There are many things that keep us from creating music: exhaustion, technical issues, procrastination, lack of inspiration to name a few, but FEAR seems to be the most universal. The subject of fear in creativity has been covered by countless books, workshops, documentaries, blogs, gurus, podcasts and so on. What I have to share on the subject is nothing new, but hopefully my personal observations and perspective are enough food for thought to help you through your immediate challenges. I will cover some basic concepts, exercises and tools that have helped me in those tough times.
In my experience, the timing of “help” is usually more important than the validity of its source. Have you ever been anxious about an upcoming situation or task, and only a few seconds after beginning the task you realized how unfounded the anxiety was in the first place? Have you ever been highly distressed about something and only a few minutes after someone strikes up a conversation with you, you realize that things are not as bad as they had seemed just a few minutes prior? Have you ever been focused on an event that seemed immensely overwhelming, only to be distracted by something totally unrelated, and that brief shift in focus allowed you to see how unnecessarily anxious you were? These are just a few examples I experienced where coming back to the present moment, or even hindsight, gave me perspective that the original fear I was experiencing was not relative to reality.
The ability to consciously acknowledge that you are experiencing fear and then access a “tool” to shift your perspective has gotten me through 90% of my creative fear hangups.
The pen, the paper, the synthesizer, the laptop, the guitar, the record button, none of these are inherently dangerous (barring a few paper cuts). To fear any of these is just silly. So what is it that we fear? It is the consequences of our creative actions that can be scary, not the actions themselves; but sometimes I believe we treat them as one in the same. These consequences of creating (at least in modern times) are probably not going to include a beheading, being pulled apart by horses, being flogged, or any other gruesome punishments. Oh no, the consequences I speak of are far more HORRIFIC! These consequences include self-criticism, criticism from others, not being perfect, feeling stupid, feeling amateur, not being accepted, and the likes. The horror!!! If you look closely, you may realize that these consequences are not in the present moment of creation, but rather judgements to come later.
To tell yourself to ignore the fear of the coming judgements is probably not a very realistic approach. As they say, if you can’t beat em, join em. If you already know that some form of judgment or criticism is bound to come, why not plan on it? Plan to put on your critical hat, but judge the creative work when it is done, not before it has started. American composer John Cage made it simple when he said:
“Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes”.
Wear two different hats if that’s what it takes for you to get in the mindset of each process. When you create, play, or experiment…do something, anything, but do without knowing what the final outcome will be. True creativity thrives on uncertainty.
Once the time or energy of the creative process has expired, take a minute before jumping right into critique mode. Let each process have it’s own time and place. When it is time to put on your critic hat, don’t use that time as a form of self-torture, but rather a time to develop your taste by softly observing what excites you and what doesn’t and the results. Focus on the results of the creative time, not on your ability. The more you do this, the more you will refine your taste and not your self-criticism. Once you have come to know your own taste, it is easier to see other’s tastes for what they are, as their taste. Expect them, welcome them, but if you have developed your own taste, you are less likely to mistake someone else’s taste for your own.
There are a few techniques and concepts that I have found helpful:
Use a timer during your creative sessions. >The Pomodoro Technique< is a commonly used tool for creatives because it keeps you focused on moving forward above all else. There is time for creativity and time for developing your taste. When you are creating, keep your momentum up at all costs. Trust me there will be plenty of time to pick it apart later. Not feeling the “creative spark?” Set the timer anyways and DO SOMETHING. “When you can’t create you can work.”- >Henry Miller<
Practice the act of turning the record button on - Don’t compose, practice, work on sound design, or even randomly tinker without having the record button on. This may sound silly, but by practicing the act of hitting the record button you are actually tying the neural pathways of recording and creating together. You begin to associate that little red dot less with criticism and fear, and more with creation. Also, the more you record then the more opportunities you will have to wear your critic hat and develop your taste.
Learn to meditate or practice mindfulness. I could spend 100 pages on this subject alone, so instead go Google the term “creativity and mindfulness.” The ability to consciously observe and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts for what they are is an invaluable skill. The ability to stay present with your process and not get caught up in one thought or randomly chase another will conserve a huge amount of creative energy.
Welcome your critic into your creative home. Nothing I nor any other advice giver can say will ever get you to your highest creative potential as much as you being vulnerable enough with yourself to develop your own taste. View the creative and critical practices as two distinct roles that are performed at separate times. Like it or not, your critic is a part of you and if you don’t acknowledge and celebrate that part of yourself, it will come up when you least want and expect it. Teach your critic to be a curator of taste, not a comparative nag.
Build an arsenal of “perspective shifters.” Sometimes we just get stuck. No tomato timer or deep breathing exercises are going to give us that little spark to take the very first step towards creative momentum. Having a set of tools that you can go to that will get you over that first little hump can be a lifesaver. These tools can range from a set of guiding principles you have written out for yourself, a go-to list of inspirational quotes, a framed picture of your creative hero, an action figure that is always standing at your workspace waiting to help take action with you (silly, I know), or whatever works for you. For me, there are three tools I constantly reference when I get the “stucks.”
Oblique Strategies Cards - In the 1970’s artists Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards containing short thoughts, challenges and obscurities to jog your thoughts and creativity. When looking for a quick and easy way to shift your perspective, pulling one of these cards can be just the tool that is needed. Current editions of the official cards can be purchased online >at this link<. Always on the go? I am not sure how “official” this app is, but iOS device users can also get access to virtual cards via the nifty app found >at this link<.
Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers - This book has quickly become one of my favorite go-to resources when looking for an inspirational nudge. Dennis Desantis (Head of Documentation at Ableton AG, a Berlin-based music software company) has masterfully captured many music makers’ common struggles, strategies to overcome those struggles, and organized the content in a way that makes it easy to find strategies relative to your current creative stage. Where Oblique Strategies leaves a lot of room for interpretation, Making Music gives you more tangible solutions without overwriting your tastes. You can find more information on the author and ways to buy >at this link<.
Write your own artist statement or manifesto - The process of creating this tool can be time consuming and energy draining, but it can be very valuable once done. I would suggest you take your time on this one and be careful not to let it become an excuse not to work on your main creative projects. To define your intent, your aesthetics, and the meaning that your creative work has to you can be very empowering, and can also be a great resource when you are looking to get back on your creative path. There are several resources online to help give you some guidance on writing your artist statement. I never found one that I personally liked. My suggestion is to make something that is for you (not to share, at least not initially) and something that only contains thoughts that you already feel passionate about in relation to your work. Post it, reference it.
Tools are pointless unless you use them. Don’t just think about the concepts discussed here, but take action on them. If you found any value in these thoughts, I urge you (right now) to take some form of action that makes sense to you to create accessible tools and work to build these into your habit chains.