This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.
If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.
The fear of making a mistake and getting something ‘wrong’ can be paralysing for a creator. Paradoxically, this block can get worse the more successful you are. The more great work you’ve produced, the higher your reputation, the more you have to lose by making a mistake.
This is the problem faced by an anonymous Lateral Action reader, who responded to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.
Firstly thanks a lot for your Lateral Action blog – for someone who seems to be perpetually struggling with the creative process, it is massively useful!
I am a professional composer, working almost entirely by myself. I have found the process of creating harder and harder over the years. While occasionally it is enjoyable and seems to flow naturally, often it is fraught and I find myself being dragged away from whatever it is I’m supposed to be working on, distracted by anything and everything that will allow me a break from the task in hand.
I had a eureka moment late last year when I worked out that the reason for this ongoing battle in my head is that I’m terrified of getting it wrong. At every decision making moment along the way I question incessantly whether I’m doing the right thing. I fear that making the wrong decision will result in my work not meeting the very high standard I expect of it. Hence self-doubt, procrastination, and ultimately creative stagnation creep in. I have a ton of unfinished work. My unwillingness to commit affects not only my music but my ability to make career decisions, to find collaborators – even making everyday decisions on all kinds of things is a struggle!
Any advice on how to beat my fear of getting it wrong?
If you’re a composer, you must know the story of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
In 1913, the premiere of the ballet provoked a riot. The ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’ rhythms of the music and dance shocked an audience used to a more sedate evening’s entertainment. Booing and arguing escalated into punch-ups in the stalls. The police intervened, but even they couldn’t restore order until the performance had ended. Stravinsky left the theatre in tears.
And it wasn’t just an ignorant mob who hated the Rite. The composer Camille Saint-Saëns was among those who walked out, allegedly disgusted by Stravinsky’s (mis)use of the bassoon in the opening bars. Any artist will know that the most stinging criticism of all comes from one’s peers.
Clearly, Stravinsky had got it wrong.
And of course, we know better. The Rite of Spring is now acclaimed as one of the great works of the 20th century, and we shake our heads at the poor judgment of those who were unable to appreciate its genius from the start.
Yet even at the time, the ballet’s impresario Diaghilev said the riot was “just what I wanted”. It was a publicist’s dream. And more recently, musicologist Richard Taruskin has suggested that it was the choreography as much as the music that caused such an outrage, and Stravinsky had exaggerated the story of the protests about the music, in order to present himself as a cutting-edge composer.
So maybe Stravinsky got it right after all.
Or maybe there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ where creativity is concerned.
Maybe, whatever you do, someone, somewhere will accuse you of getting it wrong. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Maybe it does audiences the power of good to have their assumptions questioned and their senses assaulted by the ‘wrong’ kind of music, art, writing or whatever.
Maybe it also does creators good to get things wrong from time to time, to make mistakes and mess things up. To surprise or even shock themselves with a rough edge, dissonance or clumsy turn of phrase.
Remember the Persian carpet makers who include a deliberate mistake in every carpet they make. A perfect carpet would offend Allah. It would also mean that their work was done, that there was no loose thread for them to follow up next time.
Maybe playing it safe and avoiding mistakes is the biggest mistake you could make. If you do it for the rest of your life, you could end up looking back and wishing you’d taken a few more risks – and made a few more surprising, magical discoveries.
And in your case, I think there’s a mischievous, frustrated part of you that’s itching to make more mistakes, to make it more ‘wrong’, less perfect, and more human.
I think this part of you knows something very important about why you fell in love with music in the first place.
I think this part of you would secretly love to put a few noses out of joint with an unconventional composition, and see the shocked faces of your listeners.
I think that allowing this part of you out to play would be a lot of fun for you. It would help you loosen up and enjoy the process of composition.
So how can you do that? Here are a few suggestions. Try them out, and let me know how you get on.
1. Write with Your Body
I don’t know what your composition process is like, whether you have a daily routine or warm-up ritual. But I’d suggest that before sitting down to write, you do something to get out of your head and into your body. Your head is where all the worrying and judging and agonising happens. Your body is where the rhythms live, where your heartstrings are.
It could be as simple as a hot bath or shower. You might like to go for a walk or run. Or you might like to practice a discipline that helps you develop body awareness, like yoga, tai chi or walking meditation.
And when you start writing/playing, do it with your gut. Put down the first things that come into your head. You can faff around and tidy things up later – to begin with, just go with your first instinct and get it down as quickly as possible.
2. Stop Worrying
You need to cut out that anxious, nitpicky worrying habit. For some practical tips, read Why Worry? and 7 Ways to Stop Worrying When You’re Under Pressure.
3. Start getting things wrong.
Next time you sit down to compose, write the ‘wrong’ version, full of mistakes, the kind of conversation only an idiot or a rank beginner would produce. Then produce another ‘wrong’ version, this time featuring a completely different set of mistakes. And so on, until you’ve got at least five completely unusable manuscripts. (Don’t worry, no one need ever see them.)
Give it a few days, then go back to the wrong versions. Ask yourself whether there’s anything at all, even the slightest detail, that you quite like and could use. Even if it’s still clearly wrong for this specific piece, you might find the germ of another composition in the midst of all that dross.
4. Stick Two Fingers Up at the Critics
If you find you can’t help thinking about critics, peers, listeners and other people who might criticise you for getting it ‘wrong’: stop composing, and turn around. Imagine you can see them in the corner of the room. Stand up and walk over over to face them. Look them in the eye and stick two fingers up at them. Enjoy the look on their faces. Then go back and get on with your work.
5. Get Good Feedback
Find someone whose opinion on music you really respect. Maybe you already have a mentor – if not, look out for one, they are worth their weight in gold. Ask them for honest feedback on your work, and whether they think you could benefit from loosening your tie a little.
6. Grant Yourself Poetic Licence
Write down these words from the poet e.e. cummings (including the ‘wrong’ use of small caps) and pin them up above your desk:
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
What Solutions Can You Think of?
Have you ever got over a paralysing fear of getting it wrong? How?
Have you ever made a ‘mistake’, only to later realise it was a creative discovery?
Any other tips for overcoming the fear of getting it wrong?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.