and we’ll have a daily FB live discussion (12 noon ET, 9 am PT) to focus on key challenges and the strategies many artists have used to overcome them.

We’ll be looking at mindsets, focus, and work habits that help boost productivity, creativity, and confidence. But the conversation needs YOU—your participation. We’re crowd sourcing a creative productivity toolbox so tune in and speak up! Let’s help each other as a community of creatives.

As we head into a new year, this is an ideal time to get real about the obstacles that have held us back. It’s time to re-tool. Let’s set ourselves up to make 2018 a year of creative breakthroughs.

Let’s get our creative productivity on!

As in our previous theme week iterations—focused on education, mental health, creativity, and music and money—we’ll be exploring broadly.

We hope you and lots of others will get involved in Creative Productivity week: reading, thinking, commenting, sharing, discussing.

New posts and video coming every day this week! Check back here for the full index.

Mantras & Filters: Overcoming Composer’s Block

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.