Finding Inspiration and Cultivating Creativity

Where does it come from?

About a year ago, something significant started to happen regarding inspiration for song ideas. The impact of this was certainly an increased motivation to write music. It was also an important factor in the decision to pursue music full time.

Musical ideas were popping into my head at the moment that I woke up in the morning. I felt that the ideas were pretty good. Most of the time they were hooks to songs that would serve as a jumping off point. In fact, most of the songs that I have recorded for this album were inspired this way.

Again, I felt this was profound. I was fascinated. I tried to embrace it and encourage it.

To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and preciousness. – Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

In my experience, there have been two distinct approaches to songwriting:

  1. You consciously decide that you want to write a song. You pick up your instrument and you have a go.
  2. Something pops into your head. Whether it be when you wake up, when you are washing dishes or while you are in a grocery store. You continue to develop that idea in your head or with your instrument and put it together.

In the past, I had tried #1 and had little success. I always felt like what I was writing was forced and not very interesting. Also, if you have a particular instrument in your hand at the time, whatever you write will be influenced by what you normally do on that instrument or at least what that instrument is capable of.

So, like I said, #2 started happening. Actually, I think it was always happening and I just wasn’t paying attention. It strengthened my belief that creative work is not of our own, but rather from a higher power, whether that be a muse, God, or, as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it, your creative genius. She lays this out brilliantly in her 2009 TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius. The history of this idea is particularly interesting.

Near the beginning of the talk there is a very interesting point about creative ventures making us nervous and afraid like other careers do not. Even now as I write this, I am afraid of what people will think of what I am saying. Like, “Does he think his work was sent from God?” “Who does he think he is?” “He wrote a few mediocre songs. Big deal.” You get the idea. This isn’t about inflating my ego. It is a theory on the source of creativity that is interesting to explore.

Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here. If we are trying to think something up, we are straining to reach for something that’s just beyond our grasp, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives on high….” When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Dreams, Lucid Dreaming, Hypnagogia, and Meditation

I liked the melody a lot but because I’d dreamed it I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written like this before.’ But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing.  – Paul McCartney

Definitely not trying to compare myself to Sir Paul in any way, or compare any song I have written to Yesterday. This is the idea though. If something comes in a dream or in the waking hour it feels important. It feels like it came from somewhere else. You didn’t try to write it, but you listened for it. And, when it came you brought it to life.

I believe that dreams, lucid dreaming, hypnagogia, and meditation represent different ways in which one can interact with the subconscious. The subconscious is a place where inspiration can flow uninhibited and in a way that is pure and genuine.  These practices offer the opportunity to pull creative ideas from our subconscious and raise them to the conscious.

I have, many times heard music in dreams. On rare occasions, I have woken up and remembered that music. Lucid dreaming is a practice where you become aware that you are dreaming during the dream. People use this to not only heighten creativity but also to solve problems and increase self-knowledge. A good book on this practice is Dreaming Yourself Awake: Lucid Dreaming and Tibetan Dream Yoga for Insight and Transformation by B. Alan Wallace. I have had some very memorable experiences while lucid dreaming. I certainly haven’t attained the ability do it at will. However, I have experimented with some of the techniques and strongly believe that it is possible to learn this and derive great benefit from it.

So, how could this be used to cultivate song ideas? If you become lucid in a dream you can seek out these ideas. For example, you could ask someone in your dream to sing a song. You can turn on a radio. You could go to a concert.

Hypnagogia is a term used to describe a state where you are half-awake and half-sleeping. This could be while you are falling asleep or while you are waking up. In her paper, Consciousness and Hypnagogia, Sirley Marques Bonham suggests that “hypnagogia is the shortest path for communication from our unconscious”. I find this phenomena particularly appealing because being half-awake or half-conscious facilitates remembering the idea. The goal for me is remember the idea well enough to sing it into my phone, so I can work on it later. Conversely, pulling an idea from a dream can be as challenging as simply recalling any dream.

In this blog post titled, How To Use Hypnagogia for Creative Problem solving, Jeff Warren talks about some techniques and examples of how this has been used by the likes of Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali to generate ideas and solve problems.

Mediation is a practice that I have gained immense benefit from in recent years. I probably don’t need to say to much about this because it has gained mainstream popularity in the last decade or so. Fo me, it has generally helped me focus. More importantly, I believe it has helped connect me to a higher power or creative energy that made this music come to life. It is very much related to the previous idea of accessing the subconscious. I also believe it to be an essential foundational element in a lucid dreaming practice or in the effort to leverage hypnagogia. All of this requires the mind to be still and not chattering all over the place.

In my experience, songwriting has been a process of closely following what you are hearing in head and putting it on paper, into a recorder, through your voice or instrument. It’s hard to explain, but this is very challenging. There have been several times that I am hearing something in my head, but when I am humming or singing it out loud it doesn’t sound the same. Or, I will have an idea in my head that I am following, but can’t quite follow it through all the way to get it out of my head. To me, this is the challenge of pulling ideas from your subconscious to your conscious mind and meditation is one tool that I have discovered that can facilitate this.

Have you used any of these practices to further their creative work? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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