Deadlines vs. Writer’s Block

Well, it’s the Monday after Thanksgiving. Traditionally this is always one of the busiest days at the workplace in the United States as there is so much to catch up with after a four-day weekend. I was actually at home for the last five days! And those five days are probably the most time I have spent at home the entire year. While it has certainly been great to be out so much of the time, and my being out meant being out of town and even out of the country quite a bit of the time over the last six months, not being home can be very challenging to the creative impulse.

Many composers, writers, visual artists, etc. are able to create wherever they are, while others find they do their best work when they are far away from the rest of society at an artist colony. But for me, whether it is writing words or chains of noteheads, I find that I am most productive when I’m in my own apartment or at least in a familiar place where I am comfortable. For example, I’m able to pretty easily stitch together sentences like the ones you are currently reading at the offices of the American Music Center. (It would probably be pretty terrible if I wasn’t able to do so.) But I must admit, having had a break of five days in which I neither did any significant verbal work or musical composition work—it really was a total break—I’m finding it somewhat difficult to get back in the swing of things. I should have started this essay several hours ago and kept putting it off. Of course, knowing that it needs to be posted today was a sufficient trigger to end my procrastination.

Getting so motivated can be much harder to do with personal projects which don’t always have firm deadlines. After a dry year in which I composed absolutely nothing, and was extremely upset about it, I set myself a personal goal several years ago of making sure that every year I compose at least one completed thing (no size or length specification preordained), and I have been able to keep to it. But I know that it is not an ideal way to go about that part of my life. Demanding that I do something every week would be impossible given all the other activities I am involved with. Every month might even be pushing it. Every month might actually be too much even for a composer who does absolutely nothing else but compose, the tiniest fraction of a fraction of all composers, although Johann Sebastian Bach was able to churn out a cantata every week and these pieces, more than two centuries later, are still widely performed and appreciated. Haydn churned out baryton trios at an even faster rate. Admittedly these are not works that most folks pay attention to nowadays, but all 126 have finally been recorded and issued in a giant 21 CD box that I purchased a couple of weeks ago and after having listened to 4 of the discs thus far I have been thoroughly entranced.

Of course, folks like Bach and Haydn had the Lutheran church and Prince Esterházy banging on their respective doors to prod them to keep creating new work from week to week. The most successful composers nowadays have a regular, albeit far less demanding, stream of commissions. But what kinds of psychological mechanisms can the rest of us use to keep the work flow going at a pace that produces results that occur with regularity and that are also aesthetically satisfying?

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