On a good day, composing can be a challenge. Whenever I start a new piece, I get awfully fidgety – does the dishwasher need emptying? Don’t I have any business emails to respond to? Have I SEEN the pile of laundry that needs washing? But after some amount of coaxing, I finally get settled in front of my piano and put pencil to paper. In the early stages of a piece, I’m in a precarious state, where the slightest interruption can mess with my process. This leads to a fresh round of distractions before I can settle back down at the piano.
On a bad day, say when the Chicago Cubs are slugging it out with the Cleveland Indians in the World Series or the U.S. holds a very tense national election with a surprising outcome, it can be downright difficult to get into a creative headspace at all. I find this to be particularly true if I’m in the early stages of a new piece when turbulence strikes – I can lose hold of my tentative grasp on the delicate tendrils of musical ideas that are just starting to form in my mind.
So, what does an artist do when turbulence strikes one’s creative process? First, realize that it is better not to push your work to happen if you’re not in the headspace for it, for there’s a good chance that you won’t be happy with the results when your head clears (unless you’re under a tight deadline – then you might have to power on through). Instead, try these approaches:
• Switch tracks for a while.
Work on an unrelated project, start something new, or even do a series of short exercises. Basically, keep your creative juices flowing. Perhaps you’ll even discover an entirely new direction for you to artistically explore while you’re in this “altered” mind frame.
• Step out of your work zone, both
physically and mentally.
Go out for a long walk, read a book, binge-watch a TV series, seek out a foreign film, make an afternoon of going to an art museum, meet with friends for dinner at a new restaurant you’ve been hankering to try. Basically, give yourself a round of fresh, new experiences. This will help you re-set both your mind and creative process, as well as sort out what you want to say creatively when you return to creating again.
• Consider letting the turbulent event fuel your creativity.
We are artists. We can and should interpret the world around us into our art. Many artists have managed to find inspiration in anxious times: singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote protest songs in the 1960s in response to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement; John Corigliano wrote his Symphony No. 1: Of Rage and Remembrance (1988) in memory of friends he was losing to the ongoing AIDS crisis; and John Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) for orchestra and chorus in remembrance of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. In one of the most profound cases of translating turmoil into transcendent art, French composer Olivier Messaien wrote his extraordinary chamber work Quartet for the End of Time (1941) while imprisoned at a POW camp in Germany during World War II; he and three fellow inmates premiered the piece at the camp for an audience containing both German soldiers and prisoners. Turbulence can help us figure out how we want to use our voices as artists, to discover what kind of statement we wish to make; it can also provide catharsis for us as well as our audiences.
If all else fails, give yourself a break. Take a day or two (or more) off from being creative. You can work on some business aspects of your career instead – catch up on those never-ending business emails, update your website, research possible grants and competitions you wish to enter, and so on. Sooner or later, you’ll be ready to express yourself creatively once again.