Creative effort requires an altogether different mindset than that required for more menial and repetitive tasks. Whereas it’s useful (and very near necessary) to approach tasks like paginating a score, email correspondence, and other chores with something approximating a “work ethic”, the very idea often strikes me as inimical to creative pursuits. Instead, I find it useful to cultivate a less goal-directed mindset—an “industrious lethargy” that is paradoxically better-suited to achieving creative goals than pursuing those same goals directly.
All composers, songwriters, and improvisers have goals, which might include securing particular gigs, completing particular projects, or developing particular skills. Yet many of these goals cannot be willed directly, as they are symptomatic of another process entirely. The process of creation is perhaps least yielding to direct will, as through creation we seek to create something new rather than something which we already apprehend as the point of our striving. What needs to happen is for the singular goal of completing a project to manifest itself in a more open, questioning, and patient relationship with the musical materials themselves.
Brain researchers have long noted significant differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, most particularly in the kind of focus each hemisphere beings to bear on the world. In birds and many other vertebrates, the right hemisphere (left eye) pays a sort of generalized attention to the creature’s surroundings, while objects of interest—an approaching predator, for example—are transferred to the left hemisphere when focused attention becomes necessary (and many species of birds will switch to use of the preferred eye according to task at hand). The left hemisphere is geared towards accomplishing particular tasks with particular purposes, whereas the right hemisphere is open to whatever is present. Both modes of thought are important, but there are times when more focused attention will not come to our aids; this is what happens when something is “on the tip of our tongue” and focused thinking only prolongs our fumbling; instead it’s a change to the right hemisphere’s broader type of attention that is needed, which is why we often remember the lost thought once we stop exerting ourselves. For me, composing is like that—it’s something that only happens when I stop treating it like something to check off my list.
In some ways this central creative experience runs contrary to many other skills necessary for living a productive life—in fact there’s something about creativity that gleefully flies in the face of “productivity” itself. But just as there is a need for precision, structure, and goal-directedness, there is also great and often-overlooked value in ambiguity, looseness, and an appreciation for things that is not dependent on our use for them. To members of the adult right-thinking world, much of my work is likely indistinguishable from plain loafing and to be sure, sometimes I spend a good deal of time just thinking and experimenting with no obvious results. But when set with a tough problem like how to handle a particular musical transition, all I can do is to lay out the options, explore and improvise, and wait for a satisfying solution to present itself.
This is not a passive position, just a sensible one; after all, I can “finish” any task today if all that is required is a composition of a certain duration, or some such parameters. That is the extent to which the creative task resembles more conventional tasks in my life. Creativity requires a dialogue, and our patience is rewarded with an answering back. There is irresponsibility in not putting forth our own efforts, but so too is there arrogance in supposing that any problem will yield with more directed effort from ourselves. Perhaps the most important qualities for creative thinkers are therefore patience, humility, and attentiveness to experience.