Reboot: Creativity in Crisis

crisis photo

Hi there.

It’s been a while. Nearly 4 years, in fact, judging by the date on the next-newest post to this one. Lots has happened! I wasn’t sure if I would ever get back to this blog. I mean, I never intended to stop, but life kind of got busy for a while there and it fell by the wayside in kind of a big way.

But today I have a reason to fire it up again. And that reason is the subject of this post. Warning: this post – and likely those that follow, at least for a while – will be predominantly personal in focus; however, it (and they) will touch on themes that I think most creative people can relate to, no matter how fearless…

Busy busy busy

A little backstory: I’ve written before about my performance work, which mostly consists of playing piano and keyboards – and increasingly, various other instruments including accordion, trumpet, french horn, and flute – for circus-tinged stage shows here in Germany. That work kind of took over the bulk of my life for a few years – over 200 shows a year for a few years, and these are typically long, intense shows.

I finished a run of such shows, at Palazzo Berlin, in March of this year, and found myself without any performance work on the horizon for 7 months, an unusual situation and while problematic on an income level, not an unwelcome one: I was pretty burnt out, needed a rest, and figured I could tie up a few loose ends and then dive into one or another of my various dormant personal creative projects.

But the weeks went by, and then months, and I realized I wasn’t doing that. The minutiae of daily life – parenting, taxes, home maintenance, computer maintenance, changing phone contracts – was like a gas that expanded to fill its container, and its container was my life.

And so I found myself with a creeping sense of anxiety. I have long defined myself in terms of the creative work that I do, and a lot of my sense of self-worth is tied up with that, for better or for worse. It’s one thing to be too busy performing, playing with other great musicians and crazy talented performers, digging deep and delivering in a professional show night after night and not really feeling like I have the time or energy to dive into a personal passion project. It’s quite another to have, in theory at least, all the time in the world  and still be unable to get anything started. 

Has it really been that long?

It’s not like I haven’t done anything creative in the past few years – even discounting the show work. Last summer, for example, I scored and co-produced an amazing audiobook for with cousin and longtime collaborator, Brooke Burgess. It took a crazy amount of time and creative work and I’m very proud of the results, but it was not my own project.

As well as 4 years since the last post here, it’s been nearly 2 years since my last Sound Fascination piece, and nearly 3 since the last major installment (Volume 3) was finished. 10 years since the Stillness3 album, though we did have a small reunion concert in February, which was nice even if hardly anybody came. Many years since my last solo piano concert. It’s been a long long time, in short, since I really dove into a personal creative project, let alone pursued it to any kind of completion. And this, to me, represents a kind of crisis.

So that’s what this reboot is going to be about: a reboot of the blog, yes, but more importantly and more broadly a personal creative reboot. I need to get back on the horse, and my plan is to write about the process and share it here. I’m hoping it will be a document of a creative person finding a way out of creative crisis through creative work, and not just the record of a slow motion personal trainwreck.

A hard habit to break… but harder to start!

I’m also hoping it will be of interest, possibly even helpful, to someone else… but frankly that’s not really my first concern. Looking back at the articles I’ve shared here before, I think they represent something different and something I don’t feel I can continue or even want to. Sure there are some engaging and possibly even useful pieces, but overall it’s a bit self-indulgent, sort of look-how-creative-I-am-I-have-so-much-to-teach-people.

This will be different. This is confronting my failure to maintain what Twyla Tharp calls The Creative Habit, and trying to find ways to refocus my very unfocused creative brain on bringing something new and beautiful and strange into the world. I do think that creativity, like fitness or cooking or reading or yoga, is best seen as a habit – and if we put energy into our positive habits hopefully they will supercede our more problematic ones, like posting comments on pointless online videos.

Some of that effort to fire up that habit again might involve rebooting old projects, like the Sound Fascination series, or the Cliffjump book, or maybe even the long-dormant Symmetricity, my erstwhile novel-with-a-soundtrack. Some of it will be starting new things, as I’ve long been of the opinion that starting something new is a great way to get out of a rut. But in many ways I feel the best approach is to go back to the beginning and try to figure out what made me want to create in the first place, find the seeds that grew into those first flowers and eventually became a whole garden of mad creative projects.

country garden photo

Photo by DominusVobiscum

I liked that garden, it was a nice place, but it’s desperately overgrown with weeds now and trying to hack my way back to it by the usual methods doesn’t seem to be working. So my plan now is to go back to the seeds and start again.

Stuck in the middle with you…

So I hope you’ll join me, and read and listen as I try to find my way through this process, even if I stumble and scramble a bit at the beginning for lack of practice. I’m hoping that the (intended) double meaning of the title will hold true – it’s not just about a creative crisis, the crisis of stalled creativity, but about finding the creativity *in* that crisis, and using it to find the way out.

I think there’s something to that, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Sometimes you need to get stuck in order to remember why you need to get unstuck. I suppose there are those lucky creative people for whom maintaining the habit is effortless, they never seem to struggle with it at all, the work pours out as if from a bottomless fountain. But I’m pretty sure most people are more like me – it feels like that sometimes, for a while, when we’re lucky… and other times it just… doesn’t. The gears get gummed up, the muscles atrophy, the well seems to run dry for a while.

And when that happens you need to change the formula.

I’ve been through phases where everything was flowing freely and it seemed the ideas would never stop coming, they arrived conveniently fully formed and all I needed was to get out of the way and let it happen. Making Passage was like that, and A Suite Hereafter. The whole Continuum series was based on that process and that feeling. I know it well… but I also know that it isn’t always like that. And I know that when it isn’t, you have to find a way to put one foot in front of the other until you’re on your way again, no matter how hard that seems.

I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here and make grand statements about all the amazing things I’m going to do now, having arrived at this stuck point and decided to do something about it. Things might not turn out to be that easy at all. I do have a goal in mind for this process, something that’s been a long time coming, but I’m not quite ready to announce it yet.

What I do know is that, seeing as it’s 2017 and all, this revolution will likely be televised, i.e. there will almost certainly be a video component to it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

That’s about all I’ve got for now. Stay tuned!

-tobias