Updated: May 21, 2021
I’ve been consuming books at a gluttonous pace - to the extent that I manage to feel guilty about my reading. (I love to feel guilty.) I admonish myself with a reminder of what other, more practical things I could be doing. Perhaps I should be practicing, perhaps reviewing German, perhaps reading more overtly singer-like research, perhaps creating… creating what? I do feel a great frenzy to produce at the moment, while also feeling overly pulled by too many factors. There’s only so much I can do at once, I say. I swore, at least, that I would write notes on the books I consume, but I’m also seemingly too far behind. That task, which no one has required of me, is just more fodder for my guilt at Getting It Wrong. To make matters worse, I continue to chew up words before I properly prove my digestion. Why this self-imposed calvary? I want to imagine that I’m not merely consuming passively: that, although my current obsession to read is absolutely informed by my desire to drown out my own thoughts, it isn’t its only purpose. I want a silver lining. I want results. And, if I’m trying to forget myself, I’d like to imagine I still have a healthy self to return to.
In simply stating that we’re looking for “inspiration,” without defining what we want to do with it, we get what’s difficult about creativity wrong. It’s easy to have the urge to create, even if we don’t always have the tools to recognize it as such. The need to be seen, to be loved, to be understood is a creative desire. The impulse to destroy is often that desire untended and curdled. In the way that talent is so often misnamed and misinterpreted, indefinite inspiration does feel like a divine gift, with its flashy mania and the almost visceral longing it produces. It’s nebulous and imprecise: “I want to make something.” What thing? How?
Then it gets much less sexy. Considerations of technique, or even just time, come into play. The blank page becomes forbidding rather than seductively naked. Fatigue sets in, anticipatory for the work to come.
Being faced with too many possibilities, too many directions to explore, is debilitating. Part of becoming an artist or creator of any kind is finding a daily practice that doesn’t rely on the flashpoint of inspiration, as bell hooks addresses in the essay “women who write too much” from remembered rapture: “I no longer stand in awe of the difficulties faced when working with words, overwhelmed by the feeling of being lost in a strange place unable to find my way or crushed into silence. Now I accept that facing the difficult is part of the heroic journey of writing, a preparation, a ritual of sanctification—that it is through this arduous process of grappling with words that writing becomes my true home, a place of solace and comfort.” (1) The work serves as the grindstone to extract the oils of inspiration.
As a singer, I have managed to find a daily practice that sustains me. This is relatively new: practicing has often been a chore, a necessity to avoid ridicule and unemployment. In a year of far fewer deadlines and professional demands, making music could become either moot or, for the first time in my life, the product of a deeper, intrinsic desire in me. I’m happy or lucky, or maybe even surprised, that it was the latter. I’ve found a great deal of pleasure in sitting at the piano learning new music, practicing for its own sake. But concentrating on the daily routine of music, as approachable and grounding, even foundational, as it may be, can also blinder me from larger futures. What am I doing with all these notes? Again, that ungainly and urgent need to build returns. I want to turn away from it as from a loud and boisterous child. It wants too much from me! And it won’t quite sit still within the framework of my quotidian practice.
Why do I choose to concentrate specifically on the act of writing? After all, I’m a singer. One reason is symbolic - it’s easier to think about words in the medium of words. The very act of setting myself to filling a blank page (for I do write a first draft by hand, most of the time) necessarily gets me musing on that method itself above other forms of creation. It’s also because I’ve been consuming books at such a frenetic pace, and writers, partially for the reason I mention above, love to write about their craft, overtly or obliquely. I culled a few quotations for this little essay, but there are dozens more underlined, highlighted and written in the pages of my journals. I write about writing because I have the material.
It’s also because writing entails a more recognizable problem of creativity and creating than my singing. We often think of creating as a solitary practice, and an integral one, transforming undefined nothingness into a work. The blank canvas, the undifferentiated piece of marble, the silent air to be filled with a new piece of music. But performing the works of others is less absolute or obvious in its creativity. In fact, that’s often been a source of comfort and pressure relief in a difficult year of art-making. I can empty myself of ownership or responsibility and concentrate on bringing to life the work previously done by a composer or poet. I have their company and chaperoning presence. This is music as reading and consumption rather than creation; I entrust myself to their creativity. Sometimes I do this too much, forgetting to exist as my own self - many of us are guilty of this oversight. On particularly uninspired days, I can give myself over to the mesmerism of rote practice and repetition. I can escape myself in the notes of others, the way I escape myself in the words of others as I amass book after book. But bridging the gap between blank mimicry and personalized interpretation isn’t always easy.
It’s not easy to do alone, especially. Many musicians work toward a group creation. We’re often reliant on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts - us. A year of working in confinement and solitude has meant growing a new self-reliance, logistically and in regards to inspiration; the process has been painful and awkward and itchy, as growth typically is. So I’ve been writing, which is a solitary outlet I can grasp as such, and I’ve been reading about writing, and thinking about writing. Books about artistic maturity, about eking out a voice and identity, have been the only kind of self-help I can muster. They’ve spurred in me a mass of inspiration unruly as the nervous energy of any novice. I try to stabilize and grow myself through the words of writers. According to Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, “Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.” (2)
As I write, it’s my hope that specifying a voice in one medium will also give me the tools to do so as a singer. That vision will beget vision, allowing a larger purpose or work to emerge. I have an imperative as an artist: to manufacture inspiration through routine, and ground the shiny brilliance of creative impulse in action. (Rien que ça!)
hooks, bell. remembered rapture: the writer at work. New York, Henry Holt, 1999.
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York, HarperCollins, 1989.
(This is a copy of an essay I've published on my substack: subscribe to receive my pieces directly in your inbox.)