The Investment Risks of Creative Ideas

chansonnier de zeghere van maleby Nathan Cornelius

In my all-time favorite music-nerd novel, Donald Greig’s Time Will Tell, Dr. Andrew Eiger is a young, ambitious, and painfully awkward musicology professor at a generic Midwestern university who dreams of publishing blockbuster research that will catapult him to the big time (in his world, an Ivy League post). He is convinced his breakthrough will come when he can crack the code of an impossibly convoluted Renaissance motet he ran across in an archive in France, in which just three lines of music generate a spectacular 36-voice canon. Of course, figuring out exactly how this happens is a bit of a pickle. But the paranoid Eiger is afraid to consult any other scholars about his work, believing they will steal his thunder—and musicological fame—by going ahead and publishing the piece themselves if they figure it out. When he tries to pitch his idea to Britain’s hottest early-music ensemble, Eiger’s social insensitivity—and inability to hold his liquor—get the better of him, leading to a hilariously unforeseen outcome for his project.

Greig’s novel seems an eerily true-to-life cautionary tale for aspiring scholars on the dangers of keeping your research secret from the academic community. I think creative artists such as composers often sense a similar temptation to safeguard their best work out of distrust for their peers. But in reality, it’s far more productive to collaborate and share ideas with colleagues, even if you may lose a sense of ownership. Yet I wonder how often we composers, even if we avoid this trap, fall into another pitfall and withhold ideas from ourselves by trying to save them up for future use, a sort of artistic tightwaddery. I’ll try to explain how this happens to me.

Sometimes I’m inspired with an idea for a piece of a music which reveals itself to be a Big Idea—one that stirs my heart and soul, demanding I put pencil to paper to capture a glimpse of its majesty. But, I say, a Big Idea deserves a Big Piece to properly work it out, and—alas!—I am not qualified to write a Big Piece at this stage of my career. Only Real Composers are worthy of that lofty calling, and I… I am still squirreling through the confusing educational labyrinth reserved for Student Composers, searching for the noble gate into the court of the Emerging Composers. And I certainly wouldn’t want to let my clumsy Student Composer self spoil the idea now, depriving it of its magic later. After all, you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. So I stash the idea away in the imaginary storeroom I’ve created to hold all the inspirations I’ll come back to when I’m a Real Composer.

Author Annie Dillard reveals the fallacy in this creative mindset in her exquisite book, The Writing Life: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.” She also draws a parallel between hoarding inspiration for yourself and hiding it from others: “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”[1]

As Dillard beautifully describes earlier in her book, the process of developing an idea into a finished work can be long and laborious. Naturally, bigger ideas may need more time to ripen and shouldn’t be rushed. But there is no reason to simply sit on them until your craft becomes equal to your inspiration. Not every big idea requires a big piece; it is possible to express a majestic idea eloquently in miniature. Furthermore, there’s no rule against writing multiple pieces on the same subject. Visual artists normally work in series, creating many variations on the same theme rather than shooting for a single masterpiece. As my composition teacher recently advised me, “Think of this piece as the first of a whole series of pieces exploring one idea.”

Withdrawing from the bank of ideas feels risky, like you could be wasting a unique opportunity. But stashing inspiration is guaranteed to waste opportunities, by stopping the flow of ideas and stunting your growth as an artist. Ultimately, you have to trust that your best ideas are yet to come; as your compositional technique becomes richer and deeper, your vision will expand to match it. As Dillard says, “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” Better ideas come only after you’ve put your creative muscle to work on the materials you have. So I resolve to go ahead and be generous with my ideas, first towards myself, then with others.

[1] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 78-79.


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