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.