In a recent Patreon Zoom hangout, my friend Carence brought up a topic. How does one stay focused and finish a creative project? He said he’s set up a home studio, has everything he needs, and is ready to go, but he can’t quite make progress. He gets lost in the tiny details, trying out sounds, experimenting with plugins, and messing with effects. At the end of the day, he feels he’s got nothing to show for it.
Somehow, I’ve never had a problem with this. Most of my projects get finished, even if I need to take a hiatus or switch to something else for a while.
But there are tricks that have helped me. Here they are:
1 – Start From The End Result and Work Backward. This can also be called Top-Down Creativity. Open a text document and type out a clear description of what you intend to make. If it’s a song, what are the instruments, how long is it, and what is it about? What is the central PURPOSE? Be specific about it. As you work, if something doesn’t support that end result, don’t do it. Get yourself back on track.
2 – Separate Technical From Creative. It’s hard for me to switch modes. I like to get into a creative flow and not be disturbed by technology problems. When possible, I get all of that out of the way before diving into the project. I like to set up and check my gear, change my strings, and plug everything in the day before. It’s a soundcheck, basically. It ruins my vibe to be untangling cables and wondering why no sound is coming out.
3 – You Have To Start. Complicated-metal guitarist Pete Peterson keeps his recording project open on his computer. Every time he walks by it, he’s reminded to sit down and mess with it. I don’t do that, but I schedule the time in my calendar, so it feels as important as any other kind of work. On that day, I pick the best idea I have and go with it. It doesn’t need to be the best idea in the world. Just get it going.
4 – Failure Is Good. Embrace trial and error. It’s how you arrive at what works. Write the 10 bad songs (or 100 bad songs) to get to the good ones. You can’t fix something you haven’t written. Accept that this is an iterative process. Create multiple drafts, better each time. I’ve written and recorded probably 500 pieces of music. Once you’ve done this process hundreds of times, parts of it become extremely easy. 90% of it becomes a habit. Commit to the process of wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, better, better, better, good. It’s ALMOST always like that. If a song is just too bad, feel free to throw it away and move on to the next one without regrets. I can sometimes get 3 good songs in the time it takes to fix a bad one.
5 – Use Constraints. Those can be material limits, time limits, and a deadline. It also helps to accept some cliches, forms, and templates. They help! Limericks and haiku have rules, and that’s what makes them fun and challenging.
“The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively – because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?”Frank Zappa / The Real Frank Zappa Book
These days, when writing music, I simply start with duration and tempo. I can attach anything to that.
6 – It’s Good Enough. Everything I do, I have to say: “That’s fine. That does the job.” Ship it. Because anything can be worked on forever. It’s diminishing returns. You have to stop and say, “Nothing I will do beyond this point will matter to anyone. No one is going to notice this.” And that allows you to move on to the next project. There’s something called The Cult of Done Manifesto which says “Done is the engine of more.” It very much aligns with the things I’m saying.
7 – Enjoy The Process. This is a tough one for me, but sometimes I have to force myself to. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” It’s a type of gratitude. There are so many worse things that could be happening right now. We’re lucky we get to be creative at all.
I hope that helps.