I’ve been thinking about the flow of creativity and how best to manage it. I recently finished a big project, a book of music pedagogy titled The Integrated String Player. Besides writing the book, I wrote out many music scores using music-notation software, and I recorded 80 video clips explaining and demonstrating the book’s exercises. I spent several years on this project, which is being published later in 2017 by Oxford University Press.
Warning: I’m about to say something really strange! . . . but it's the secret of creativity and its flow.
I’m not proud that I finished the project, and that it was accepted for publication.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a happy man.
The waterwheel might explain my thinking. A brook runs in the middle of a farm. The farmer builds a waterwheel and installs it along the brook. As tall as a human being, the wheel contains a large number of blades strategically designed to capture the flow of the brook, turn the wheel, and create energy for running a flour mill. And the flour from the mill will in due course become nourishment for many people.
Individual events in your life are like the blades in the waterwheel, capturing the flow from running water and creating energy. Although every blade plays a role, no blade is more important than any other blade. And the blades are part of a larger mechanism that includes the wheel, the mill, the farm, and above all the brook or creek or river—without which the waterwheel wouldn’t work at all. Flow, energy, and their transformative power are more important than the blades.
My book project took several years of thought and effort. At the same time that I worked on it, I taught hundreds of lessons and workshops, traveled to many destinations, wrote monthly blog posts, gave recitals, improvised and composed new pieces, recorded a CD, recorded and posted multiple video clips, went out on hundreds of little dates with my wife . . . the list could go on indefinitely. The waterwheel was forever turning, and “new water” was forever pushing “old water” out of the way.
Your life is unlike mine in its practical details, but it’s like mine in that it encompasses dozens and hundreds and thousands of individual events, taking place day by day and week by week. A professional or academic commitment unfolds with its own rhythms, and at the same time you raise your children or go the dentist or write emails or make phone calls or . . . the list could go on indefinitely. Old water, new water; it never stops.
On the week I made my final submission to Oxford University Press, I gave lessons to some amazingly talented and dedicated individuals: Eli, a singer with a big heart and a brilliant mind; Skylin, a delightful, disciplined singer whose voice is so sweet that to hear a single note from her makes you forget all your worries; Florence, Stéphane, Andranik, Elisabeth, Mechthilde, Serge, each one bringing a world of wonders into my life. I took a piano lesson with my beloved teacher Alexandre, and for ninety minutes we delved into the intricacies of J. S. Bach’s Two-part Invention in B-flat major, a short composition that happens to be divinely perfect.
I recorded one of my little voice clips and posted it on YouTube. I went to Studio Campus (my music home, about which I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago) and practiced the cello, playing pizz and arco, singing, improvising, using the metronome, whistling, and seriously having fun. And every day I had marvelous friendly moments with my wife Alexis. Ah, I also flew from Paris to Minneapolis, where I’m now sitting at my friends’ kitchen table and writing this piece.
If the big project looms too big in my mind, it’ll interfere with all these happenings, all these explorations and discoveries.
It’s paradoxical, but the deepest pleasures come when you have a little distance from the very event that’s bringing you so many pleasures. There you are, listening to a student sing a gorgeous few notes that make you want to cry—and you’re a little detached from it, otherwise you won’t hear the next gorgeous few notes she’s about to sing. There you are, in the presence of J. S. Bach and his stunning music—and you’re a little detached from it, otherwise you’ll be too stunned to play the piano. There you are, receiving some great good news about a big project—and you’re a little detached from it, because you’re busily taking care of a thousand things. Pride, or any other strong emotion, might put a spanner in the works and prevent you from staying with the flow and, indeed, from accomplishing the project.
Plus, the whole thing isn’t about you. Ideally, the book is about concepts and tools and techniques that may be useful to your readers. Nobody wants a book’s author breathing down their necks when they’re trying to understand the ideas on the page; a book is good only if “the writer isn’t in the book,” so to speak. My readers will study The Integrated String Player when it comes out and decide for themselves whether or not I managed to disappear from its pages, but that was my goal. Life is all about “managing your disappearing act,” by which I mean dissipating your ego:
Farewell, little blade; hello, big river! Thank you for being so much bigger than me!
©2017, Pedro de Alcantara