Embracing Imperfection: How Composers can Overcome Writer’s Block

The lives of contemporary composers can take many forms, but few people enjoy a lifestyle like Bach, who moved seamlessly from deadline to deadline. These days, a lot of us are interdisciplinary artists and juggle many aspects of our creative lives. I’m a violinist, composer, and violin teacher, and there is never a perfect balance between the three.

For some people, including myself, there is a natural drive to create new things. It’s built into our systems like our other daily routines — like a healthy hygiene practice for our mind. But it’s extremely difficult to maintain my daily composing schedule when I’m actively performing, especially if travel is involved. During these breaks from composing, it always feels like something is off. I have to sit with the discomfort of knowing that I’m ignoring something important. It’s like creative constipation.

Even though I feel the need to create new music regularly, the actual experience of writing music has typically been very arduous for me. I tend to treat composing like a 9-to-5 job, where I sit in front of my piano with staff paper and a laptop at the same time every day for a set period of time. Most of my memories of the composition process aren’t fun, but I always get something meaningful out of it. It’s like giving birth — it’s tough, but it’s worth it, and I have to trust the process. Still, when I’m struggling with a project, I find myself wondering: “Is it only me?”

Just like authors, composers and music creators experience periods of writer’s block, though we don’t really talk about it. People often assume that music creators are a source of endless ideas, which of course isn’t true. But in addition to feeling uninspired from time to time, the conditions under which we compose can also contribute to writer’s block. Realistically, most people aren’t writing music for specific commissions; you compose because you want to create new music for a project. But with no funding or deadline, this lack of structure can be paralyzing. Or maybe you’ve finished a big commission and want to start a new project, but you find yourself just staring at the blank page.

When I start experiencing symptoms of writer’s block, I feel like the world keeps spinning without me. I feel like I’m the only one who is having a hard time while everyone else effortlessly moves forward. One of my composition classes at the Juilliard evening division comes to mind; we were told to write a composition by the following week — and I freaked out because this seemed impossible. I stitched something together and showed up at the next class, but it seemed like no one else struggled to create new music in such a short time. So once again I asked myself — “Is it only me?”

There were a few ideas about writer’s block that saved me for a while and helped me manage the self-criticism that only makes writer’s block worse. The first was a quote from Seth Goldin, who said, “No one has a writing poorly block.” This helped me realize that we are always technically able to put notes down on paper. The problem is that we are constantly judging what we write to see if it’s any good. I also saw another artist suggest that when we’re struggling, it can be helpful to write something to put in the trash can, so we don’t have a chance to judge the quality of our work. Even if it’s useless material, it’s better to just dump something on paper than to do nothing at all.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

These ideas worked at first, but self-criticism still managed to creep in not long after. And the moment you allow this judgment in, you are completely taken over by it. My thoughts quickly spiraled out of control as I started worrying about what would happen if I missed the deadline for my current commission. I thought to myself, “I can’t keep writing just to put it in the trash can. I need something decent.”

I realized this was going to be a constant battle for me, and I needed a way to protect myself from these parasitic judgments. I would sit down wanting and needing to compose, doubt would find a way in, and then I’d be left looking at the blank staff paper wondering what I’m even doing on this earth if I can’t write new music. This cycle would repeat and repeat, so I knew I needed a different approach.

That’s when I remembered my study of Japanese tea ceremonies, and some of these principles helped me overcome the agony that my creative process had become. In The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzō, Teaism is described as “a worship of the imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we call life.” In tea ceremonies, the garden path that leads to the tea room signifies the first step of meditation, a passage into illumination that breaks our connection with the outside world. Guests approach the sanctuary silently, and samurai leave their swords outside; the tea room is a house of peace. All guests then bend low to enter through a small door, no more than three feet high, to instill humility.

In the philosophy of Teaism, the process of seeking perfection causes more stress than perfection itself. This helped me realize that we are all dealing with this impossible thing called composing. All we can do is try our best and recognize that the process of living and composing is the fruit — not the perfectionism.

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

Composing, songwriting, music creation — whatever you call your practice — is as varied as our lives. Some of us get our best work done first thing in the morning, while others are night owls. Some people want to create full time, whereas others find it easier to work seasonally. Just like plants, we all thrive in different environments, and it’s our job to find the best ecosystem for ourselves.

Although there are common ideas from which most people might benefit, nobody can tell you exactly what works for you since composing means something different to everyone. To me, composing is a spiritual act. There’s nothing in the world that is more sacred and holy, and at the same time, more brutal and scary. It requires me to go to the darkest place inside of me: a place that reveals all of my traumas, insecurities, bad memories, and other people’s beliefs that have nothing to do with me. It’s a place where facades, distractions, past accolades, or even a piece of chocolate do nothing to help. Without practicing complete self-acceptance, I would be eaten alive for sure. But when I do surrender and face it head on, I find my tea room with tranquility.

When we go into a composing session, we are entering a world of peace. We need to leave the sword of our critical thoughts outside and practice humility, no matter how experienced we are. Breaking this connection with the outside world has helped me accept the nature of our impossible reality, and I finally found the calmness I needed. So the next time you compose, remember to “enter the tea room.”


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