Over the past few months, I've tried to pen this post more than once. After having conversations with other musicians and creatives alike, I've realised that there is a lot more to consider when trying to drag yourself out of a creative rut. I hope that by offering some personal insights, it might help someone reinvigorate their creative interests.
Creative ruts are a constant source of frustration for all musicians and part of the main reason we struggle to stay motivated consistently.
Perhaps now more than ever, the repercussions of the pandemic have taken their toll on creatives. For some, the inability to continue performance and teaching work has meant the destruction of their livelihood. For others, whether in the form of playing with friends or seeing live music; they've ceased to have an outlet for their creativity. Whether you happen to be a professional musician or not, the state of the world has had a profound effect on all creatives' attitudes towards their craft.
On a personal level, 2020 challenged all aspects of my musical identity. I often went through long spells of not practicing my instrument or listening to music for pleasure. I also experienced times where I was incredibly productive and found myself digging into concepts or compositions for hours a day. But ultimately, there was no consistency or balance in my approach as I quickly felt burnt out and realised that I was back at square one. I spoke to other musical friends and like-minded creatives who expressed similar sentiments about staying motivated and interested. It all culminated in an idea that I've been sitting on for a while now. I won't go as far as to say that it's the 'elixir' to reinvigorating your creativity but, it is practical and will hopefully put you on the right path.
It might be best to start by painting a metaphor.
Everyone has heard the teambuilding hypothetical, "You're on a desert island. What 3 things would you take to do?". While used as an icebreaker and not meant to be taken to the nth degree, it is interesting to think about the imaginary scenario that it creates. In fact, the craziest aspect of the desert island dilemma is not the experience of being on a desert island in the first place. The most absurd part is the idea that the desert island is a utopia where you can do your favourite thing for an unspecified time and without worry, insecurity or fear. A place where you have full autonomy and its environment has no effect on your motivation to enjoy what you decided to bring with you. Obviously, this is a deconstructionist approach to an imaginary game meant to bring people together. But perhaps some parallels can be drawn between this silly analogy and the lockdown situation we have found ourselves in.
Let's imagine that I took my guitar and a metronome to this imaginary island. Eventually, the motivation to practice would run out as there wouldn't be anyone to listen to what I had been working on.
There certainly wouldn't be anyone else to perform to, or with.
It is quite clear that there wouldn't be a purpose in creating if the restraints of reality did not exist. For many people, that is how lockdown and the past year has felt. Many creatives have lost that exciting feeling of curiosity and enjoying music as a communicative art form.
Returning to the desert island metaphor, we might draw a parallel that long isolation periods have starved us of what makes us inherently human. The constraints of reality are the basis for art existing in the first place. Some use art as a vehicle for higher communication, others use it to encourage community and good health. Our situation today starves us of both things and, understandably, creatives feel disconnected and uninspired.
Society has taken steps to reintegrate people into what is being termed the 'new normal'. For us as creatives in this new environment, we must rediscover our reason for what we do. Repurpose your creativity.
I've proposed this idea to a couple of students and friends stuck in creative ruts and recommend it to anyone who's struggling to find their motivation. Repurposing creativity is about making your creative focus resilient. Through discovering the other dimensions of creativity, you will rely less on the external world, and more on yourself. The beauty of this is, you get to set the parameters.
For me, it was about redefining the purpose of practice and what that entails. I realised practice needed to be less about achievement, structured learning or 'getting better'. I began to appreciate the daily ritual of sitting down to explore what my playing says about me. I've started to use my practice journal to keep myself grounded and focused, rather than signify educational achievement. I like to note down things that have a particular 'feeling' to them, whether that is a chord, progression or melodic idea. Then, pick the idea up the following day and see if I feel the same.
As a result, I feel that sitting down with the instrument every day is a way of 'checking in' with myself. Accepting that 'productivity' is a poor yardstick to judge your musical worth was alleviating to me. Now, I'm considerably more interested in small ideas that I come across, rather than big projects or learning goals that might subtract from my daily intention. To be clear, it doesn't mean that I've discarded all my future ideas that might be more expansive. It just means I'm trying to connect with my sound and daily explorations on a more modest level.
I'm thoroughly convinced that you can't lie to yourself when you practice. The art of 'letting things come and go' is incredibly meditative and can provide an escape from the world. Much like the desert island, I don't intend to be there forever. But, finding new ways for our creativity to survive is the most important task right now.