Courtesy of Jesse Sterling Harrison
Reach your creative peak, and understand yourself better as a maker of art...
If you’re a songwriter, (or if you reside anywhere else in the creative world), you’ve probably noticed some type of creative cycle in yourself. That cycle most likely has an emotional component.
Perhaps you find yourself in a neutral mood before starting a project. That neutrality could turn to excitement, sleepless nights, and mania when you’re near the finish line of your new work. Finally, when the project is complete, you might feel empty and depressed and lie around the house like Sherlock Holmes without a case, (hopefully avoiding his favorite boredom remedy: narcotics).
Researcher and engineer Paul Plsek (pronounced "plee-sek," word nerds) has dug into the last century of literature on creative thinking and written a fascinating analysis of how creative minds work.
He has boiled this cycle down to four phases: preparation, imagination, development, and action. This work might just help you reach your creative peak, and even understand yourself a bit better as a maker of art.
If the cycle is viewed like the face of a clock, preparation is a 9. This quarter of the cycle takes place before the actual process begins. It's simply a process of intentional living and thinking about the world around us.
We live our lives steeped in the culture and environment around us. As thinking, feeling human beings, we draw conclusions about how things work. We develop objections to things that don’t seem right. We get excited about the good things. And we begin to assemble theories about why things go well or badly in the world. Music, like other creative pursuits, gives us a vehicle to comment on the world and to build at least a small part of it to our own specifications.
Now we’re at 12 o’clock. We've analyzed our world, and we’re ready to comment about it. This is the moment that a lyricist’s pen hits the page, the moment the trumpeter blows his first note. This is the first moment that your internal process hits the air.
Of course, these ideas may be vaguely formed at first. Some of them may not pass the test of our self-editing process to come. But it’s too early to think about that. Right now, it’s time to generate lots of ideas in a form that can be recorded or stored in some way for later evaluation. This is the time to write pages and pages, to play riffs and riffs, to sing any melody that comes into your head. Then "harvest" your ideas and attempt to bring them into some coherent form.
Artists of all kinds often remark on how quick this part of the process can be. That’s because it’s just the tip of the iceberg – the final phase of hours, days, or weeks of vague thoughts and ideas that have finally coalesced into this moment.
For the writer, development means editing. It’s the same for songwriters. Is there one chorus too many? Is that transition too abrupt? Would this melody be more memorable if we added another chord here? This is the phase in which you work your ideas into something with structure and form.
Finally, you’ll step back and take it in with new eyes and ears. That could mean playing your recording through from start to finish, listening to a group perform your written piece, or playing it through yourself. Does it work? The biggest question of the hour is simple: Have I said what I wanted to say? Most likely the answer is yes. After all, you’ve been working on it for a while. But a few tweaks might still be needed. This can also be a sad time when a developed idea that didn’t quite make it finally dies.
How does action differ from development? After all, you’ve been doing a lot of actions, playing instruments, recording parts, writing lyrics and scratching them out, only to replace them. Well, according to Plsek's model, creative ideas only become valuable when put into practice. That means sharing them. Now it’s time to release that recording, perform that song, share that video. You’re at the finish line – you should be confident now. If you’re a creative person, you are your own worst critic, and you’ve passed all of your own tests if you’re willing to let others see what you’ve made.
So that’s the process. How does it help? Well, we can proceed through this process in an intentional manner. When we’re not writing, we should make it a point to observe. We should boost our experience of the world by getting out, trying new things, and consuming lots of other art to inform our own muse. When we’re imagining, we should remember to let ideas spill out on the page without judging them. When editing our own work, we can keep the emotional goals in mind. (How do I want someone to feel when listening to this song? Do I feel it now?) And last of all, when we share our work, we should aggressively promote it. If it’s worth sharing with one person, it’s worth sharing with the world.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.