Experience of Writing
A good question to be asking yourself is “what do you want the experience of writing and composing to be like?” That may seem like an obvious question when you start to think about it, but if you look at it as an inquiry into what you want the primary work of being a composer to look like, it becomes a crucial question in how you develop and experience your career. You might think, “I want it to be fun, exciting, creative, and such,” which is good, but the first thing to do is to look and see how has it been.
For me with my career, early on, composing was something I was really excited about, and I just did it. I just sat down with a piano (or no piano) and music paper, and I just composed. Literally, I would spend hours upon hours working on composing. Sometimes it would result in a finished product, sometimes it would just be sketches; it really ranged dramatically what the output was, but the bottom line was that I was just composing. Later, I started to experience it as more of a struggle, even a struggle in an attempt to impress people. The experience of struggle led to it being less and less fun which tended to be discouraging. As you might expect, being discouraged affected my output.
A key aspect of being a composer is taking the actions involved in creating music. It follows that if the way you experience composing is as a struggle then you will either live with the struggle or compose less, maybe stopping altogether. For me, my composing output went from a flood to a trickle. When I transformed my experience of composing to an experience of play and discovery and then put structures in place to support composing my productivity increased exponentially.
What Do You Want Your Experience to Be?
An exciting place to stand then is that your experience of what you want composing to be like then becomes something that you can influence. You can say what your experience is going to be like. This is important because it won’t always be like that, and if you’ve said to yourself and to others that this is how composing is for you, then when its any other way, you can just recognize that its not going the way you said it would and you can start to look at what thoughts you’re having that are making it anxious or a struggle and look at what thoughts that you want to foster. Beginning to exercise this kind of influence on your composing gives you a lot of power to develop your craft including your productivity and speed. The alternative can be seen with several high profile, successful composers who speak of the misery of composing. That isn’t a necessary experience.
Its amazing how much power there is in just saying something like “I love the process of actually composing, and its exciting to see what I come up with, even when I don’t really know what I want.” Those words have an amazing power to create your experience for you. For me, there got to be a point where I was experiencing so much anxiety and pressure and spending so much time comparing what I was working on even in its embryonic stages to the finished the compositions of great masters both past and present that it really just became debilitating on a certain level.
What Is Writer’s Block?
It’s really what we mean when we say “writer’s block.” It really became so painful and difficult to actually write anything or to revise and see anything in completion that eventually it seemed like I could only do it when I had a really public and pressing deadline, and that worked for a while on a couple of big pieces, but there came a point where I stopped creating public and looming deadlines so that I wouldn’t have to then go through the struggle of meeting those deadlines, to go through the pain involved with ‘is this any good?’ and not being happy with it when it was done. It’s okay if you’re not happy with something that you’ve written. The more important thing is, did it get finished? Did it accomplish what you set out to do? We’ll talk more about that in other posts. If you were doing the piece for or with someone else, like it was a commission or a collaborative project, were they pleased with it? Did they feel like it accomplished what it needed to? Ultimately, when we let others judge whether something was successful, we actually have some power out of that.
For me, during that period of time where I was avoiding taking on or creating projects that had fixed public deadlines, pretty soon, without even realizing what was happening, I was writing less and less until I wasn’t writing at all. What then filled the void where my writing used to go were other pursuits that I was being more successful at. There’s nothing wrong with changing career paths or shifting the amount of time you’re spending on some tasks versus others. What was it worth for me though was that I wasn’t consciously doing that, changing career paths; it was just happening.
It still would’ve worked if I had chosen that or been okay with that, and I wasn’t, so here I was being successful at these other things and my enjoyment of the other pursuits was seriously hindered. The amount I was enjoying life was dramatically diminished because on a certain level, I was still thinking of myself as a composer and expecting and intending to be successful at that, and so it really felt like I was spinning my wheels or going off in an unrelated direction and wasting that time, even though it was very fulfilling work that I was doing, and it was stuff I was really successful at.
After a while, I realized that I was not being a composer (or being composer) anymore, that I was no longer composing, and I wasn’t okay with that. In fact, it was frustrating, and it felt like I had given up on what I dreamed to do and what I loved about composing had just degenerated into this self torture. During that period, an amazing thing happened, aside from that I kept getting opportunities to write music and passed up some really good ones. I kept getting these opportunities to write music and there came a point where some other things in my life shifted, and I said, “wait a minute, I’m really wanting to be a composer. This is actually what I’m up to.”
Being Composer, Composing
At that point, I started creating not just that I am a composer, not only saying that to people and sharing my vision for it with people, but also I really starting thinking about being a composer and what do I want composing to be like, what do I want to work on, what would I enjoy and what’s going to have me be successful. I went on a journey through a lot of different genres and pursuits and I really enjoyed writing for orchestra and writing for choral voices and writing for some small ensembles, but it really didn’t light me up like writing for music theatre did.
Now, I owe thanks to my wife for helping me see that and keeping it alive when it didn’t look like a good idea. It’s critical to create an environment that really supports and even pulls for you to be composing.
I kept looking at that and I kept working at theatre and really trying to assess whether that was just a resistance to that path or whether there was actually something else there. What I determined for myself, and there’s no right or wrong about it, was that ultimately my heart and dreams were still squarely in the world of music theatre and opera. What was required at that point was to start doing that and creating opportunities to do that. It was out of that that the opera that I’m working on now and the commission for it came about.