Writer's Block . . . 

Clever sculpture by Jonathan Callan

Clever sculpture by Jonathan Callan

Anybody who sets out to create anything faces this prospect. It can seem arbitrary. You're painting/sculpting/dancing/writing/composing one day (you could add lesson planning to the list) - and the next day you have no ideas. No images, no chords, no sense of rhythm, nothing meaningful to say . . . 

Sometimes it's not arbitrary.

This fall/winter things have been difficult with the writing/performing scene. The reasons have been concrete - we've had some family adjustments with aging grandparents and visits home have been centered on helping. Helping with some of that is emotionally draining - think about how much creative energy you use problem solving for your family . . . a lot. It's a totally worthy investment of our energy. Most of us don't begrudge this.

We are expecting our first child. I don't need to tell all of you other parents what that can mean. But for folks who haven't taken that step yet? It's mind blowing. Everything is different and the baby hasn't even arrived yet. I am different. I think differently. And let's not even go into the physical experience - I am no longer my own. My choices are no longer just my choices.

Then, related to the baby . . . I realized that juggling two jobs would no longer be possible. One would have to go - the church or the school. And there again, I knew that I couldn't make a choice just for myself. I needed to make a choice for my family. So I chose to keep my work at the school. I've spent the last several months preparing to pass all of my church work off to somebody else (an awesome somebody) . . . and even though it's a gift to see the opportunity ahead of the music program that I've poured my heart into . . . and even though this is a choice I have made that nobody forced on me? It's difficult. There's a sadness about it. In order to expand my world around a child, I have to narrow the scope of the work I'm doing outside the home.

This fall and winter I've canceled OneLittleLight gigs and have been unable to write new music for the following reasons: 

- I have been sick (from the baby and also not from the baby).

- I have been extra busy (baby, baby, baby, baby . . . and all the other stuff, too).

- I have put these last few months of my church work first . . . so I've turned down more than a few Sunday gigs.

- Sometimes I just haven't had room in my head for one more thing

- Sometimes I just haven't felt like it.

- Sometimes I have felt like maybe being a mother will mean that I can't be creative anymore (I know, I know, being a mother is creative . . . humor me here, though).

- Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Most of us need a plan for dealing with this kind of thing. Note that I say "dealing with" instead of "fixing." 

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce to you my old friend, J.S. Bach. He is my "dealing with writer's block plan."  He was the ultimate church musician. Very creative. Hard working. Reaching in all different directions. And when I can't write anything of any worth, I just go back into a season of practicing things that he has already written.

Yup. My super exciting plan for dealing with writer's block is to play somebody else's music. Every day. The point of it isn't to snap myself out of the writer's block. Instead, I try to focus on something that I can become creative with on a different level. The interpretation of something already composed is creative. The daily discipline of piano practice is also creative - "How am I going to tackle this passage?!? It's kicking my butt!!!!" 

Work is good for us. It keeps us grounded. And when our own creative work dwindles, we can find ways to work in our area of creativity without actually creating brand new things - it makes our waiting productive.

Why Bach? Why not some other dead composer?

This is a recording of a portion of the Goldberg variations played by Glenn Gould, who loved to play Bach . . . and probably used this music to help him deal with life in general (he has a fascinating life story).

I am still not mature enough to play the Goldberg variations. It will be a long time before I have the patience and insight to interpret this particular score with the attention it deserves. But I listen to these variations often. And I sight read them very slowly. 

For my own regular practice geared toward actually accomplishing something, I stick to things like The French Suites, Bach's Preludes and Fugues, and other small pieces - like the Partitas

I was made to play Bach when I was in high school. Like most high schoolers, I had some opinions about stuff that I really couldn't back up.

I thought Bach was "stuffy" and "boring." And I didn't want to play his music.

Somewhere in those teenage years I'd gotten the idea that as a lover of Jane Austen novels and other romantic things, I should be playing Chopin, Debussy, and if I really had to be involved in the classical period, then maybe I could do some Beethoven . . . you know . . . the "bridge" into the Romantic period.

I had teenage angst, people. Oh, and in a lot of ways . . . I was super immature. So there you go.

Bach has this beautiful, expressive harmonic language.

It's the chords. And we're not reinventing the wheel here - because if you've ever studied traditional music theory, you know that the wheel came from guys like Bach. They didn't really mean for it to . . . it just did.

His writing says something without the "Romantic" language of grand dynamic gestures (there are some dramatic gestures in Bach, they're just accomplished differently). 

Don't get me wrong -  I love the school of composers we refer to as "Romantic." I love to play their music. But Bach fits right into my stubby little hands. And every time I go through a period of daily practice with pieces from one of my favorite Bach books, I am reminded that creativity can be quiet. Creativity can be a little bit reserved and also express things like unhinged joy.

When my head is "in the clouds" and not functioning creatively, Bach brings me right back to earth. And as I become grounded again, I inevitably find my ability to create again.

*Note: I don't go looking for my ability to create. I wait for it. And while I wait for it, I usually work on mastering some Bach. That keeps me busy and eventually I end up able to write something new.

This week, after an extremely long dry spell, I wrote something new. It's almost stupidly simple. But It was so nice to write something . . . and as I've waited for this opportunity to write something 100% original, I've been enjoying some Bach, some Scriabin, and a little bit of Debussy. Not by any means a loss.

Don't be discouraged, creative friends. Life is a big old circle. It'll come around again.