Pushing Through

I hesitate to do this because it’s such a fraught topic, but I wanted to write about the art of composing while depressed. I don’t intend to speak for everyone’s experiences (I know some have had it much worse), but somehow I don’t think I’m the only artist in the era of late-stage capitalism to experience infrequent bouts of mild-to-moderate depression. So here we go.

The most obvious effect of depression on creativity is that your motivation generally goes way down. This isn’t always true–sometimes creative endeavors can be a refuge from depression–but it can just as easily be a minefield. Added to that, your tolerance for rejection is almost non-existent, and composers inevitably face a lot of rejection (as Rob Deemer’s post about Jennifer Jolley recently reminded me). A lot of this can often be mitigated by tricking yourself into just sitting down and starting, becoming immersed in the work before you have a chance to question yourself. But here another, more complicated problem shows up. You find that your critical faculties, so essential to the creation of work, are completely misaligned. When you are working in an area where you’re used to relying on intuition and instinct, this can be absolutely crippling. Irrational thoughts creep in, rejecting almost every idea before it has a chance to blossom. A rational mind recognizes when an idea just needs a little more development or reworking; a depressed mind has trouble with this concept. Or even worse, the anhedonia prevents anything from being good or bad. Instead, everything sounds equally lackluster, a gray ocean of mediocrity.

I still don’t have a reliable way around this, and I’m not sure there is a surefire solution. What I have found is that sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to get my ear back by “pushing through,” for lack of a better term. That is, I act as though my critical abilities are intact, purely by memory of what they used to be, even if I don’t feel them. If I am persistent enough, then at some point they might kick in again, and at that point I’m no longer pretending. And even if they don’t kick in, I’ve still put the work in and have something to come back to the next day.

I guess the appropriate cliché would be “fake it ‘til you make it,” but I dislike how that phrase sets up ordinary instincts as the fake part. The enthusiasm and excitement I normally feel when composing–that’s the real stuff!

7 thoughts on “Pushing Through

  1. Ted King-Smith

    Issac I also have similar experiences, some of it is hereditary for me but I know of other composers who’ve also experienced this (John C. Adams). I’ve found that if I’m in that gray ocean (great term by the way) I’ll do more constructive listening to the playback or keep cycling what I’ve already written in my head so I don’t lose that presence. Vague planning will also help me stay prioritized and be able to put out more concrete ideas when the “lights come back on.” I’ve also seen in performing and composing that taking a day off sometimes will do amazing things. Sometimes. It’s another trick to have ready if/when needed.

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  2. jm8

    One thing to keep in mind is that one’s musically “depressed” state (as distinct from actual clinical depression) may not be a negative perception of a better reality but a totally valid perspective in its own right. As surely as one could say that music (and art generally) is valuable and meaningful, one could also say with equal validity that it is tedious and trivial. When everything sounds the same it’s not necessarily because one’s critical faculties are impaired. To an extent all music sounds the same, just like from a certain perspective all humans look the same. To perceive this fundamental sameness is valid. Of course for a composer with deadlines approaching anything that impedes work might be considered “bad,” but every perspective has things to teach us, and exploring those things, even if it means doing something other than composing, can be a lot less stressful than fighting it.

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  3. jm8

    Put another way (sorry, just occurred to me as I was walking to the fridge), instead of looking for ways to make it always be spring, learn to appreciate winter.

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  4. CB

    You are not alone and maybe composers have a reason to be depressed as music seems more devalued in modern culture these days. To me it seems composing through depression should be approached like brushing your teeth – a daily habit of maintenance necessary to continue on with life however joyless it may be. Inspiration is not required or even expected but can be a nice bonus if it happens. With luck you eventually do enough work that some of it seems more interesting than the rest. That part should get the effort for a performance or recording. 
    The choice between being a depressed composer or just a depressed person not doing any composing is the most crucial. The rest is just daily survival.       

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  5. Mara Lindstrom, Psychotherapist

    I salute your dedication to your art in spite of depression and I want to encourage you and all people with depression to pursue body-oriented psychotherapy in order to make meaningful progress toward eliminating your depression. Body-oriented psychotherapy will help you to get past just talking about the depression and move you into and through the emotions at the root of depression. As a musician and as a psychotherapist my heart goes out to you. Please do not settle for anything less than emotional health.

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  6. elfpix

    A friend of mine long ago suggested a different perspective – instead of feeling disabled by the inability to create she thought of the non-action as a gestation time. Often the low grade depression which results from being unable to get started, or find something to say, is accompanied by the fidgety behavior of procrastination. When something does finally happen, we think we’ve overridden or conquered the block.

    In actuality the ephemeral work of creativity, which for most of us cannot be demanded from us, is happening.

    Just not where we can experience it yet.

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