I’ve long been fascinated by the mystery of creativity. I witnessed the home births of my sons, the uncanny, inexplicable, OK, miraculous fact of holding against your chest a being that a half hour ago was invisible, silent, sightless, unbreathing. Something you helped make, that’s part of you, yet also completely separate. The ultimate magician’s trick – now you don’t see it, now you do!
It’s the same with music, and lately the words I’ve had the privilege of bringing into this world. As with my children, my creations sometimes feel as familiar as looking in the mirror, as I recognize my thoughts and gestures in them. Other times I’m surprised, facing some stranger, wondering where did that come from? Like children, artistic creations don’t enter this world without pain.
I’m sitting, tired, cranky, noodling over and over around the same riff on the keyboard, or pushing around words like food on a plate when I’ve lost my appetite. I stare again at the clock – two hours til lunch. An eternity.
An hour or two later, I come to. Where have I been? Somewhere, for sure. I’m 1200 words down the page from that first sentence I kept fighting, or a minute into a new piece of music, not only written but also partially orchestrated.
I remember little of the recent stretch of time, but I know where I’ve been, because I’m still partly there. A minute ago it carried me with no effort aside from a flailing of fingers. Now I find myself blinking, looking around, and paddling against….the water.
I’ve been in the flow, in the river, rushed along by a spirit I will never see face to face, that’s unknowable, that I would never even really know existed except that now I’m still floating, up to my neck, in some eddy. I’m paddling now, pushing the words and notes before me, because it’s no longer easy, the writing/music is no longer writing itself. A minute ago, it was no work. I can’t remember, but I know I’ve just been in far faster waters, because I feel wet, refreshed, alive, recreated myself.
Then it comes, a flash of memory. Zooming round a bend, whee! Over a 6 point rapid, turning my head, and for a moment I glimpse this river, this thing I’m making, astonished that it has taken this turn, and from this height dimly aware of the shape of the thing, even the destination, “THE END” somewhere ahead in the mist. Finally it’s over. Long experience has told me that now it’s time to stop. And look – it’s time for lunch, too.
After lunch, or the next day I look at what I’ve made, certain it must be great, because making it made me feel so great. It isn’t. At the least it needs extensive editing. In some cases it needs to be mercifully put out of its misery. But editing is another story. It’s about the left-brain, and flow is all about the right.
Most unfortunately, you can’t just twist some faucet and have the river of creativity pour out and you jump in and off you go. Except for beginner’s luck, which is no luck at all, but some muse batting her eyelashes, throwing you her mysterious smile – The first one’s free, kid.
And so it is, but after that you gotta pay. There’s only one coin. It’s not a popular word, not in a free lunch, pop-a-pill and stay young forever culture. Practice. I’m not speaking about practice in the sense of preparing for some future performance – though today’s practice will always inform tomorrow’s. I’m speaking of practice in the sense of meditation practice, or prayer. It’s something you do because you have to, not to get famous, or get a girl, or even feed your family. You do it because otherwise you feel wrong.
There’s no getting around it. It hurts, though not nearly I’m told, as much as childbirth. But there’s no avoiding it, because you don’t get to enjoy that life-giving flow unless you practice. Every day, or at least five days a week.
Long ago I stumbled on a trick to make practice happen. Coming out of some unspeakable personal hell, with no aim in life, I decided to get serious about the guitar I’d been playing for 7 years.
I made myself practice every day for a month, one hour a day. At first I hated it. To my amazement, when the month was up I couldn’t stop. I’d become addicted to practicing guitar. Later I found this same technique worked with composition and piano.
I started on guitar with boring finger exercises. I don’t think they lead directly to the experience of flow. But once you’ve done your routine you tend to start improvising – which is in fact the basis of composition. What I assume happens during that month is a version of what also happens every day – at some point all that figure wiggling turns on the flow.
Whether you’re learning an instrument for the first time, or writing your twelfth novel, the process is pretty much the same. You gotta pay your dues to play those blues.
To extend the water metaphor another bend of the stream – the creative stuff comes from deep, dark mysterious caves in ourselves. We need to prime the pump, and crank that handle before it reaches the surface.
The old saying is “Practice makes perfect.” That implies that our goal is avoiding mistakes. And certainly no one likes clunky prose or bad voice leading. But this approach misses the more important goal: getting regular access to that river. With song or prose, the quality of the work reflects the quality of the practice. If it’s been created with joy it will exude joy, create joy in its audience.
Better than “practice makes perfect,” is “practice makes more practice.”