Friday, December 20, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot!

The period leading up to a deadline is, for me at least, often very intense… I compose late at night, early in the morning, between classes, while waiting for my kids during their music and dance lessons, all in order to finish a composition on time.

Sounds kind of manic, doesn't it?

I don't think this is a particularly healthy way to live, at least not on a regular basis, but it happens, and when it happens, I have noticed the following:
  • It is stressful;
  • It is exciting;
  • It really gets the creative juices flowing (i.e., the composition is fresh in my thoughts much of the time, which causes ideas to come more easily and frequently); and 
  • When the deadline has successfully been met, the excitement and flow of creative ideas continue.
Excitement and stress are important parts of the creative process. If you have ever been stuck, and anyone who has made a regular habit of creating things has probably experienced this at some point, you know how painful it can be. Often, it takes an imminent deadline to become "unstuck" again.

I think that two of the main causes for "writer's block" are:
  1. Extreme self-censorship (we become too self-critical); or
  2. Loss of focus, for which there can be many causes, such as:
The pressure of an imminent deadline can force us to become less self-critical and to become more focussed. On the other hand, the weight of too much stress can squash us like a bug, but lets not go there…  :-/ 

Becoming less self-critical and more focussed can unblock impediments to creativity, many of which may be self-imposed, allowing us to move forward with our composition or whatever work in which we are engaged.

What do you do after the deadline has been met?

I find that after the deadline has passed, my brain continues to be in "hyper-creativity" mode, meaning I have lots of ideas, I continue to wake up early, and I have a general urge to create things, be they compositions, blog entries, story ideas, music theory handouts, or anything else that happens to interest me.

If I do nothing — if I do not act on these creative impulses — I gradually return to my "normal" mode of functioning, and, if I am lucky, I get more sleep while I'm at it!

But there have been times when I have jumped immediately from the completion of one project to the start of another, and this has resulted in an uninterrupted creative flow, which has led to faster and more painless project completions than usual.

Right now, I have finished all school work for this semester, and I have ideas galore for stuff (including today's blog entry), and so my plan is to get busy on a couple of projects right away. Oh, and to finish my Christmas shopping too, of course (which, unusually for me, was almost done a week before Christmas).

In other words… to strike while the iron is hot!

This, I believe, is the basis for Benjamin Franklin's famous adage, "if you want something done, give it to a busy person." He was living proof of this; Franklin is described in Wikepedia as "a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat."

The busier we are, the more efficiently we must work in order to accomplish our tasks. If I return to composing after a protracted period away from it, I often find it very difficult to get started, as if the part of my brain used for composing has dust and cobwebs in it. If I immediately dive into another project after finishing a work, the composition process flows a lot more smoothly.

Let me know if you have experienced anything like this.

Happy creative flowing!


Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I can definitely relate to this experience. In my film course last semester, I was writing the score for our short film. We expected the film to be about five minutes long. Since I had never scored a film before, I requested a final cut of the footage a month before the project was due, to make sure I had enough time to complete it. The film ended up being eleven minutes long and I received the final cut two weeks before the due date. I had never written an eleven minute piece before. I had to really buckle down and get it done, because I had no other choice. My creativity was on overdrive because I needed it to be. To my very great surprise, I finished the score with a couple days to spare. I think the pressure not only gave me the push to complete it, but also probably improved the quality of my score, since I was less concerned with the inefficient and frustrating process of perfecting every bar as I wrote it and more concerned with creating something that worked before going back for polishing. I wasn't able to procrastinate on the difficult bits either, so it didn't end up languishing until I lost interest. I definitely also agree about the idea of creative momentum. If you keep going, you stay productive for as long as you motivate yourself. Great post!

Josh Penney said...

I often find that my writers block comes from being over critical as a composer. I often want some great work to arise, however I criticize the little building blocks along the way too much to let them grow into something larger. This can be very bad when approaching a deadline because I want to finish my work on time; however I want it to sound like something I enjoy. I have found the best thing to do is to continue writing, because I can eventually develop my ideas into something that I do like.

After a deadline, my mind can stay in a creative mode. When writing I don’t always use the ideas that pop into my head (you can’t do it all in one piece) so they are typically fresh and ready to be written in something else. The problem is that I typically only write music when there is something that I need to write for. This is something I am trying to overcome. I am trying to allocate time every day to compose, however as the semester gets busier, it becomes more difficult.

Becca Spurrell said...

Writers block is very common for me, in both literary writing and musical writing. But sometimes, I wake up with a "get-to-work" attitude, so I've come to use these as opportunities to, well, get to work!

I find it very hard to get into a project when I can't get juices flowing, that's why taking these random spurts of energy, determination, will-power, etc is very important for me. Before I had writing and music projects, I usually used these opportunities to clean, organize, throw away junk from my closet, etc. But this semester, I've been using them more for working on these composition projects, and it's been working pretty good. Even if I haven't worked on the piece for a few days, if I use one of these opportunities, it only takes a few listens through before I'm hard at work!

Kelly Perchard said...

This same thing happened to me after composing last semester in the electronic music course. We were asked to make a kind of sound collage of a favorite song or tune, and after my project was complete, I thought about how many other things I could create using just a program (Audacity) and a pre-existing tune. We were adding special effects, rearranging the order of the song, and changing the speed in certain places that we saw fit. I finished my project a lot earlier than expected, because I was so enthralled by it. When I had extra time left over in the next few days, I found myself doing the same things to more of my favorite songs and showing my friends. It's definitely true that once a creative flow gets going, it's hard to stop it!

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great post! I feel that even though I like to compose in my spare time and I enjoy doing it, I often find that some of my best and most creative work comes from an incentive to compose (ie. deadlines for a project, application deadline etc.) I think that the need to produce good, creative work within a specific time frame is stimulating, as it forces me to use my time wisely and focus on producing the best work that I can, as opposed to allowing my mind to wander and become distracted.

A good example of this would be the Terra Nova Competition last winter. I had heard about the competition before and was planning on writing a piece for submission. An opportunity arose that semester to compose a piece for wind symphony as a project in orchestration class, so I decided that I was going to use that piece for my competition entry. However, we only had three weeks to write the piece. I was determined to finish the project in that time frame, and I was surprised to discover at the time that the composition process was going fairly smooth for such a big project. In the end, I was pleased with the result and was overjoyed when they had selected my piece as the winner. I guess it was sheer determination and commitment that allowed me to produce one of my favourite compositions of mine to date. This showed me what I'm capable of doing under these circumstances. I will definitely reflect on this more as I continue composing!

Peyton Morrissey said...

I really found this blog resonated with me! As someone who's schedule is incredibly full, prioritizing is something that happens often, and usually what comes first is determined by the due date. When I am working on a new composition I often find I will get something started, then have to turn my attention to another project or activity. Typically when I return to what I had originally written I find it easier and less intimidating because there is something already on the page, and I'm not staring at a blank screen. By this time the time crunch is usually on. It is with a more daunting deadline in sight however, that I find my creative juices beginning to flow, and I tend to experiment more, finding new sonorities or melodies that I wouldn't have approached before. This is because I am less cautious to writing something I know will work, and start stepping outside my comfort zone and into a realm where "unfamiliar" and "this won't work" are no longer synonymous. I too find that once I get the ball really rolling it is hard to stop it, and the more I can edit and tweak and play around with a piece the more inspired I get.

This applies to after the deadline as well, like I mentioned. I am so excited from all of the work I had done, new ideas are coming to me and I am always ready to start the next project, or get things done. I would compare this feeling to something like a "runners high". Once you've reached a certain level of creative output comes a sense of never wanting to stop!

Mitchel Fleming said...

I can definitely relate to this idea trying to meet a deadline but feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day to complete it! At the beginning of this semester, my English professor told us we were going to have to write a research paper that is worth 35% of our final grade. When he announced this, he never gave any details of the project, just that we were going to have to write it. As the semester went on, we never heard anything about the paper or received any information. He then comes to us, right when Music Student Crunch time begins (March, but really, we are go go go all semester) and tells us that we are to write an eight page paper, with twelve different analyzed sources and its due in twenty days! I could not believe that he had waited this long to give us such a substantial paper! I am a student that likes to pick away at a project over a long period of time and finish early so that way I can avoid the "crunch". While commenting on this, I am also researching my paper. Busy busy busy. But I do believe that by forcing myself to research so much on this paper, it will help me with my history paper. Get me in the mood for reading! I will, however, be glad when the semester is over and I can just relax. Let the brain cool down a bit.

Julia Millett said...

Dealing with self criticism would have to be one of my biggest challenges while composing. I tend to have many musically ideas playing through my mind that I would like to incorporate into my music. When I input these ideas into Finale I usually get into a bit of a rut. Mainly because I want my ideas to sound exactly how I am hearing them in my head, and MIDI doesn't do us any favours. Having patience and allowing our musical ideas to develop though editing and more thought is important, instead of creating something we aren't satisfied with and then getting rid of it.

For me my self criticism combined with a deadline does not make for an enjoyable composition process. But I must say that the moment after the deadline has been achieved is when I am most ease with composition. Having no deadline to work towards takes away a level of stress. Although deadlines do create a need to finish pieces. My "self critical" need to edit my pieces until they are to my liking leads to me not being able to finish my pieces. Deadlines are a true double edged sword!

Jessica P. said...

I definitely agree with extreme self-criticism being an obstacle that ceases to exist when there is a deadline to be met. I agonize for days over ideas to begin a piece, but seem to be physically incapable of thinking of anything worthwhile until the deadline is imminent. This agonizing stage seems to be more of a form of procrastination then a necessary part of the compositional process (as my thoughts usually consist of, "all these ideas are terrible" and "I'm making no progress, it's probably time for supper."). When the pressure is finally on to get something done, I can sit down for hours and focus my attention on just composing, not even noticing how much time is passing until I am finished. I'm not sure that my ideas are any better when I am in this state. I really think it has a lot to do with not having the time/being too stressed to criticize every little detail.
I actually find that I typically experience the opposite of creative flow after completing an assignment. I feel so emotionally and physically drained that the idea of beginning another project is unthinkable. This is perhaps due in part to the lack of sleep I get as a result of such extreme focusing. The rare times I have felt compelled to begin another project immediately after meeting a deadline, I tend not to work to completion, which means that by the time I get back to these ideas, I am too critical to take them seriously again. However, this is my own personal experience with the creative process and certainly not one that I would recommend to others.

Ben Taylor said...

This reminds me of 1st Year 1st semester with the whole cultural shock of university. I sat down one Friday night (because I'm a loner like that) and just wrote my English essay which only took me until Saturday afternoon (yes I went to sleep) and then went on to my History paper that evening. I had this sudden motivation to do everything right then and there. I believe your depiction of the brain with its dust and cobwebs is hitting the nail on the head.
It is really interesting reading about what causes "writer's block". It makes sense since your mind is so distracted with other things happening. I feel my biggest problem is procrastination and always saying "I have time".
I personally feel my creative "juices" when it comes to music writing or playing with Lego (Lego is awesome) is never hindered by a writers block. I'm actually a little worried because I feel like I'm going to have this massive writers block in the future and never get anything, but that's just me.

Sarah Bartlett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Bartlett said...

I wish this were the case for me. Often, at the end of the semester, I become much less motivated to do schoolwork. The beginning of warm weather distracts me from doing the things I should be doing, and I lose all desire to finish the semester (a very bad mainframe, really). However, I find that completing lots of other work, academic or otherwise, help me be creative. I find that once I start accomplishing things, I get a rush of energy and creativity that I can then put into other, more creative work. Although it may not be great system (for example, if you're short on time) it's a great way to catch up on work. I can't empathize with this deadline-panic-creativity, but I think that it's definitely a scenario-specific situation which probably changes on a per-person basis.
The great things about productivity is that once you start, it become easier to continue. If you finish one project early in the morning, it seems easier to then finish 3 more before the day's out. I'd love to see a blog post about how to find (create?) sources of creativity, or how to become more creative. What is creativity, and where does it come from? Potentially a future blog post?

Andre McEvenue said...

Yes! The afterburn of a creative session. I sometimes experience a microcosm of this when I toil for hours to get work done, and then start getting good ideas running through my head only after I've packed up and started walking home. I agree with this the "strike while the iron is hot" approach. For me, like creativity, it's also the ambition that comes and goes. Most often, I feel very ambitious once I've finished a project, and then feel eager to start the next one.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I definitely need to work on becoming less self-critical of myself. I never realized that this could be a potential barrier every time I get stuck. I do tend to dwell on things, too much which in turn makes me more stressed and frustrated. However, the stress and deadlines definitely fuel my work ethic during the semester. I can easily sit and focus on various tasks and be efficient about it because it is absolutely necessary. And as the semester progresses I can feel my working momentum increasing and I become more determined to be on top of my deadlines instead of procrastinating about them. All you say is very true but it’s always nice to have a good break here and there to recharge.

Jack Etchegary said...

This post really rings true, especially right now as I try to finish up my final piece for comp seminar. It is definitely very easy to become too self-critical when engaging in a creative process such as this one. Often I find my ideas to be unoriginal or boring after spending a lengthy period of time on a particular part of a piece. I also find that the increasingly busier weeks of the semester make it incredibly difficult to commit as much focused time for composing as I would often like to. However, as others have mentioned, sometimes a few days off from composing is helpful in getting that much needed recharge and a new look on some old ideas. I think that it is important to be satisfied with every idea that one creates for a composition. Reaching a deadline yet not feeling content with the overall finished product is far from rewarding in my experience. I believe that if one can stay on top of their deadlines as they would in other contexts, then the process of writing well-thought-out and polished music becomes a bit easier and is much more rewarding as a composer.

Alison Petten said...

I find that if i do not compose AS SOON as I have an idea, the idea is usually lost forever. At time same time, if I try to compose at a time when I am feeling less than inspired, I usually wind up writing nothing, or something that sounds (at least to me) very artificial and manufactured. When completing other assignments, such as writing a paper or a theory assignment, I don't mind being prompted by the deadline to complete it, but I care much more about my compositions and so I like to have much more time to complete them. I find that if I feel rushed at all I'm not satisfied with what I write. Time-management is very important to me for this reason, as I also have a lot more work to do in other courses. Up until now, leaving things until the last minute has worked fine for me, but now that I care more about my work I find myself needing to allow more time for all of my assignments.

Erika Penney said...

I agree with loss of focus being a huge reason for "writer's block". I have experienced many of the reasons listed for writers block, and it sometimes can be very difficult to undo. I found it more stressful for deadlines in my composition course than any other course because so many ideas and time go into creating a composition. In saying that, a lot of time goes into any school work to be done, but there is something different about creating music, and I think it is because in the end, you really want to be satisfied with what you've done. This is what makes it more time consuming because it often takes so much to get exactly what you're expecting in your work. Being self-critical always creates writer's block because it makes you think what you've accomplished is not good, or not worth passing in. If I leave everything until last minute, I often find I am very self-critical which creates an upsetting mood and a hard time at accomplishing projects.

Nader Tabrizchi said...

I notice that out of this "writer's block" I often loose my focus when I first start a composition, and I end up switching to another piece of work or task. When I come back I get stressed because nothing fits my composition anymore and that flow of creativity disappears. At this point I go through my composition and take out ideas that might have sounded as I envisioned them to, a lot of the time I regret doing this because had I written them on paper and stored them I could have edited them instead of changing them completely. I always notice however that the closer to the deadline of a project I start to feel more comfortable with my project. It is interesting how in these very close and tense situations my mind begins to think more about what I am doing. I start to get more creative and reduce the amount of ideas in my composition so that it becomes something that makes sense when you hear it. I really hope that I can work on stopping this “writer’s block” so that I can always feel energetic and confident when I am composing and not just a few days before the deadline.

Louise Brun-Newhook said...

Striking while the iron is hot is indeed something that works very well for me! I find I usually start projects and papers well in advance. This reduces my stress and my friends often admire me for it but it has negative effects. For instance, I will write two pages one day and come back the next and completely forget what I was talking about or where I was going in the paper. I find I get the most success in my grades during an extremely busy week. For example, I just missed a week and a half of classes due to family issues and when I came back I was so stressed thinking about all of the work I had to catch up on. One of my friends told me to relax because in the end it will get done. This is so true. You think you have no time for everything but everything gets done. I was doing more and more work consistently and my compositions just flowed! When you know you're approaching a deadline, you sit down and work without excuse. This gives the best results in my opinion. As for writer's block, I agree with what was said about the two main reasons: harsh self-criticism and personal issues. Everyone has these moments in their lives where they lose focus. The main thing is to keep at your project and eventually you will get over it without being too frustrated with yourself (i.e. self-critsicm). But yes, strike when the iron is hot! I always compose better and get creative ideas flowing out of me when a deadline is in two days as opposed to two weeks (even though I love starting projects very early for my nerves). It's all about finding a balance.

Kat NT said...

As I am writing my final percussion piece and the semester has been winding down, I have had a hard time to come up with the motivation to find and write good ideas. It just seems like they are not coming to me! However as the deadline approaches, I know I have to work to create something similar in quality to my earlier pieces. This has caused me to become less frustrated with the quality of my ideas and just get them out. Although many people would argue "quality over quantity", sometimes in composition it is best to spit it all out! Then you can see what works and what does not. I agree with your post, deadlines make composition exciting. This made me think of the Bernstein quote "To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time." Obviously, I am not encouraging leaving work to the last minute... but there is something to be said about the amount of work you can get done with the looming threat of an impending deadline.

Kristina Bernardo said...

As a person who does not have the best mental health, focus is, and always has been, something that has avoided me like the plague. My way of getting around it is by doing 10/15 minutes of work on each of my different subjects and when one of them sticks, stay with it. This doesn't always works for me though. None of them will stick or I just don't have the motivation to keep it up. This often will eat into my composing. I'll either pick away at it or write it all in one go. This leads to me either disliking what I've wrote or loving it, hardly ever an in between.

But I agree with the idea that more things get done when one is busy. The constant motion and activeness of the brain helps to churn out more and you tend not notice the decay of your basic needs. But of course, you can always burn yourself out, be in too constant of motion, have your head stuffed to the brim. I wish I could find the balance between these too extremes, but I suppose that everybody does. Not everyone can be a Mozart or a Stephen Hawking like character and churn out content faster than it can be digested by audiences.