On Creativity and its many hurdles

Writing music is hard.

I’m making more progress, but it is tough to keep the creative momentum up through family visits, work trips out of town, and other not-fun adult to-do’s.

The time that I have to write music is during the weekdays, when I’m not working, and my two oldest kids are at school. If I’m lucky, I’ll have an evening on my out-of-town jobs where I’m not drained and have the capacity for creativity.

So time is not abundant.

I’m still mostly on schedule with my album timeline, but definitely on the back end of it. That worries me.

I’ve been learning what it takes to be efficient with my time. But most times, thinking of efficiency puts my mind in a driven, work-mode, and then it stifles my creativity. When I’m uncreative, I’m unproductive. When I’m unproductive, I’m frustrated at myself for not being efficient with my time. When I’m frustrated with myself, I become drained, self-critical, and unmotivated. Consequently killing any creativity that may have been left. When that happened (last time was last Monday), I’d try to move onto working on a different song on the album to see if any creativity sparked there on that day. Usually to no avail. Then I’d move to another tune…

So I had to break this cycle. I decided that I would stop thinking about my timeline. Currently, my timeline has me at the stage of writing sheet music for the instrumentalists. I’ve been wanting to avoid going down any rabbit trails of “playing around” and adding parts, mixing things (which is a much later stage), or trying to get the recordings perfect, etc… “It’s important for me to focus on sheet music writing, so don’t do anything else,” is what I kept telling myself. But certainly after a good amount of time behind a computer screen, writing sheet music gets stale, and my creativity begins to leave.

So I decided to allow myself to go down those rabbit trails. Last Tuesday I spent a couple hours trying to record the vocals just right on Track 2. I spent a while coming up with a nice piano part in the last chorus. Before I did that, I had to stop worrying about my timeline and allow myself to enjoy the moment of writing music. When I got tired of re-recording guitar parts, I sat outside and enjoyed a coffee and pastry. It allowed my mind and spirit to recollect, and melodies started coming to me again.

I did also have to force myself to stay working on only one song within the same day. Each track has its very own vibe and feel, and in a very method-actorish sort of way, I feel like I have to bask in that vibe for a few days before the creative production aspect starts to come naturally.

I also had to let go of my external stresses around the album. I worry about my website. I worry about if I’ll have enough money in the budget to actually make this album. I worry about falling behind schedule. I used to worry about what people would think about my music, but that was a hurdle I had to clear before I set to work on my album.

I can tell you that, by far, the biggest creative block to a writer is self-criticism. “What will people think?” “Is this going to sell big?” “I like this part, but I’m worried that someone will compare me to __________ because of this…” (whatever artist you may be afraid of becoming.)

For me, behind that wall of creative blocks was all the criticisms I’ve made of other musical artists across the years. I was much worse when I was younger, but I had this mental disorder of musical elitism that criticized everything I listened to. If it was something I didn’t like, I found a way to trash talk it. I can still be that way a little, but if anything, I try to keep from vocalizing my negative thoughts. Vocalizing a complaint tends to make them concrete, if that makes sense. Instead, I try to focus on the things in the music that I do like and articulate what I like about it, even if I don’t like the overall song.

This has been hugely liberating. You can write almost anything you want, and someone, somewhere will appreciate it. For me, there is nothing more important in music than writing honestly.

I have the most trouble accepting music that is disingenuous. The easiest way to do that is to write for the sake of gaining money or popularity. There are plenty of pop songs on the radio that are genuine in that they intended to be fun, danceable, emotive, or expressive which also make money and popularity for the artist. That’s all good. But there are also plenty of artists whose contrivance just oozes out of their lips. Don’t be that guy.

Be true to yourself. Write what you love. Have fun writing. Enjoy the process of writing. Make consistent time for writing. Don’t knock others’ writing. Think about the things you love in others’ works. And don’t worry about what labels they may give you.

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