Jane Ellen

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Harnessing the Creative Muse

I know a few artists (composers, painters, authors) who are able to set a schedule to create and make it work. There are probably a lot of creative people who are able to function that way, but in my experience there are far more who are engaged in a constant battle with their own personal creative muse.

I think part of the problem may be that many artists remain at the "partially creative" stage, meaning that even if they're completely self-employed, they're often involved in other activities besides their actual craft. They may be teaching or coaching within their field, and the artist doesn't always have the freedom to schedule creative time on a regular daily basis.

Artists are not always known to be disciplined (unless they're a dancer!), yet if they have any body of work at all, you know that discipline has been involved at some point. Discipline doesn't necessarily mean all-consuming concentration eight hours a day, five days a week, but it does mean showing up and putting in the effort not only to accomplish, but to complete. In searching for my own answers, I have begun to wonder if the two biggest culprits are focus and procrastination.

Procrastination and Focus
You don't have to read very far into Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook to see how artistic procrastination plays havoc with a writer's life. Nearly any person who has struggled with creativity on a deadline will find himself reflected in this amazing account of one year in the life of a producer and writer of a major television series who is juggling spin-offs and other writing assignments, personal appearances, endless meetings, the onset of writer's block, and the semblance of a personal life.

Procrastination creates pressure, which seems to be the key. How many of us waited until 2am the night before to start typing up that term paper, claiming it was the best time to get it done? It's the same thing with the arts. I can sit down and swear I'm going to do nothing but work on a particular project over the next few hours, but unless the pressure has risen to the level of near nuclear implosion, I often find myself creatively barren. I've shown up, ready and willing to do the work, but many scraps of paper on the floor later (sometimes mingled with tears and mild profanity), I give up for the day and hope for tomorrow. My procrastination isn't intentional, but somehow my brain synapses simply refuse to fire in the appropriate manner until the pressure heats up.

Could this artistic impediment actually arise due to a lack of focus? Focus in my own work can be elusive; when I’m supposed to be crafting tunes, I can find myself thinking about the next lecture or the next blog post. When I'm choosing music to illustrate a lecture, I'm thinking about the unfinished cantata that's due in a few weeks. And when I'm blogging, I sometimes find myself scribbling notes about all the rest of my life in between formatting paragraphs.

Today's world finds us living lives that are overrun with technology and communication making demands on our time; even people with 9-5 jobs find themselves pulled in myriad directions, seemingly all at once. There appear to be only two settings in life, fast and faster. In losing our ability to connect with the quiet, in forgetting to seek out sacred space, in failing to take time for ourselves – have we lost the ability to focus?

A Few Ideas
I can't speak for anyone else, but here are a few of the things I've found helpful:

Multiple projects: Less is more, but more is better when it comes to creative work. If I sit down determined to finish a church piece and hit a stone wall, it's nice to have a piano solo or a new song to turn to. Sometimes in changing gears I find a new piece falls quickly into place, which in turn inspires me to return to the original project feeling positive and encouraged.

Hack work: Get to the bones and worry about the meat later. I'd rather have seven melodies and chord progressions sketched, than have one song with vocal harmonies and accompaniment completed. Why? Because I tend to waste precious creative time doing the hack work, filling in the blanks that don’t require inspiration. When you're on speaking terms with the creative muse, get the frame of the puzzle built and the rest of the pieces arranged by colour. You can fill in the rest later.

Breathe: Get up, walk about, stretch, and breathe. There's enough pressure already without creating more. You've procrastinated, so the deadline is breathing down your neck. If absolutely nothing of worth is happening on your palette of choice, stand up and move. Choose to stop, mindfully stretch those aching muscles, and rest for a few minutes. When you return, things may look vastly different, and you may not be as far behind as you thought.

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