The Trick of Retreating

“My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraints, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

—Igor Stravinsky

Several years ago I asked a Tibetan lama how to resolve a recurrent quandary in my life. Having divided my attention for several years between composing and serving as mayor, I asked the lama to help me choose which one I should focus on in the future, my music or my community work? His answer left me dangling in my dual life: I would do best if I do both.

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former president of the Czech Republic, was asked by one of his friends if he wouldn’t have written more plays had he not been involved in politics. He replied that he wasn’t interested in quantity but quality. He felt that his political activity informed his art. While he may have written more plays, they wouldn’t necessarily have been any better and may not have been as good.

It is generally believed that artists, writers, and composers are more creative when we separate ourselves from the business of the world. When we get away from our day-to-day obligations and interruptions, we sometimes have great breakthroughs and paint or compose with new depth and inspiration. For many, artist colonies and retreats provide the opportunity to “unshackle our spirit.”

But for me, life’s constraints and pressures act as a dynamic stimulator of creative work. One of my most productive periods was while holding a 9 to 5 job in Chicago. I furiously wrote songs on the “el” train to and from work and continued them at home late into the night (or furtively pulled them out of my desk drawer during coffee breaks and lunch).

Now I write music in Utah, and perhaps I’m on a perpetual retreat because my Zion Canyon surroundings are energizing and timelessly patient, ideal circumstances for creating (and indeed we are currently building an artist/writers retreat at Zion called the Mesa). But for some reason I tend to disturb this idyllic environment. I fill my life with countless other occupations and projects, each one threatening to steal my energies away from music.

Sometimes I wonder, am I afraid to be isolated with my creative work? Am I fearful that if I focus on music alone it will force me to face more cruelly my own limitations? Perhaps. But I have always thrived on a kind of lateral movement from one thing I’m working on to another. Ideas have a way of popping through the dividing lines and taking me in startling new directions while I’m still right at home.

Each of us is different. What is your experience? Do you accomplish your best creative work when you can carve out a separate time and space? Have you ever stayed at an artist retreat? Or do you produce your best work while in the midst of the hubbub of life, surrounded by obstacles?

You might also enjoy…