Only a few minutes after posting last week’s Chatter about composers in academia often having the luxury of summers off, a composer (and good friend) who just finished his semester wrote me to say that he appreciated the essay very much. However, he pointed out that having summers off, while very excellent indeed, can also include a bit of darkness. Along with suddenly having plenty of time to stare at one’s desk or stare out the window also comes plenty of time to think. And thinking can bring up all manner of self-doubt and ego-centered thoughts, as well as imaginative riffing on hopes, dreams, and—well—failures.
This is a completely valid point, and really it is a huge challenge (and a quite common one) for an artist of any sort—when confronted with a sprawling expanse of time, space, and blank manuscript paper/canvas/notebook, the potential for inner demons to rear their ugly heads is very high. If that happens, how will you handle it? If you’re not accustomed to the experience, it can be devastating and bring work to a complete standstill. But if a person can develop a method for nipping these problematic habits of mind in the bud, the energy they bring can be harnessed and used for the Forces of Good. Some artists engage in visualizations to help fend off self-doubt, ranging from imagining themselves wrapped in a bubble of white light to taking a giant sword and swiping off the head of the beast (whatever works!), while others simply ignore it all, and power through with their noses to the grindstone.
Unfortunately the way some deal with this issue is to procrastinate—to keep themselves so busy with other things that they don’t have to look at the problem. Which means that music doesn’t get written, and often as a result the artist engages in internal self-flagellation as punishment for what hasn’t been accomplished. There are so many reasons we can think of to not write music—it’s incredible the things we can concoct to avoid giving ourselves the quiet and the space to do the work that is really most important. In the end these demons are only thoughts. They are not based in reality (regardless of how real they may feel), and are no more legit than thinking about what to cook for dinner or what tomorrow’s weather will be. The same can be said for the good thoughts too; the wishes and the goals for the future. It seems that one of the greatest tasks for a creative person is to steer clear of being taken prisoner by the random workings of the mind, and focus on the real work at hand.