The truth is, friends, I’ve got a top-secret project brewing, and it involves me interviewing some of my favorite creators about how creativity works. It’s been inspiring and informative, and has only thrown fuel on my obsession with the creative process.
I’ll be sharing some of what I learn on this blog - then, one day, I’ll share the top-secret project itself!
1) Get into an altered state.
Inspiration is impractical, and it is not often drawn to practical-minded individuals. When you are in a practical state - primarily concerned with money, housekeeping, or keeping your job - chances are not good that the muse will pay you a visit.
Inspiration is itself an altered state. Being inspired feels a little like being in love, or sleep-deprived, or high. The creators I’ve been talking to agree that to kick oneself into that altered state, it helps to be in another one first: falling in love is a common catalyst - so is heartbreak, and loneliness, and anger, and lust. Our brains are full of chemicals, and their combinations cause all kinds of interesting responses; creativity is one of the best.
But in case you’re not in love or heartbroken or angry, many creators find ways to alter their mental states using external stimulus. Common methods include travel, sleep deprivation, naps, alcohol and marijuana (just reporting - not recommending… necessarily).
I believe in muses and song-angels, but I also believe in science. If I’m speaking in sciencey terms, I think it’s fair to say that what we call ‘inspiration’ is probably what happens when the innovative, associative, emotional part of our brain is fired up, and the inhibiting, analytical, self-conscious part is temporarily switched off. Inspiration feels like riding a wonderful right-brain wave – the art of it is learning how to keep your nervous nellie of a left-brain from pushing you off (more on that later).
2) Allow your mind to wander.
Creativity requires idle time. I don’t mean staring-at-your-phone time, or watching-Netflix time, but an actual empty expanse of time, when your mind is free of distractions and can alight on whatever is at hand.
It helps to put your mind in a comfortable physical space: creativity especially seems to like beauty and silence. It thrives in quiet rooms, empty houses, and the outdoors. It doesn’t like phones, or anything else that can interrupt it abruptly.
It also helps to give your body something to do while your mind wanders. Some common mind-wandering activities include: moving through space (walking, driving, skateboarding, rocking chairs and hammocks), drawing, washing dishes, sweeping, cooking, gardening, kicking or throwing a ball. For best results: do these things alone, in silence, and without fear of interruption (ie: turn off your phone).
3) Have a deadline.
I am working on songs all the time. Like, for 100% of my life, since I was thirteen, I have been working on a song. I am not always working actively - sitting in a chair with guitar in hand - but I always have journals and iPhone memos and the back half of my brain full of little scribbled song snippets: lyrics, melodies, chords, titles and themes. Mostly, I scribble these ideas down and then forget them, at least consciously.
When I say “I wrote a new song”, I usually mean “I finished a song I’ve been working on for a while”. Only about 10% of the time do I start with a brand-new idea and complete it in one sitting.
Two things can shove these half-finished songlets into full-fledged songs. One is inspiration (usually brought on by one of the altered states listed above). The other is a deadline.
One of the things I love about making albums is that, without fail, the prospect of being in the studio shakes loose a whole cascade of songs. They wriggle out of my subconscious and wake me up at night, as if to say, “Wait! Don’t forget me! I’m coming too!”
The artists I’m talking to, and interviews I’ve read with songwriters who worked in the Brill Building, or on Tin Pan Alley, say similar things: you might think that a deadline would scare inspiration off – and sometimes it does. But just as often, inspiration shows up at the last-minute and sprinkles a little fairy dust before you turn in your work.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the point of practice is not just improving at your craft. The point is making your ego so mind-numbingly bored that it wanders off and bothers someone else.
Creativity means doing something new, and your ego hates it when you do new things. Your ego wants you to be successful at things, and nobody is successful at anything new. If you try writing a new song, for example, and ask your ego what he thinks about it, he will say that it is stupid and lame and contrived of six other songs, and that all of your songs are in fact stupid, and that if the world needed more songs it would ask Patty Griffin to write them, and that Patty Griffin by the way would agree that this is a stupid song.
It’s hard to get your ego to shut up. No amount of begging or bribery seems to do it. I recommend boring it into a stupor. Meditation helps with this, so do long drives and plane rides, and so does practice.
You want to start training your mind that when there’s a guitar in your hand, and you’re sitting in a quiet room, your ego might as well go do something else because nothing interesting is about to happen. After the 600th time you sit down to practice, your ego will wander off unbidden, and you can write a song in peace.
5) Be carried away by pleasure.
Songwriting, at it’s core, is about the pleasure of making sounds. Painting is about the pleasure of form and color. Dance is about the pleasure of moving your body. Science, as Richard Feynman famously said, is about the pleasure of finding things out. All creative acts are driven by a single motivator: the deep, personal, sensual pleasure of creating.
If you can connect to the pleasure of the things you make, and stay connected to it – if you can reconnect to that pleasure when your ego comes crashing through your mind – you will have a long and happy relationship with your muse.
The muse is a hedonist. Everything she does, she does because it feels good; and just like any good lover, the best way to please her is to please yourself.
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