Industrious Lethargy

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.

9 thoughts on “Industrious Lethargy

  1. Kyle Gann

    “The hardest thing about being an artist is convincing your wife you’re working when you’re staring out the window.”

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  2. MarkNGrant

    Two further maxims
    “To do great work a man must be very idle as well as very industrious” — Samuel Butler

    “All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow” — Grant Wood

    Reply
  3. danvisconti

    creative loafing
    Sometimes I wonder we concede too much even in protesting that we are not loafing; the deeper problem seems to be convincing a society with an out-of-balance preference for insignificant productivity that a little more meaningful loafing might be a good thing.

    I think your quote highlights how alienated most non-specialists have become from the creative impulse. It goes against most if not all of what is most valued in the conventional modern workplace.

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  4. pgblu

    Not to pile on, but:

    “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”

    -Gertrude Stein

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  5. mclaren

    Creative effort requires an altogether different mindset than that required for more menial and repetitive tasks.

    Creative effort involves vast amounts of menial and repetitive tasks, at least for me. Infinite amounts of scutwork. The mindset involved in creating a new piece of music approximates the attitude you have to have in order to begin digging a slit trench 50 miles long. Grim single-mindedness and feral perseverance.

    Maybe that’s why I’ve never experienced anything remotely like “composer’s block.” You pitch in and start digging. By the time you get to mile 10 of that 50-mile-long slit trench, you’re too deep in the process to worry about “not having any ideas” or “being unsure of what to do next” or “reaching an impasse.”

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  6. Kyle Gann

    Well, I agree with you. I’d go further and say that harangues about work ethic are something that Republican types use to demonize the poor. Meanwhile, I have known people in cushy corporate jobs who spent their afternoons in fancy offices surfing the internet. It’s all hypocrisy.

    That said, what you call my quote was what I would have simply called a distinguished old joke.

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  7. MarkNGrant

    Reconciling feral scutwork and meaningful loafing
    Mr. McLaren’s comment is extremely well taken– I for one have much the same experience when I compose– but that grit can co-exist with Dan’s original point. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), who, as both pianist-composer and inventor (holder of more than 70 patents), was not only an expert in both artistic and scientific creativity but an inveterate chemistry and physics lab experimenter of Edison-like perseverance, once described how the attack and the retreat are reconciled.

    Hofmann wrote in 1907 that after a heavy session of work one should “go out and take a walk, and think no more of music. This method of mental unhitching, so to speak, is absolutely necessary in order that the newly acquired results of your work may–unconsciously to yourself–mature in your mind….very much like the picture on a photographic plate is developed and affixed by the silver bath. If you allow Nature no time for this work the result of your previous efforts will vanish….”

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