Article by Luke Shields
I don’t know about you, dear Reader, but one of the most trying by-products of the restrictive state of affairs across the globe at the moment is the increasing sense of sameness and boredom that comes from being locked down. So one wonders, how do you maintain creative energy in this time of uncertainty and set backs?
When we’re out in the wilds having adventures, it is a lot easier to write about what you know. But when your entire daily flightpath is strictly couch-to-fridge-and-back-again then the story becomes terminally restricted in scope. Despite this, artists, musicians, poets, designers and creatives of all shapes and sizes desperately and instinctively need to stretch our favoured muscles lest we go spare from lack of inspiration and output.
Opportunity presents itself
Personally, I came to view the first-round of 2020 lockdowns as an opportunity. I had had a vault of songs rattling around my brain that I’d been meaning to demo for far too long. I also had a Gretsch guitar and a Yamaha keyboard by my side ready to help me expunge myself of them. I took the first two weeks as a gift and sat down to do what I’d always wanted to but never had time. Treat music like a 9 to 5 for as extended a period of time as I could afford. It was easily one of the most fruitful periods of my life
Two weeks straight of playing as much as my callouses would allow with my trusty Shure SM57, SE Electronic VR1 and Rode NT2A microphones and Steinberg UR22C interface ablaze. I came out the other side with 20 or so tracks as complete and polished as my skill level would allow. A huge, satisfied sigh bellowed forth and I had only to figure out what to do with these morsels now.
Skip to 9-ish months down the track and the story is a little different. The writing has slowed in spite of my best efforts and the constant to-ing and fro-ing of lockdown and release cycles has lent life an emotionally exhausting air that seems to ring true for so many other creatives in the community. The question then, how do we relight the fire under our arses when there is no life to be found for kindling?
Do it today, tomorrow never comes.
As it happens, advice is everywhere, you just need to scratch barely beneath the surface for it to present itself. My dear friend Nick recently recommended to me a book by one of our shared heroes Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. How To Write One Song is a deep and profound wellspring of anecdotal and practical advice.
Ideal for songwriters and creatives of all shapes and sizes presented with Tweedy’s signature laconic wit and country-fried mysticism. He talks about the importance of not treating inspiration as a bolt from the blue. Rather a constant whittling away at nothing until Michaelangelo’s David appears before your eyes amongst the rubble of a million half-baked ideas.
Man Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre, in his book Release The Bats, talks of a similar concept framed as the best way to start writing is to already be pushing a pen around. In short, if you want to do it just do it. Damn the consequences. I know this is easier said than done but even the most mindless couchbound noodling can reap unexpected creative rewards. It’s simple physics, an object in motion will remain in motion until impelled to stop.
Creativity is all around you.
I always like to think of creativity as something that happens TO you, not OF you, like an invisible collaborator or a pet. Maintaining creative energy can be an entity entirely separate from the self. Like all separate entities (especially pets) if you don’t feed it, it will quickly find someone else who’s pantry doors are more open. Read that book that has been gathering dust on your bedside table. Watch the movie that was recommended to you by an entire Zoom meeting of friends. Learn a satellite instrument like ukulele or cello that will make you think of your first language instrument in a different light.
Work next to a different window in a room you’ve just rearranged. Whatever you have to do to uncover a little bit of fresh brain food. Of course, some foods are more nourishing than others. So please, for the love of god, try and avoid the pit of doom-scrolling despair that The Algorithm ™ is constantly trying to drag you down into. Try to limit your distractions to the ones that you don’t have to make excuses about at the end of the day.
Seek creative advice from those you know
Another invaluable and grossly overlooked trick is to talk about it with people you respect and admire. Ernest Hemmingway famously used to take a freshly minted manuscript and a bottle of liquid courage around to Gertrude Stein’s place for her to scrutinise and influence with her trusty yet incisive opinion. Only for him to come away with hundreds of dog-eared pages and more red pen corrections than he knew what to do with. Far from being an exercise in cutting each other to shreds, this reverent yet unforgiving back and forth proved invaluable for both writers. Their shared understanding of the creative struggle and individual bags of tricks made room for each to get outside of their own cyclical, internal thought patterns and uncover avenues that neither would’ve wandered down were it not for the influence of the other.
Whether it be your bandmates, someone you went to art school with, a partner or who reads as much as you. Even just a sympathetic character that is within your exercise radius; someone to bounce ideas off can be an essential tool for breaking down the mental barrier between you and creative satisfaction. As artists we are, after all, in the business of expression and what better way to get to the core of an idea than to hash it out in the ring with a trusted sparring partner.
Ultimately, whether or not there is a pandemic firmly implanting itself in the list of human excuses not to leave the house is irrelevant. You as a creative person are beholden to one of the most powerful forward thrusters in our species’ evolution. As such, you should treat your impulse to build, write, paint, move or whatever your language, with the gravity it deserves. It may have seemingly zero career prospects attached when viewed from the outside. That is beside the point. If your hands, heart and mind are asking you to do something then listen to them. Take the time to do what you do better than you did the last time you did it and don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Make things as if your life depends upon it.