During the first few months of the Covid pandemic in 2020, there was a lot of chatter about how we all can “use this time.” The presumption was that “sheltering in place,” staying at or close to home, our social lives on indefinite pause, our professional lives disrupted, surrounded by temporarily shuttered shops and restaurants, possibly out of work entirely, would give us time to focus on personal priorities. Things we’d neglected for too long, whether they be passion projects or mental health or whatever. Sounds cool on paper, but so many of us started freaking out anew and doubting our capabilities, because we just… never seemed to find the time we were supposed to use. Who doesn’t have a “pandemic project” they dropped entirely?
The reality is that when your life is upended, and you’re anxious as balls all of the time, you’re not in a good place for mental focus. Most of us didn’t have the disposable income to feel comfortable and secure just sitting around and creating things indefinitely. Daily living through a pandemic is very time-consuming.
So when my friend Oliver Ignatius (the producer/engineer behind the board for the upcoming EP by my band, Shelter Dogs) asked me to write something timely Chaos: The Magazine for Non Believers — the journal he and his wife and collaborator Bernadette Higgins launched in 2020 — I pitched the essay I’m reposting below. In a nutshell, I argued the circumstances of the pandemic presented an opportunity to freedive into the psyche — and that it was more helpful to think of the moment as part of a longer creative process, rather than a space in which we should push ourselves to bring a project fully into fruition. It tied back to my old personal model for the creative process, a cycle of three distinct phases: media input, lived experience, and creative output. That framework is really the evergreen point and purpose of an essay like this. It’s kind of one of my secret recipes for keeping away from creative burnout and never running out of ideas to develop when the chance arises. Read it below the jump.
Also, do check out Chaos. It’s branded as a music journal, but it covers arts and culture far beyond music. Article topics include ketamine therapy, street-level BLM activism, the state of Hong Kong society — a lot of ground covered. And the artwork is diverse and inspired.
On the Three-Part Creative Cycle
Here’s one thing I think about a lot, which is not specific to COVID-times, but has been intensified during this period: A lot of people in this world have some weird and kind of unreasonable ideas of what the “artist’s life” is like. There’s the idea that when you’re an artist, you’re intermittently bombarded with these uncontrollable flashes of inspiration that must be acted upon immediately, or else they will vanish, never to be reclaimed — never as impassioned or as special as when they first appeared. And there’s also the idea that when you’re an artist, you just kind of sit down and start churning out art whenever you have some time, because it’s what you love and there’s nothing you’d rather be doing anyway.
Neither of those scenarios, I think, is all that accurate for most of us who habitually do creative things. Let’s face it — both of those scenarios are more cinematic than the reality. The reality doesn’t film particularly well. I found myself thinking about the latter of those two scenarios a lot back in March, when we went into shelter-in-place mode here in NYC. The messages I was hearing and seeing was that we were entering primo woodshedding time. Time to sit down and crank.
Except that’s obviously not how it turned out for most of us. Turns out living during a pandemic is extremely worrisome and exhausting. Turns out that when we’re limited in our ability to move about the city, routine errands take forever. Turns out long text threads and video calls take up a lot of mental bandwidth. Turns out it’s really hard to make art when you can’t concentrate on anything.
But that’s okay. You gotta keep that intention to make art running in the background of your brain-space. Gotta trust that you’ll keep picking up stimuli that will inform your creative work. Everything you’re doing is important, and all of it can go toward something in your art.
I started thinking about creative discipline in a structureless world not long after I finished college. Without deadlines — and while constantly freaking out about my future — I felt adrift and prone to wild mood swings. But I also realized that without deadlines, I had a certain freedom — the freedom to avoid wasting time churning out creative work that didn’t seem to serve a purpose.
Eventually, I came up with my own framework for creativity. I started envisioning the creative process as a cycle — and a cycle where there are some parts that don’t look much like “making art” at all. The three phases are 1. input, 2. experience, 3. making the thing.
During the “input” phase, I read a lot, I listen to a lot of music I haven’t listened to before, I approach familiar music from new angles, I watch a lot of movies. I gravitate toward High-Quality Material, but I take in a lot of junk-food media too. The important thing is that whatever I’m taking in is not boring, that there’s something in there that’s fun and rewarding to think about. Heck, sometimes garbage is at least as thought-provoking as The Classics, because it can inspire you to think about what it lacks and what you would do differently if you had the chance. Anyway: I’m consciously ramping up my normal media intake, and consciously encouraging myself to develop perspectives on it.
During the “experience” phase, I go out into the world and experience things. I’m more social than I normally am. I make a point to go out on weekends. I’ll often just take an afternoon to wander aimlessly. I’ll converse with strangers. I’ll make impulsive decisions under certain circumstances, and linger in one place longer than I’d expected under other circumstances. And I try to say “yes” to as many opportunities as I can, without putting myself or others at risk. The experience phase has certainly changed for me over the years. When I was much younger, there was considerably more derangement of the senses involved. I crashed a lot of parties. It was not uncommon that I’d end up being taken in by a small group of people I’d just met and accompanying them to their next one to three destinations. The kind of experiences you can get invited into depend in part on how you present and how you’re perceived in the broader world, so the experiences I’m able to wander into are less wild than they once were. But in some form or another, experiences are still there for me, if I understand when to say “yes.”
The “making the thing” phase is self-explanatory. I hunker down with my notebooks and my laptop and my guitars. I take the ideas I’ve been generating through the other two phases, and I give them form. The media I’ve input and the experiences I’ve had inform the mood, the message, the story line of whatever I’m trying to create. Because here’s one of the key things about going through the input and experiences phases: I don’t stop taking notes, reacting to whatever is in front of me. I get a lot of good rhyming couplets, or bits of dialog, or prompts in the moment. I text myself a ton, and I take loads of voice memos. And I’d better log all of those little ideas, because I’m just not that good at pulling ideas out of the ether while I’m sitting in my living room. I get ideas from motion, whether it be of the body or of the mind. When I sit down to make the thing, it’s about harvesting. I harvest the notes I have, I look over what I’ve accumulated deeper in the past, and I collect ideas that fit together well and start framing out a creative piece that I can embellish in this moment of stillness and focus.
I still stand by this framework, now well into my 30s. I’ve stuck with it while living through garbage day jobs, pretty decent day jobs, long stretches of underemployment, a four-year bender, the entire Great Recession. I know it can’t work for everyone, because nothing can. But if you’re feeling like you’re in a rut, and this process sounds appealing to you, I’d say: Give it a couple cycles, see how it feels. Personally, I like it. It helps me avoid beating myself up for not being constantly “productive.”
Question is, what does all of this have to do with Quarantimes? Well, for me, I greatly misunderstood back in March and April where I was in the cycle, and more importantly, where I should have been. I totally bought the idea that this was woodshedding time. I felt pretty inadequate for weeks, wondering why I never seemed to have the free time to create. This was supposed to be my cabin in the woods, or more accurately the old lighthouse I’ve always dreamed of living in through the off-season. And yet I was just either frazzled or exhausted all the time. What the hell?
I eventually realized I wasn’t in the make-the-thing phase. I was in the experience phase. I just didn’t recognize it, because I normally associate the experience phase with the outside world, and with other human beings. This… was not that. But I came to understand that rather than venturing out into the world in search of the unexpected, I had begun taking a deep dive into my psyche. Once I recognized it, I decided I could go substantially deeper.
I wasn’t going where my human company suggested. I was going where my own mind suggested. I stopped resisting my mind’s impulses and tangents. I started paying more attention to what my own mind was trying to show me. And yes, that meant without the aid of intoxicants. Well.. mostly without. Sometimes if you put your brain through a quick spin cycle as you’re winding down to go to bed, you can wake up feeling pretty clean, mentally.
My mind has taken me to some weird places over the last several months. Some of it has been grim, morbid. Some of it has been euphoric. A lot of it has been meaningful to me in ways that don’t translate well to a larger audience. It’s all useful. It’s all going somewhere. Trust you have what it takes to know where it goes.