I’ve been thinking about the day-in, day-out process of creating stuff and trying to make it good. Not just a piece of work in particular, but the lifestyle of creating. What’s required?
Are there any universals to creative inspiration? Obviously people find inspiration from a variety of sources, both interior and exterior. But when I’m not feeling inspired, I look at three areas:
- Am in a rut? Too much routine? Not enough novelty? If that’s the case, I’ll try new things just for the sake of doing something new and different. See if I can shake things up. Getting out more sums it up pretty well.
- How’s my brain health? A lack of inspiration can mean that I’m veering into depressive anxiety (my particular flavor of mental unwellness). Usually I can turn it around with exercise, improving my diet, reducing caffeine, taking a complete break from alcohol, and/or taking supplements. Sometimes a reboot or “external fix” is required: get rid of old stuff, have a heart-to-heart with someone I love, raise my standards, or deal with an issue that’s bugging me.
- How’s my ART diet? Am I reading/listening to/viewing works that blow my mind? There’s no shortage of great art in the world. If I’m not sure where to look, I ask my friends (with similar tastes) for recommendations.
If you’re serious about creating, you work everyday or most days, for at least a few hours. Maybe all day. Maybe well into the night.
What if you don’t feel like it, or feel stuck?
You can create your own motivation by thinking about people (the ones you’ve made commitments to, or want to impress, or need to feed), or purpose (you chose this life on purpose, didn’t you?), or play (that’s what creativity is, ultimately, moving stuff around, trying new combinations, riffing, experimenting, making something new and original — having fun with it).
One of those P’s should get you going, no matter what. Otherwise it’s just a matter of turning off the wifi and phone, shutting the door, and getting to work.
In earlier posts I’ve written about keeping a daily work log. It helps. What gets measured gets managed. I like to use a reasonable production quota to keep myself honest, to cut through the BS excuses I might otherwise give myself.
What if you don’t have the time or energy? Some people have it easier than others, but everyone has to deal with distractions, financial pressure, health issues, and other aspects of life that pull us away from the creative process.
I use spreadsheets to keep track of guidelines, tips, and techniques that I know can make my work better. These are bits of knowledge that I haven’t yet internalized. Some of them are lists or advice from other writers or producers, like Vonnegut’s “Creative Writing 101” or Bobby Owsinski’s “Magic Frequencies“. Others are just notes to myself, things I’ve learned, mistakes I don’t want to repeat.
The more technique you can internalize, the closer you can get to a place of “unconscious competence” (doing great work without even thinking about it). But even for masters, there’s a danger of complacency. I think quality control is a good habit for all artists and makers. Know what your “needs improvement” areas are, and improve them.
Use what you know. Create and use checklists. Take the time to analyze your own work. Apply the lessons you’ve already learned.
There’s a grindy aspect to QC. You have to swallow your ego and pick apart your own creations. But it’s better than the alternative, which is putting out subpar work.
Having a small, trusted circle of “feedback givers” is helpful. These should be people that want you to succeed, but who are also willing to give you straight talk about how your work can be better. Make sure your feedback givers feel appreciated, and never argue with them (even if you ultimately decide not to change your work in every way they suggest).
A Learning System
I don’t have many regrets in life. Because I’m a compulsive list maker, I know exactly how many. Eighteen. Sometimes I update the list, and add new regrets. Sometimes the list gets shorter, because my feelings about whatever stupid thing I did have faded to the point where I no longer care.
One of my regrets is that at times in my life I’ve become complacent, and coasted, and not actively tried to get better at producing music and writing.
Sometimes it was because I was lazy, or I thought I was pretty good already and didn’t need to get better. At other times I just didn’t know how.
These days I actively manage my learning. In my fiction writing, I’m working on creating and sustaining suspense. In terms of music production, I’m trying to raise my buss compression game.
How do I learn? Mostly YouTube. It’s what the kids do. It’s the universal school of everything. I learned music production by trying to read poorly written, even more poorly translated Roland manuals. Kids have it easier these days.
For writing, I read blogs. A lot of writers like to tell you how to write better. Some of them even give good advice.
Classes, courses, tutors, mentors, blogs, online videos, books, apps — we’re in an age of unlimited learning means. There’s no excuse not to raise your game.
What’s your system of learning? How do you measure and manage the improvement of your skills?
OK that’s my two bits. Anything to add? Feel free to riff in the comments.