Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.
My first job, outside of working at the family restaurant with my parents, was in the accounting department of a Canadian electronics retailer. After my one-week placement there as part of the career preparation program organized by my high school, I was first offered a part-time position there on the weekends, followed by more hours in the summer. My official title was that of an accounts payable clerk.
This might sound pretty for a high school student and it beat flipping burgers, I suppose, but the job was mind-numbingly boring and repetitive. One of my main tasks was matching up the invoices they’d receive from their suppliers with the packing slips that accompanied the deliveries to the retail stores. These stacks of paper numbered in the hundreds, so it was a matter of putting the invoices in numerical order, then putting the packing slips in numerical order, and then matching them up. Over and over again.
That’s very different from what I do today. I rely on some level of creativity and originality with everything I do now, whether or not I have my muse by my side. I have worked without inspiration out of sheer necessity. As Tchaikovsky says, “this guest does not always respond to the first invitation.” If I were to simply wait around until inspiration struck, I’d probably never get any work done at all. You have to be willing to meet inspiration halfway.
As the great Leonard Bernstein once said, “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long.”
A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and today I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write today will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it.
The truth of the matter is that writer’s block is a myth. It assumes that, by default, creativity springs eternal and writers have constant access to it. It assumes incorrectly that writer’s block is the exception, when the reality is that it’s more like the rule. The “inexplicable glow of inspiration” arrives erratically, spontaneously, and unpredictably. You just have to be ready to greet it when it arrives.
You can’t give up on work just because you don’t feel like working. If you do, you may miss out on the opportunity of composing your greatest masterpiece. And even when you do come up with a brilliant idea, you need to manifest and coalesce what’s in your head into something reasonable intelligible. “Poetry surrounds us everywhere,” said Vincent van Gogh, “but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”
I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation, if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.
Unlike Tchaikovsky, I don’t consider myself a patient man. I suffer from this “disinclination to work” often, but I persevere through it because I know it’s worth it (and it’s the only way I’ll every accomplish anything). Potential and talent are meaningless if they are not realized to their full potential. That takes time. And patience. And a little bit of luck too.
Head on over to Zen Pencils for a glorious illustration of this quote from Tchaikovsky. Gavin produces some amazingly inspired work.