Do happy people make crappy music??
Do drugs make you more creative?
This is one of those things that most artists have asked themselves or perhaps discussed with other artists over a couple drinks. I gave this a month to stir around my head before I attempted to write about it. I’ve always wanted to make music that mattered in one way or another yet at the same time wanted happiness, health, great relationships etc. I had this great fear that if I gave up all my bad habits and focused on the good in my life, my music would suffer. The question really comes down to this…
Do miserable or messed up people make great art? And if so why?
I’ll admit that I’ve had times of depression that lead to what could have been albums worth of powerful material had I bottled up all the emotion. I’ve also had creative juices come when I was drunk or on drugs. Then again I’m sure everyone has had sober spurts of creativity in the shower or sitting on the toilet.
So what gives?
Here are my personal thoughts……
The wakeful mind is often more analytical and less creative. The sober mind tends to have a greater fear of being judged, so we prefer to fill our time with things that wouldn’t highlight our lack of talent or skills. We are basically afraid to suck. It’s much easier to convince yourself that you are far too busy to explore the genius that you really are (or rather the genius you would like others to believe you are). Better to stay quiet and be thought of as talented than to open your mouth and prove the opposite.
These are some of the thoughts that creep in when the sober and generally happy mind starts a new project:
*Of all of my ideas, which idea is the best one?
*Are any of my ideas worth pursuing?
*What if I find out that my favorite idea sucks?
*What if I am technically not skilled enough to get my ideas out properly?
* Do I really have time in my life to pursue this creative avenue without sacrificing another part of my otherwise happy life?
* Is this music thing really the most mature thing for me to pursue?
Where do these thoughts come from? Unfortunately your inner critic speaks pretty loud when you want to try something new or challenging. Try sitting sober and doing nothing for 15 minutes. No eating, no TV, no internet, no video games. Notice how you feel and what your mind is doing. Without distractions your mind is most likely restless and looking for distractions. See, what most of us call happy could more likely be defined as distracted. If you had the confidence, more often than not, this restlessness could be channeled into some great enjoyable work, but then you would have to shut off that inner voice.
Unfortunately many of us need to get out of our normal headspace to feel relaxed. That’s probably why mood altering substances lend themselves to creativity as does showering, or those moments before you fall asleep. These are all times that the mind relaxes a bit and also allows itself to wander.
Many times the awake sober mind doesn’t look at daydreaming to be a very productive use of your time. Your mind usually tries to fill every moment it can with a distraction and rarely leaves the open space that allows real creativity to shine.
That gets us through the productivity part, but what about the quality of your work when drunk, drugged out, stressed or depressed vs happy and sober.
I think this comes down to the intensity of your life experiences. The reason why content and generally happy people aren’t creating their best work is because their happiness is rarely a peak experience but rather just absent of bad events and emotions. It’s like the difference between reading words, or actaully getting “lost” in a book. Which mindset would you expect to give you a better creative output? Life usually has to shake you up a bit in a positive or negative way to inspire you creatively because peak experiences knock you out of your “daily life” thoughts and forces you to “let go” for a moment or rethink something you thought you had figured out. Being that I suffer from panic attacks among other mental challenges that are anxiety related, I am in a more consistent state of having to let go, give up or just stop thinking. These experiences are intense and drive me to very left field spurts of creativity, unfortunately I rarely have the motivation or energy in me to take advantage of these spurts. I have read about and I tend to believe that genius comes at moments where the brain is actually not thinking. Some people call this the “gap”. Everyone has likely felt this unintentionally at one point or another, but it’s difficult to create it “on demand”. Personally, aside from depression or a chemically altered state, I’ve experienced this while driving, right before i fall asleep (if I can catch that moment) or if I wake up in the middle of the night remembering a dream or thought process. I’ve also had some great moments during meditation.
Einstein was known to give himself plenty of daydreaming time. Thomas Edison was able to create these moments on demand by falling asleep in a chair with a spoon in his hand and a pan at his feet. When he would start to doze off, the spoon would fall from his hand onto the pan and wake him up. At those moments he would get these great ideas. Many songwriters and artists will keep a pen and paper next to their bed or a small recorder with the intention of getting the ideas out when they come to mind.
The real answer is that it is much harder to create a creative moment from scratch. Drugs, alcohol and extreme life circumstances are a shortcut that may be helpful in the beginning, but will eventually make you unable to enjoy your own creative success…or your life for that matter. Once these things become habits, they will no longer create peak experiences and you’ll just constantly be looking for something more (one big reason why you always want to buy a new piece of gear or software). I think everything has it’s time and place, but when you are no longer exploring new experiences and instead just repeating a pattern, the mind will no longer reward you with good ideas. Unless you can continue to get “lost” in your work, your thoughts will constantly be jumping back to everyday concerns and away from creative thinking.
Another reason you may lack productivity is that you are creatively lazy and unorganized. Most of us first and foremost are creatively lazy (are you relieved to hear me say that?) and unorganized. It’s not like we don’t have ideas, but they just stack up like a load of dirty dishes until we have so many ideas that we don’t know where to start. Many great ideas jump in our head but we don’t take them seriously enough to write them down or record them right away. This is how most or our great ideas are lost. At the time we think the idea is so simple that we won’t forget it, but within an hour we realize that charmingly simple idea is gone and you can’t retrace it.
The best advice I can give you is to consistently try to have new experiences by visiting new places, trying new foods, taking on a new habit, meeting new people etc. I also recommend that you engulf yourself in other artists or musicians that excite you. I find some amazing stuff on youtube that gives me new creative ideas. Although I make Tutorial videos, I also constantly allow myself to be a student. I read blogs, books and short stories as well. I love when a new idea forces me to throw out old concepts. This is where new ideas can be created. Another idea is to create restrictive rules for yourself like… only one synth for a whole song… no chords, only melodies.. see how long you can sustain one note in a song without it getting boring… see how long you can sustain silence…. When your mind is given a new challenge, it thinks about the process differently and more creatively. Your mind likes to be kept on it’s toes (think of your mind like your girlfriend/boyfriend… can’t go too long without a few surprises or new experiences). Meditate.. I can’t stress this enough. It can really take you out of your element and enlighten you to new solutions to past problems (creative and otherwise). The place your mind goes during meditation is the place where creative ideas come from. Give it a try. The first couple of weeks you might just have a bunch of thoughts bouncing around trying to organize themselves but soon enough those thoughts will start to quiet and you’ll then experience something completely new.
If you are stuck on a music idea, may I suggest you hunt down Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” cards.
For Iphone users there is a free application as well. Just search the app store. This is a good description of what these cards do…
“Oblique Strategies Cards came about Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt discovered that they both kept a set of basic working principles to guide them through moments of pressure during the creative process. They became aware that the pressures involved in producing creative work on a schedule caused them to no longer stick to productive modes of thinking/creating. These Strategies are one way they devised to help them get around the problem of becoming stuck in the creative process — when stuck, consult the cards, and then continue with the creative process after considering the card.”
I’ve got no problem with drug or drink enhanced creativity, but just remember that it’s opening a door that you can tap into sober and without the side effects. I personally have given up drugs and don’t even drink caffeine. I drink on occasion, but not too much. I think I am coming up with much better ideas now than i did in the past. I certainly don’t regret my past, but I prefer to create from a true state of happiness and fearlessness (if there is such a thing).
Hopefully this has given you a few things to chew on and that it leads to you creating from a place of joy. Don’t worry, you can still make those angry songs your mom hates. Just put those emotions aside once you no longer need them. 🙂
Happy music making!