'I Can't Write Music and It's Killing Me!'
Get up and tell the truth.
Blue Hill No. I (1916) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I'm going crazy because I am a creative person who needs to be creative (otherwise I'll die!) and who can't, or doesn't, create. Not even in the sense of horrific "content-mill" creation. Not even in the sense of imposter syndrome, where I'm not as good as my peers (genuinely true, but not my neurosis of choice). I mean that I need to be making music, I want a career in it, and I have done neither.
As a bit of background, I have loved, played, and taught myself my instrument since I was young, though after a frustrating two years in college department lessons, I have slowed way down. I have never composed until this January, the final semester of my music degree, in a liberal arts school that prioritized interstudies knowledge rather than specificity, as a conservatory would. After I took that class I thought to myself: I want to do this. I want to compose and make my own music! So simple. I used to want to be a rockstar! I dreamed about it! This was cleaner, I thought.
Now, six months out of graduation, I would settle for a job in any part of the field. But I can't seem to find anything—any apprenticeship, internship, part-time or full-time job—that means making music. It's frustrating, but maybe I'm not looking hard enough. But back to the bigger problem. I don't know how to make music, and I don't know how to start.
I'm not unfamiliar with the theoretical/overarching artistic process, the staircase-like graph of progression and satisfaction with my own art. Around four years ago I started teaching myself to draw portraits, and for around two years I drew something, anything, every day. My commitment level has dropped since then, which is also extremely depressing—when I feel like I'll die of being uncreative, I no longer feel like I can will it away by drawing something good. In truth, I feel years away from drawing something beautiful. (I know it's stupid to make art just for beauty but god does it help with motivation!) Thinking about it that way, it feels like my drawing skill is just four years ahead of my compositional skills: not likely to get me a career anytime soon. (Decades, not years.) (Yes, this is beyond dramatic.)
I know I cannot externally motivate myself by reading your words in a newsletter, but please, Polly, I need help. I am mired. I am angry. I don't know how to do this impossible, simple thing. I don't know how to set aside the despair and shame of being unable to make music in order to make music. My family says to start small, just four bars! Self-help books (boo!!) say to create habits (hard!!). My various newsletters say to recognize the desire of what I want to create, and yet I know myself to be unoriginal, desiring more to consume from others than to make myself. And yet. And yet.
I have to do this, I just don't know how.
Trying to Create
This morning I woke up at 5 am because that’s when the pieces of my puzzle fit together neatly, they don’t have to be forced. But this morning, when I sat down to write, all I came up with was this:
I feel like a sullen toad that just wants to hibernate.
We have frogs and toads in our backyard here in North Carolina. For months, they were always sitting there by the tiny pond when we took the dogs outside. The smaller ones would leap into the water when they saw us. They’d make a high-pitched “Eeep!” and the dogs would go nuts. The sound of fear! Like a squeaky toy!
But the big bullfrogs and the extra large toads wouldn’t move at all. They’d just sit and stare at us. At night, their eyes shine in the dark. It’s extremely weird to see two eyes glowing, never blinking, staring at you matter-of-factly. The vibe isn’t predatory at all, since they don’t crouch or sneak so much as sit on their butts. It’s just: HELLO. I AM HERE. I LIVE HERE ACTUALLY. YOU ARE NEW. WHAT ARE YOU?
Sometime before the first frost, the frogs and toads disappeared. Google suggests that they’re hibernating, but it’s hard to picture them, digging into the cold, soggy ground, making a little cave there in the dark, and taking a long nap. I hope they’re at least dreaming of fun, adventurous things, like eating fat flies and running away from Copperheads.
I’ll bet when a toad first starts digging, it’s worried about the cold air. I’ll bet it feels tired and a little chubby from a summertime of munching flies and mosquitoes. Maybe it feels like it’s giving up, giving in. Maybe it feels like it’s being unnecessarily neurotic about the chill in the air. But once it’s in its little cave, nestled in some dry leaves (okay this is the Disney version of hibernating but roll with me, motherfuckers), it feels sleepy in a good way, like the Sleepytime Tea bear. It’s all cozy in its little froggy jammies and it just had a nice cup of hot tea and now it’s ready to nap for oh, three or four months, maybe five.
As our toad friend is drifting off to sleep, does it say, “I need a fucking job”? Does it mutter about burnout, or write a long newsletter post about its deepest insecurities? Does it compare itself to the frogs, who are pretty different and therefore a very bad source of data on What Is Wrong With Me, A Toad? As its eyes are closing involuntarily, does it pry them open in order to ask another toad HOW DO I STAY AWAKE LONGER?
No. It says I AM HERE, IN MY CAVE. I AM TIRED. And then it goes to sleep.
At the start of this letter, I thought about telling you that I probably can’t help you. I was good at this advice thing once, but maybe not anymore. I’ve had a very hard year. I’m adjusting to a new life in North Carolina after 30 years in California. I’m on a drug that fucks with my moods. I have kids who are becoming adults, so they need a more sophisticated and thoughtful level of attention now. They need warmth and patience. (What Is Wrong With Me, A Toad?)
So what do I have to offer? I certainly understand how it feels to give up. I returned to writing music myself, last year, and then I stopped because it was too emotionally draining. And what do I know about creating? I have three other pressing deadlines staring me in the face at this moment, and they all feel daunting, if not impossible. I need to write something inspired today, something amazing and poetic. I also need to mow the grass and rake the leaves and exercise. I need to make some important decisions, organize my life, send out some galleys of my book, go grocery shopping. I don’t feel inspiring or inspired. I feel tired and boring.
So what can I do?
I can move from my chair to my treadmill desk and start walking. I can play Chopin’s Nocturne No. 19 in E minor. I can sip some water. I can tell you the truth.
The truth is better, sometimes, than any analysis of what isn’t working and what might work. And the truth is that it’s hard to write music, to draw, to tell stories, to create, when you care about it a little too much. It’s a fragile dance to even call yourself a creator, to even expect yourself to innovate, to break new ground, to discover new routes to old miracles, to twist a melody into something bigger and more transcendent than a succession of notes. You can’t compare yourself to others, but you also have to do so in order to offer something truly new or different, something unique. You can’t work yourself too hard, but you also have to drag your brain out of the swamp if you want to make a little progress. You can’t just offer up whatever you have -- some little trail of sounds, some small idea, a sketch, an unfinished thought, a sensation – but you also have to.
You’re right that you have to do this. This is your calling. You’re sure of it. But you’re wrong that you need to know how. There is no “how.” You just empty your pockets onto the table. That’s all. It has to be enough.
Here’s more truth: I’m truly not special. I mean I like myself, I’m charming enough on a good day. But I'm not uniquely qualified for this job. I’m just a lady saying some words. And some days, I’m more like a sullen toad burrowing down into the dirt, hoping to nap for five months straight.
But I need to write. Sometimes I don’t know what to write. Sometimes I don’t know how to write. But I need to do it anyway. It’s just what I do. It keeps me alive.
The how and the why and the what don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the moment when I get up from my chair and go to my treadmill desk and start walking. I start walking because it’s the only way for me to force my sullen-toad brain into an optimistic shape. I mean, that’s my real qualification for this job: When you’re fucked up over something big or small, I get it! Because I’m the sort of person who has to have a fucking machine to walk on, just to write something worthwhile! I mean JESUS!
I am just a lady saying words. But I get up out of my chair anyway, and I start walking. That is all.
It’s time for you to get up out of your chair.
It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter if you have a paying job yet. It doesn’t matter that you’re just another person in the world who likes notes and melodies. It doesn’t matter that you had to bully yourself to get up, because you’re tired, so tired, and you just want to take a nap and dream about fun adventures.
All that matters is that you get up. Get up and start walking. Like a toad that needs a long-ass nap and doesn’t question it, you are a composer who needs to write music. Instead of listing all of the reasons you can’t compose music, all of the reasons you’re done, you’re doomed, and you don’t even want to try to make music, because it’s terrifying and disheartening and depressing, you will simply write some music.
What should you write? Whatever feels like the truth. Does it have to be good? Never. Should you stop if it sucks? Definitely not. You suspend your disbelief and continue, through the ENORMOUS SUCKAGE. I do it every day. There is a lot of sucking hard around here! Not the sexy kind, either!
You can write a song and it turns out to be Mary Had a Little Lamb. Keep writing the goddamn song anyway. You can compose some music and then, in the middle of it, you look around and you say to yourself, THIS IS LITERAL TRASH. I AM FLOATING IN THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH. You will keep floating with the trash. You will keep writing notes, recording notes, pounding out pure garbage. It will feel dramatic. You will sound dramatic when you talk about it. That’s okay. It’s who you are. It’s what you do.
The toad doesn’t die of cold. Why? Because it digs a little cave and puts its goddamn jammies on and makes a cup of Sleepytime Tea, that’s why! Because it is a toad, for fuck’s sake! It doesn’t worry about the future. It trusts its instincts.
The toad doesn’t say: How do I do this? I can’t remember how.
The toad says: I AM HERE. I LIVE HERE, ACTUALLY.
That’s how I feel when I start to write something that is maybe almost worth reading, and then it is worth reading. I remember that I LIVE HERE. First I am just a lady saying words, and then I am a writer. First I am a sullen toad, and then I’m having an adventure. And even though I’m a writer who has had lots of adventures, I can feel just as moody and frustrated and overwhelmed as anyone else. I can (and do) take naps. I often want to take a few months off. Who doesn’t? I read about the omicron variant last night and I know this is all very expected stuff but it made me want to put on my jammies and stay in my jammies for a whole year, sipping Sleepytime Tea, eating doughnuts, pulling the covers up to my chin.
When I’m like that, I can’t even whisper to myself, “But the world needs your words!” Lol, that would be fucking great, if I actually believed that the WORLD needed my SULLEN TOAD-LADY WORDS. Oh my god, what an incredible thing to believe!
NOPE. All I have when I’m like that is the faintest belief that I can walk and walking will help. Walking might make me write. Writing might make me a writer. That is all.
Will you get a job? Will you write great music? Will you achieve your dreams? No one can tell you that. But since I’m a fucking toad, I’ll just tell you right now that I feel sure that you will. I mean, it’s obvious in your letter, honestly. You know who you are. You just have to accept it instead of fighting it. You have to accept who you are and accept whatever you create.
This is not the most grandiose and moving advice you’ll receive in your life, my composer friend. That’s not the song that was playing in my head today, so that’s not what you got. I would’ve loved to give you a symphony played by a full orchestra, but all I had today was a kazoo.
This is my song for you. The words go like this:
YOU ARE HERE. YOU LIVE HERE, ACTUALLY. Pick up your kazoo and play.
Thanks for being here. Goddamn omicron! Let’s eat all of the doughnuts and take a nice nap today, because it’s going to be a long winter. But maybe it’ll be a long, incredible winter! Who knows? Write your thoughts in the comments and send your advice letters to askpolly at protonmail.com. Your support is greatly appreciated, every single day.