I recently found an old folder full of puzzles that I had cut out of the newspaper years ago and never got around to solving. As I started tackling them, one at a time, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to objectively examine, and dabble with, my creative/problem-solving process, removed from my usual worlds of music and journalism, and see what I could learn about my creative processes. Your mileage may vary.
These puzzles had certain advantages: They were short (some solvable in minutes.) They were uniform (requiring identical modes of analysis and problem solving.) They involved the portion of the I.Q. spectrum which was not my strongest one, and they were not amenable strictly to logic.
In the past, we discussed how freeing up the subconscious through active enslavement of the conscious (video games, driving, etc.) frequently was good for generating usable raw musical nuggets (inspirations) for later refinement. In this case, the strategic objective was to find initial, successful reorganization of some given elements to achieve intermediate solutions which, when combined on a higher level, would lead to the ultimate solution.
At first, owing to numerous anecdotes of creative artists doing their best work upon first rising in the morning, I tried it. So much for that puppy. Any advantages of the “clean slate” were muddied by the fog of a sluggish imagination. (Remember, I was only tackling mental challenges of 5-15 minutes’ duration each, and I was looking for the quickest path to workable answers.)
Neither did the approach of inconsistent, catch-as-catch-can attempts to capture lightening in a bottle by sitting down in front of the pile in a random, undisciplined manner. I also didn’t seem to find success in marathon sessions, trying to solve multiple puzzles under some artificially imposed deadline.
No, what seemed to get the job done here had two main elements. Firstly, I confirmed that the enlistment of the subconscious mind in puzzle-solving was not just a matter of supernatural mumbo-jumbo, but a true, reproducible successful strategy. If I latched onto a puzzle and bull-headedly concentrated on it to the exclusion of all else, I found that such sole employment of the conscious, with its incessant, almost trial-and-error nonproductive dead ends, took an inordinate amount of time to find the elusive solutions. Conversely, if I made initial stabs at the component parts (just enough to get a strong grip on them without actually following through to the solutions) and then abandoned them for a period of time, I found that upon my return the answers came much more readily, undoubtedly due to processing by the subconscious during my absence.
That’s all pretty standard stuff, but what I flashed on anew in this experience was that, while the subconscious can toil successfully in the absence of the conscious, it can be inefficient bordering on the incompetent when the conscious is present and focused on the same task. The former gets eclipsed by the latter. Hence the value of “He who shoots and runs away, nails the target on another day.”
Secondly, I also found greater success through systematic regularity in my work sessions. Just as the muscles of a bodybuilder are best developed through the regular taxing and tearing of the sinews and fibers which comprise individual muscle groups and then letting them rebuild (and grow) with consequent rest, the mind has similar abilities to think and solve problems which become more efficient and streamlined with repetition and experience. The more days I continued to work at this little exercise, and the more regular the attempts, the more effortless the problem-solving processes became.
So what can we musicians, especially those with industrial deadlines, take from this little experiment? Unless you are the Mozartean one in a million, who is, as Rod Serling so rarely described any of his characters, “in complete control of the Twilight Zone,” exercise enough discipline to allow time for less-stressed creativity. If you don’t have the overall time in the budget, at least arrange your schedule to allow for the “fight, flight, then get it right” approach. Overlap initial development of cue B during “percolation” of cue A. Don’t dawdle; it’s the province of the ulcer-prone. Also, as your powers of creativity need to develop along the longitudinal axis of a project’s style, dramatic needs, etc., build regularity into your schedule. Fourteen shorter daily sessions will probably yield better results than 2 weekly marathon ones.
As I said, your mileage may vary, so do a little experimenting on your own to learn how your mind works – now, before you have a career-making (or breaking) deadline looming before you!