Andrew Haig

Composer | Arranger | Conductor

Dunning vs. Balance

I recently read an article in the New York Times’ Style Section (I know, how bougie) concerning the way in which the outward impression of artists (in the US, especially) has changed, especially in the last 50 years.

It is no small secret that in the last few years and decades, in America, vocation-based schooling leading to vocation-based jobs has transitioned towards something towards which many people condescend.

In a world dominated by capitalistic ideals about getting rich as quickly as possible and staying rich as long as possible and flaunting being rich as often as possible, the concept of working a simple job seems antiquated.

Artists are now expected to be tortured in their attics, slaving away at all hours and only reappearing into the world as disheveled disasters waiting to wreak havoc on the ordinary people they run into.

I worked as a personal trainer for several years after my military service ended in 2012, but the entire time I worked as a trainer, I had in my mind that I was using it only as a vocation to get me towards my ultimate goal of composing.

There was an occasion where a friend and fellow trainer of mine and I were talking about the future and I asked her, “So, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” very strongly implying that this, training, was not it.

She looked me in the eye and said, “I mean, I think I’m doing it.” Naturally, I was completely flabbergasted by this idea.

How could anyone be satisfied with simply doing this one thing. Turning your hours in to dollars and your dollars into food (or beer ... or bills too, I guess).

There has seemed to become a much-romanticized view of what being an artist really is… or perhaps more accurately, what it isn’t.

I’d like to blame this on social media, and the ways in which we publicize our lives as being constantly whatever we’d like people to think that it is. I can’t be certain that that is accurate, however.

When I think of my favorite artists, I don’t think of them as the people they were, I think of them as the artists that created the art I love.

William Carlos Williams was a doctor to 80% of the people he met in his day-to-day life. T.S. Eliot was a banker. Charles Ives was an insurance salesman. Philip Glass worked as a plumber.

These people created fantastic works of art, simply by staying balanced.

William Carlos Wiliams wrote in his biography in 1967, “They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”

I wonder why this idea of living a life that has two distinct parts to it has gone the way of the dodo.

Why can’t an artist also rebuild cars? Why can’t a dancer also work as an electrician?

Why, when we decide we have an unmotivated love for one thing, why must we become only that one thing?

I see resistance to this in many places, as well. I mean, Robin Williams was given a rough go of it for trying to play a serious role in the film One Hour Photo. THE Robin Williams.

Once you put yourself before the world in one certain way, that then becomes the framework within which you must work; until world is tired of paying attention to you, in which case you can do whatever you’d like because nobody is looking anyway.

But my contention is also this: how is it any less important, as a creative person, that you understand how other parts of the world then work?

By all means, we should be specialized in our own fields, because only with technical facility can we clearly state the things we feel need to be said.

But by the same token, to completely dissociate from life in the pursuit of the things we think are more important will inevitably dissociate life from us as well.

I have a very strange-looking resume.

As a homeschooled student throughout my highschool years, I had the opportunity to pursue areas of study that interested me directly. My transcript upon graduation reads a bit like a grab-bag of subjects that all lasted a semester or two, save music theory and composition which stayed present throughout the last 5 years of my grade school.

I then spent 8 years in the US Marines, performing tasks as far ranging as raking sand in the desert (literally, and any Marines who have served in any desert will know what I mean), to instructing Marines in hand-to-hand combat, to arranging and composing music for various ceremonies and performances that I then performed on French horn.

My fitness industry career began directly after that, first as a need-based job, but also quickly took over my focus as I pursued several different certifications and absorbed as much understanding of both sales techniques and the human body as possible.

And all the while, nursing a history habit that I still haven’t been able to kick.

Eventually, I managed to get back to composing, but not until about 10 years had transpired between grade-school- and university-level study.

I say all of this not to toot my own proverbial (or literal) horn. But when I introduce myself to people in non-musical settings and tell them that I am a composer, I often get the reaction that I “don’t look like a composer.”

I’m not entirely certain what that means, and similarly I can’t tell to whom exactly it is insulting.

But it does, to me, demonstrate that there is still this overarching view of artists as being a specific sort of way.

What, exactly, SHOULD we look like? As artists, I mean. And why can’t an artist also look like two different artists at the same time.

I have been guilty of presuming judgement upon other artists’ second professions as well.

When some composers attempt to write their own libretto, I can barely restrain my eyes from rolling.

Just hire someone else who actually knows what their doing.

Stay in your lane.

Obviously, this is horrifically unhelpful feedback. Because, often, it seems that simply adding that second vocation is exactly what an artist needs to stay balanced in the first.

The exhaustion of one is the rejuvenation of the other.

And anyone who creates, knows that sometimes it takes a jump into another lane, or situation, or environment just to kickstart the process again.

And the ability to land on your feet when you do? That’s balance.

Dunning vs. Environment

I’ve been struggling recently with where to begin, with some of the things about which I have been thinking. And when I find myself struggling in this particular way, it often means that I’m simply sitting in the wrong room.

I’m not very good at routines. Or at repetitive tasks. Or any job, really, that allows me to remove my brain from the process of accomplishing it.

I excel, and feel better about myself, when I am constantly varying my life schedule and improvising. Naturally I am not a planner, per se, much to the frustration and chagrin of my very loving (and patient) partner.

What I have often found is that I can only recognize what sort of environment I need to be in to write, at any given moment, on that day.

Or even just in that hour. And it can change at a moment’s notice.

This week I experienced two very clear moments when the environment in which I was writing simply no longer was helping me to create.

Fortunately, I have become much better at attuning myself to how I am feeling in those moments, and was able to identify that I had lost my “flow” before I sacrificed too much time at the altar of The Internet.

To me, and for my creative brain(such as it is), the ability to recognize what my brain wants at any one moment has begun to be vitally important in my creative process.

An important part of this process has been an attempt to relax my brain’s need to only push myself.

Throughout my 8 years of military service, I learned a single speed of operating: As Fast As Possible. Results should be delivered… immediately. If not sooner.

This is a valuable work rate to learn, within the understanding that the tasks during which this workrate is employed are usually a) finite, b) brawn-heavy rather than brain-heavy, and c) performance-oriented.

Digging foxholes, for example(in the modern military, not an oft-employed skill, but one that most people can understand, regardless of background).

After my 8 years of service, I then began work in various aspects of the fitness industry for several years.

Again, when considering one’s fitness, it is often necessary to Do Things at speed.

Any trained professional would counter that it isn’t always necessary to do things quickly, and in fact often more beneficial in the long run to perform them slowly, to which I would respond, “You’re right, and 32-year-old me wishes that 26-year-old me had learned that lesson.”

(Fitness is a difficult example to use here, because you can’t transfer your fitness environment, necessarily. The gym is the gym. And thanks to the way the industry works, you generally pay for the one gym and just go there until you die. But bear with me.)

The sum of the majority of my professional experience, therefore, is that success, in life, is about speed.

Sometime around the first half of 2015, I found myself sitting on a bench in Copley Square in Boston, MA, with a good friend of mine. We’ll call him Sean.

Sean is a very talented musician in his own right, and has done a lot of work in his own field, all while balancing a very busy schedule also in the fitness industry.

His work rate and drive and determination is impressive. As someone who was taught that speed and focus are the two most important aspects of being an adult, I looked up to him a great deal.

We sat on this park bench and I told him I was considering leaving my job to go pursue composition full-time at New England Conservatory.

He looked at me genuinely puzzled, and asked why I needed to leave my job in order to go and do that. In his mind, the environment he was in was already conducive to the creation of his own art, and he was consistently productive.

The fact that I might find that identical environment frustrating or inhibitive simply could not make sense to him.

And, to be honest, that comment stuck with my for a very long time. I felt like I must be less of an artist if I need a different environment.

Why couldn’t I just create, exactly where I was? What was wrong with my ability to write and find inspiration in my daily life just as it was at that time?

I couldn’t answer at the time, and I left that conversation angry and frustrated with both myself and Sean. He was very forceful with his opinion and challenged my thought process incessantly.

The real difficulty with this conversation, is that it is based on the presumption that creative work happens similarly for everyone. Obviously this is not the case, and to be honest, not one single thing in life happens in identical ways for different people.

Why art might be different is beyond me. In my opinion, the confusion arises in the fact that the only quantitative measurement for art is simply that: quantity.

How much Stuff do you Make? By this measurement, he had me beat by MILES. Luckily – for all of us – quality has more than one dimension.

I recently had a conversation with my partner and a few friends about environment, as part of my thought process for this blog.

My question to them, and to you, is: did you find your environment, or did it find you? Both approaches are valid, and there are many fine examples of artists in both camps.

I am someone who tends to try to find the environment I want to be in, in a pretty proactive way. Even my current situation, while influenced by the realities of life, is the result of a choice I made to create this situation.

I knew that I needed change, and drastically, so I found the place that met both that need along with my limitations. I still consider that a choice, informed by my growing understanding of what my creative impulses need in order to grow.

And this, to me, is one of the biggest and most important points of all: creativity might require something new from an artist.

If we ask the Muse to help us to produce a new idea, doesn’t it also follow that perhaps we need to give It(Her? Him? Them?) new ideas in the first place?

I have found myself listening to my brain more and more, and allowing it to tell me when it isn’t functioning.

The result has been a change in the manner in which I write, the time spent writing, and the resultant moods in which the writing process then leaves me.

Anyone who’s spent time either as or with a creative person, knows that there are days where your/their creative process leaves you/them MISERABLE.

We doubt ourselves, we beg the Muse for ideas or inspiration, we rail against the clock and against our inability to just stay focused.

I say this not to absolve anyone in a creative field of the responsibility for maintaining productivity. On the contrary, my point is that we need to be aware of how we are reacting to the stimuli around us.

Our brains are constantly informing us of how it feels, if we can take the time to listen. The age-old adage of just putting your head down and tunneling through the tough days is only partly applicable, really.

Sometimes you do, in fact, just need to do the %@$#ing work.

However, in a normal day-to-day setting, maybe the problem isn’t that you can’t write. Maybe the problem is that you haven’t found the place that stimulates you to write.

Not having ideas isn’t the main problem with not having ideas. Not being in a place (mentally, spiritually, but really just physically) that allows you to explore your own thoughts and scour the corners of your life experience might be more of a problem than anything else.

The end of the above story is this. I discovered, in returning to school, an environment wherein I was stimulated to write.

As a result, I wrote. I learned, and I discovered, and I developed, and I learned some more. There is no shame in the fact that I needed that environment in order to re-discover a creative habit.

There shouldn’t be shame in realizing that, on some days, our butts are just in the wrong seats.

Maybe what we need to spend more time doing is finding the seat that faces us in the correct direction, instead of stubbornly beating ourselves to death by simply sitting in the wrong room.

Dunning vs. The Universe

There’s an irony to my current situation. I know I have something to say about creative blocks, and yet here I sit, staring at a blinking cursor. What I want to say isn’t really all that creative. Not really. And yet I’m still blocked from saying it. What are we to make of these sorts of situations? What do they say about us as artists? What really is the Thing that defines our art? I would say that what makes us art are the moments between when we actually make our art.

 

There are as many ways to approach the process of writing music as there are people who do it. I know composers who can’t go hours without creating; I know composers who will do nothing for weeks and then write manically for hours and days; I know composers who are constantly considering the sounds around them; I know composers who simply write when it is time to write, and switch off otherwise. I am, generally speaking, one of the latter types. My current projects will sit idle in my brain when I am not actively writing them. My relationship to composition is not an overly romantic one: I can survive for long periods of time without creating, I am not tortured by my ideas (usually - admittedly sometimes things just are TOO GOOD to allow to pass by), I don’t often feel a sense of uneasiness if I haven’t created something in “x” number of hours/days/weeks.

 

For much of the last few years, as I’ve begun my walk down this artistic and creative road, I have struggled with comparisons of my process with other creative types. If I’m not the tortured artist, if I don’t feel completely possessed to write, if the creative process is sometimes(often) difficult or painful or irritating or frustrating, am I really the thing I claim to be? Shouldn’t I simply love the thing I make? The truth is that I don’t have the answer to those questions. I’ve often been told, “You are what you tell yourself you are.” Neil Gaiman talks about pretending that you are the type of person you want to be(artist, composer, writer, actor, comedian, etc) and then simply acting like that person would in your current situation. Fake it till you make it. And there is a small amount of solace in that. However, that doesn’t answer a number of other questions that I often have. Namely, “how the <bleep> do you fake being creative?”

 

Many artists are (painfully) aware of the Imposter Syndrome: the feeling that at any moment someone will discover that you are, in fact, a fraud, and inform you that your time has run out; it is time for you to get a real job because nobody believes your claim as an artist anymore. It’s a well-documented affliction for creative types the world over. There is an inverse to this syndrome, known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dr. David Dunning, one of the social psychologists responsible for the study and the inspiration behind the title of this blog, said the following:  "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."(1)

 

For me, the struggle to balance confidence in my creative output alongside an honest and realistic assessment of self has led to crippling self-doubt, at times. How can anybody really be able to tell if they don’t actually suck? How are we to know if we are the thing we intend to be? And if the thing we intend to be is creative in any way, and we know neither how to be creative, or how to even pretend to be creative, what do we even do to get past that?

 

Again, when I ask myself that question, I get crickets. From my own brain. And this really is the essence of this whole project. I want to know how other people navigate this terrain, and negotiate with the muses on their own terms, an artist’s terms. It’s one thing for people to talk about the process of simply sitting down to write on a daily basis, or creating time and space in your day to allow creative thoughts to happen. The things that interests me the most are the different ways we  as artists implore, or cajole, or solicit, or demand help from the creative powers that may (or may not) exist. When an artist stands before a blank canvas, where do they get their specific impetus to draw the first line? When a writer sits down with pencil in hand, why is the first word they choose that very specific one? And when I, as a composer, begin the work of writing something new, why do I choose the sounds I do?

 

Stay tuned. There’s about to be a lot more.

 

(1) Dunning, David (2005). Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself. New York: Psychology Press. pp. 14–15.