I’m a Composer, and I Am Choosing Not to Create Original Art Right Now

This feeling? The one I’ve felt since my birthday on March 16th—the day when New York City’s Mayor de Blasio closed all performance venues, and a day that marked the beginning of what already feels like an eternity of isolation? It’s a feeling that can make it difficult for me to find the capacity or even the desire to write. It’s one that questions my sense of purpose as a composer. This is a familiar feeling. It’s one I had hoped I’d grown out of. 

In the past couple years, I have hesitated to share much of my personal life on the internet (aside from silly photos with friends whom I adore, my two furballs of constant comic relief, and posts related to projects). As musicians, self-promotion can seem like the difference between being relevant or being forgotten, but I removed myself from Facebook, made my Instagram private, and have found myself leaning on a small circle of dear friends who make me feel safe and let me be vulnerable when I’m around them. If you know me, these boundaries—these choices—are clearly marked by a very public and painful loss of the most extraordinary human I had been lucky enough to have in my life.

Lucy and Hooper--Photo by Mary Kouyoumdjian

Lucy and Hooper–Photo by Mary Kouyoumdjian

With the isolation brought on by COVID-19 through social distancing and the uncertainty of what tomorrow brings to our world, our economy, our careers, our loved ones, and ourselves, this familiar feeling has found its way back. And so, I think it’s time to get a little personal with you, because it’s my hope that sharing something I struggle with might help somebody during this strange time. This feeling? For me, this feeling that’s saturated with solitude, that makes it difficult to be productive, see beyond the present moment, or even to want to think beyond what’s happening now, feels an awful lot like grief. It feels an awful lot like depression. 

Depression is a complex word that we often hide under embarrassment. “If others know I am depressed, will they still call on me for work? Will they think they can’t count on me professionally? Will they look at me with pity? Will they see me differently?” After experiencing loss, this feeling changed my entire relationship with composition. Most of my music explores trauma, which wasn’t an environment I wanted to drop my thoughts into at the time. In fact, I had no relationship with composition at all, and felt zero desire to create ever again, which isn’t exactly the kind of thing one announces to their professional colleagues. Feeling ashamed, I kept this to myself, and for a period of time, music had really lost its meaning to me. The air around me felt heavy, but as I sat in my grief, the world appeared to continue on. Contracted deadlines began to approach, my dissertation year passed before it even began, and with my household income suddenly reduced from two to one, I had to force myself to write. And so I did… with immense frustration.

Photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash

Photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash

While we’re often encouraged to push through writer’s block and just write something—anything—that period of grief is when I learned a valuable lesson: writing before you’re ready can cause damage. The difficulty can eat away at your confidence, and the self-imposed pressure and potential dissatisfaction with the work you create during a period of trauma can be hard to shake. Out of necessity, I wrote before I was ready, and felt disconnected from my work. I became desperate to connect with music somehow. I sought out music that felt far away from my own practice and spent an entire year listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated on repeat (with no regrets). I’d tag along with friends to their students’ recitals to remember, through the lens of children, what those first exciting discoveries of sound felt like. I began to question my identity: “If I’m not composing, then who the hell am I, and what do I possibly have to offer to the world?” Hours, days, weeks, and months would go by in which I battled the guilt of either not writing at all or writing music I wasn’t proud of until that guilt became exhausting to carry. And then, one day, I thought to myself, “Fuck it. For as long as I am able, I am choosing not to write.” 

Without a doubt, choosing not to write is the decision that saved my relationship to my creative work. In this choice, I gave myself permission to simply be a human. The future had become hard to visualize, so I only lived in the immediate present. In a time in which I felt I had very little left in me to say, I made a shift from putting out material to receiving experiences—instead of speaking, I listened. It took time and patience, but that desire and inspiration to write thankfully reappeared. I experimented with new ways to create, felt proud of my work again, met my deadlines, and had performances with musicians whom I’m continually grateful to have as collaborators. You can imagine my relief! In learning to navigate through grief, I had learned something very important about composition: Just because you are not actively writing does not mean that you are not actively composing. I’ll explain.

To me, composition requires inspiration and reflection. It sounds simple, but like all of those sourdough starters we’ve recently been feeding to bake the most perfect loaf of bread during our quarantines, compositions need to be fed by these two ingredients. But feeding your art starter (your stARTer? *insert face-palm emoji*) takes time. What you choose to do with that time is up to you, and for me it involves watching and listening to the world around me. It involves experiencing and making space for the non-musical parts of my life that shape my identity, focusing on my relationships old and new, connecting with nature, spending more time with my goofy dogs, signing up for long-distance runs to train for, seeing art in disciplines outside of my own, and saying “yes” to experiences beyond my routine and comfort zone. It also involves focusing on my physical, emotional, and mental health, making sure I exercise somewhat regularly, practicing opening my heart to new people, and not carrying my challenges alone when I am lucky enough to have people to lean on. If we are constantly writing, if we are constantly speaking, when do we listen? When do we process? Are we really learning new things to our fullest potential? What could it look like to not write for a period of time in order to really prepare yourself for your next work?

Photo courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian

Photo courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian

And why does it take something like trauma to give ourselves permission to make a choice like this? What could it look like to choose not to write at any other period of our lives, whether it’s for a single afternoon or for a longer stretch of time? I use the word “choose” because I want to distinguish between those days in which we set out to write and “fail” to do so, and those in which we make a predetermined decision to take a step back. There are logistical reasons why we can’t do this all the time, many of them tied to financial need and responsibility. I am by no means encouraging you to recklessly abandon your commitments that are providing for you and your families, especially as our economy shakily enters the unknown, but I invite you to consider how the following questions might fit into your life on any kind of scale that makes sense for you: 

What could it look like to choose not to write in order to allow the time, space, and clarity to position yourself for that next project? To prioritize the other parts of yourself that make you a full and well-rounded individual? To receive the world around you? To gain perspective? To learn? To stretch your imagination? To become inspired? To rest? Or… to simply just be? 

Last week on Twitter, I shared my choice to not create original art for the time being, after which many of you generously shared your own stories of how you’ve felt pressure to be productive, and how difficult it’s been to find the desire to write while navigating our current crisis. (Thank you for sharing so openly.) This is a gentle reminder that what we’re experiencing right now in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis is not bonus time off. This is not a vacation or an artist residency that just happens to be in our own homes. This is a global pandemic, and the harsh truth is that very real and large populations of our countries, our states, our cities, our neighborhoods, and our homes are dying. As I type this from home in Brooklyn, neighbors are leaning out of their windows cheering on our healthcare workers and first-responders for their immense sacrifice, sirens have become our primary soundtrack, and my city is building overflow spaces to treat the living and carry the dead. This is not normal. This is horrific. This is real, and a lot of us are mourning. 

And we are mourning the loss of so many different kinds of things—our projects, jobs, incomes, homes, education, social lives, public spaces, arts organizations, physical touch, the world as we’ve known it, and in the worst case, our very loved ones. Some people may find genuine comfort and processing in the productivity of chipping away at projects during this time, much like how some people choose to hop back into work the morning after a funeral or begin rapidly completing chores left behind by the deceased. That’s incredible, but I am not that person. When I’m not responsible to other people (i.e. when I’m not teaching my super amazing and resilient students), I need to confront my thoughts and focus on very basic functions of living in order to support myself for a healthy and creative life—simple things like re-learning how to responsibly engage with people, how to go grocery shopping, and how to safely walk outside. 

Photo courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian

Photo courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian

If you’re like me and need to hear this, I am here to say it: There is no shame in choosing to prioritize your health. There is no shame in choosing to prioritize the people and parts of your life that do not include creating art. This does not make you any less of an artist. It just makes you human. My humble hope is that after all this, there will be a wild explosion of art to celebrate. The Black Plague gave us the vitality of the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave us bursts of experimentation in cinema and music. Crisis after crisis, the flowers continue to bloom, artists create new work, we find the stamina to go forward, and life carries on. But let’s process this as best as we are able. Let’s be kind to our hearts. Let’s choose to take care of ourselves now, however that individually manifests itself to each of us, so that we may best position ourselves for those projects we care so much about. With this choice, I am beginning to daydream again. I had forgotten what that felt like.