Written by Kathryn Woods, as part of Commission Mission.
Creativity is essential to musicians, songwriters, composers and basically anybody else involved in music. What’s less talked about is just how unpredictable and unique each person’s creative process can be, and how fundamentally linked it is to your mental health.
I can’t overstate just how normal it is to experience creative and mental slumps; according to Grant Hilary Brenner MD, FAPA, the human brain’s creativity revolves around the “Big Three” networks. They are “the default mode network, the executive control network, and the salience network.” It’s the dominance of this default mode network, described by Brenner as the brain’s “idle state”, which could explain creative lag and lack of output. Even the best and the most successful artists wrestle with this, and the reason (or at least, part of the reason) that they are so prolific and successful is because they have come to accept their personal creative quirks, rather than fight against them.
However, there is no magic fix to a creative slump or any kind of burnout. You have to give yourself some leeway to get back into the flow. Let’s take a look at these five main points of reflexion aimed to help kickstart your own creative process and alleviate a mental slump.
Involve multiple people in your project
Two heads (or more) are better than one! Having multiple people involved in your creative project simultaneously takes the pressure off you as the sole creator and also holds you accountable when it comes to meeting your deadlines. Working creatively and collaboratively, whether this be with like minded friends or other ambitious creatives on forums such as joinmyband.co.uk or local Facebook groups, will make you feel like you’re just one link in the chain of a creative process. This can be comforting if you’re feeling uncertain about the creative value your contributions hold, or if you’re uncomfortable with the spotlight that solo creative endeavours invite. It also goes without saying that a collaborative project is a great way to observe how other people work creatively. When collaborating, you’ll get to witness lots of different creative methods. Some will work for you, and some definitely won’t. This doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly change your way of working and catapult out of your comfort zone: it’s all about being aware that alternative creative practices exist. This way, you’ll be able to see the value that your own personal and unique creative workflow holds when lined up against others.
Set small and realistic goals
Break it down! It is normal to feel frustrated when you know exactly what you want to produce, but you’re not sure how to get there. Feeling excited about a yet-to-exist project will undoubtedly get the creative juices flowing - just make sure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Too much ambition can lead you to set goals that are too big or simply unrealistic. Once you’ve failed to reach those massive goals or hit those crazy targets you may be left feeling inadequate, and nothing is more detrimental to your creativity. Likewise, if you feel adrift or are struggling to get motivated, the advice is still the same. Make your goals SMART:
- Specific - Be very clear on what you want to achieve. Break your goal down into smaller steps.
- Measurable - How will you know that you have achieved it?
- Achievable - Ensure your goals are not too high. Don’t set yourself up to fail.
- Realistic - Is this achievable with the resources that you have?
- Time-limited - Set a reasonable time limit to achieve your goal.
The steps to achieving your SMART goals will depend on the nature of your project. Your first goal could be as small as tuning your instrument, running through scales for two minutes or even just opening up Logic or whatever your recording software of choice is. Allow yourself to get used to the idea of being in a creative headspace. You’re not a robot and you can’t just flip a switch in your mind and force yourself to churn out a hit. It’s just like getting into a cold body of water. You wouldn’t dive straight in. You’d move forward slowly and give yourself time to adjust to the temperature. First your feet and ankles, then up to your knees, then your waist and so on. Let your brain get used to testing the creative waters and don’t toss it, headfirst, into the deep end!
Do what you want to do, not what you feel like you should be doing
You probably have loads of information and instructional articles (yes, this one included) to read, each giving you slightly different advice. And you probably follow hundreds of artists across various social media platforms who all create in radically different ways. With that in mind, there’s pressure to latch onto something that another successful artist is doing and to try to imitate that, or you may find yourself compelled to create art that you think will be popular or successful, despite what your own personal tastes or passions are. This might seem like a good idea from a practical perspective, and if you rely on your creativity as a sole income then that pressure is understandable. But, in the long term, this will affect your motivation and ability to create spontaneous and personal art. You can drive yourself mad trying to predict the next trend, and you can scroll endlessly through the feed of that popular artist who you admire, but this won’t help your creative mind. Instead, trust your instincts and lean into those more organic feelings of excitement in order to decide on new projects to pursue.
Switch it up
Change can be refreshing, and you can only focus on one thing for a limited amount of time. If your thoughts are all over the place, don’t resist that urge to wander and let your creativity run wild. This can help reinvigorate your mind when you come back to the task that you put on pause. If you specialise in classical music but you’ve been humming a jazz melody since 8 a.m, explore that impulse and feel it out on your instrument. Likewise, if you mainly work on guitar but are feeling like your creativity has run dry, try to write on piano (or if you don’t have multiple instruments available to you, there are some great free synth apps out there, from the likes of Moog and Korg, to download and mess about on). There’s an essential playfulness in creativity that can’t be ignored or repressed. If you can’t shake the writer’s block on your standard instrument of choice, maybe it’s time to switch things up. You can take this idea and apply it on a larger scale. Try writing prose, doodling along to music, running or dancing. All these techniques can make for the creative equivalent of clearing the cobwebs out of the corners of your room.
Remind yourself of why you wanted to create in the first place
What inspired you to make music in the first place? The answer to this question will vary from person to person, but usually we all have a particular artist or body of work that we absorbed in our early years that can trace our passion or even our influence back to today. I call this the comfort food of creativity. Allow yourself to reconnect with the part of you that set out to create all those years/months/weeks ago and try to channel that enthusiasm. When you’re busy and established, or even just further down the line in your career and project, it’s easy to become jaded and lose sight of how far you’ve come since you first started creating. So, re-immerse yourself in that classic Tiny Desk concert, revel in that original film score, re-read that weird pulp novel that first made you want to write a concept record about haunted houses and robots. These sources of creativity can be a warm cosy duvet when you’re feeling a bit burnt out and lacking direction.
Creativity is a deeply individual and intuitive process. Ultimately, the best way to manage and get the best out of your abilities is to be both methodical and accepting of your own unique creative mind. Articles like this will likely get you thinking about some new and exciting ways to stimulate your creative brain, but you probably already have all the tools necessary to make the art that you want to make. Trust in where your mind naturally goes, and trust in your passion to guide you as you explore new and exciting creative horizons.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music