I was chatting with a friend the other day about music and creativity. He is a wonderfully talented song-writer and musician but through the course of our conversation I observed how he seemed to be hindered unnecessarily by a set of beliefs and practices that undermine his creative strengths and process. I don’t believe these self-sabotaging habits are unique to my friend. I’ve wrestled with them and the more I work with other artists, the more common they seem to be.
I think Bono sums it up wonderfully in the U2 song “The Fly,”
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief
As I have mentioned in a previous article, Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art outlines the many ways that artists intentionally partner with (what he calls) Resistance and actually hinder their own creative output.
I have compiled my own list of 5 ways artist kill their creativity.
- Comparison. We look around, see what everyone else is doing and then compare it to our own work. This is the achilles heel of any creative person and it is always a losing game. Rarely does anyone compare themselves to others who are “behind” or “below.” No, we compare to those who we perceive to be “above” and “ahead.” Rarely is this inspiring. Mostly it’s depressing and paralyzing. You may have also noticed that comparison is the entire currency of the social media economy. If you’re stuck here, you may need to “unplug” from social media to help recharge your creativity.
- We dismiss our strengths. This is closely related to the comparison trap, but with a subtle twist. We tend to dismiss those gifts and abilities that we possess and assume that they are common to all people. Familiarity does breed contempt. While we are busy counting the blessing of others – we are simultaneously overlooking our unique assets. This may sound counter-intuitive but the best starting place for new creativity is the firm and familiar places where we function at our best. If you’re a great piano player, write using the piano and not on your “new hobby” guitar. It’s about building confidence more than anything – which, can be really helpful if your confidence is in a vulnerable place.
- We forget. There is nothing scarier than a blank canvas. I tell people – it doesn’t matter how many songs I’ve written in the past, when I face the blank paper, I worry that the last song I wrote, was the last song. Fear comes when we forget. The best way to combat this – create a regular discipline of remembering. Go back and listen to your old recordings. Read your old lyrics. Watch old videos of your shows. You will realize two things: first, you will see how you have grown in your craft over time and second, you will remember your strengths (see #2). Remembering what we’ve done in the past can help restore your hope that your best is yet to come.
- We wait for inspiration. Oscar Wilde said, when asked the difference between a professional writer and an amateur, the difference is that an amateur writes when he feels like it; a professional writes regardless. Get working and I guaranty the inspiration will find you just as it’s much easier to steer a moving ship than to direct one in dry dock.
- We don’t see rest as a gift. A while ago, I was listening to NPR on Saturday morning and they were doing a profile and interview with a singer-songwriter (I can’t for the life of me recall the artist!). The artist was asked about his creative process and his response has stuck with me since. He said he preferred to see creativity like farming. If you cultivate, plant and harvest from a field over and over, the land will eventually be stripped of all its nutrients and no longer produce crops. In the same way, if an artist expects to constantly write – he will eventually exhaust his store house of creative resources and then be frustrated/depressed by his inability to produce meaningful music. The artist said he had changed his mindset. Instead of seeing seasons of creative inactivity as failure – he saw it as a gift and a conscience choice. No longer was he a victim of “writer’s block” he was now an active participant in allowing his creative cisterns to refill with inspiration and experiences from life. After a season of rest, his creative land would again be ready for seed and harvest.
By no means is this list comprehensive but hopefully illuminating and helpful in debunking a few ways artists commonly “kill their inspiration.”
You can do this. Let’s get to work.