How do you generate great creative ideas when you’re faced with the abject terror of the blank page?!
Here are my tried-and-tested strategies for composing music and beyond. These are the methods of idea generation I’ve actually done. They all work. The order doesn’t matter. Not a composer? They’ll work great in any line of creative work.
‘Freestyle’ to Access your Imagination
The strategies in this article all focus on freeing up your mind to allow your imagination to run wild without constraints, or looking at the challenge from a different perspective, all to encourage new insights.
1. Throw stuff at the wall (which will likely lead to what is commonly known as the ‘shi**y first draft’)
- Allow yourself the lowest of low standards (‘zero standards’ might be more accurate).
- Just start – one note after another, one word after another…
- Why not challenge yourself to write the very worst work you can?
- Promise yourself that this particular ditty may never see the light of day again. Take the pressure of creating something great first time away.
- Whilst freeing you up to create ideas freely, without judgement, this will also (ideally) get all the cliche and cheesiness out of your system to make way for something fresh and original on the next draft.
2. Go analogue
- If you’re used to working digitally, get out a paper and pen.
- If you’re writing music, pick up an instrument or sit at the piano keys and just tinker instead of going straight into the DAW (or the reverse, if that’s not your usual method of composition).
- Doodle. Sketch. Mind-map.
- If you’re used to communicating with collaborators in text form, go old school and set up an (appropriately socially-distanced) in-person meet at a cafe or down the pub to spitball ideas (with ‘throw stuff at the wall’ rules, see above).
3. Use a different tool
- Perhaps it’s something you wouldn’t normally use, or something you’re a complete beginner at.
- For example, you could buy a new sample library, or borrow an instrument. I usually treat myself to a new sample library somewhere near the start of a new project. Finding out how it works can spark an idea or two (or sometimes just focussing hard on learning something new can help you to really appreciate how much easier it is to go back to work on your usual tools).
4. What would [insert creative idol’s name] do?
- Get out of your head and into somebody else’s. But not just anyone’s: I’ve a number of composers and other creative geniuses in mind whose work I admire – for example, I’d ask myself, ‘what would Natalie Holt do?’ (have you heard her score to Loki? Lush.)
- I can pretend I’m them, and attempt to channel their gifts like they’re some kind of muse.
- If that’s a bit too tricky (or too weird for you), then in your mind’s eye have an imaginary conversation with them. Sit at your workstation with them. Where would they suggest you start?
- Your preferred master of creative idea generation need not be a real person – fictional characters are welcome too. For instance, a classic for me would be, ‘what would Spock do?’
- Close your eyes. Maybe focus on five long, slow, smooth breaths, with a hold for a second or two at the end of each in and out breath.
- Then listen. What can you hear outside?
- Now… what do you hear inside your mind? Wait for it… then write any and all ideas that come to you, without judgement.
These are all essentially ideas about removing the pressure and stress of limitations, looking at a challenge with fresh eyes and ears, using your unbounded imagination, and encouraging your subconscious to bring the deliciously new, creative ideas to the table that you know it has, even it’s just a bit shy.
This is the first post in a series of three where I talk about the tried and tested ways I generate my next musical idea, especially at the start of a project when faced with that dastardly blank page! Next, I’ll talk about the opposite of freestyling, freewheeling and letting your imagination run wild: in Part 2, I’ll impose restrictions on you to get your ideas flowing on demand, to a deadline, and within budget.
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Image: The characters of Lockheart and Freya sit at an office desk (onstage at Northern Stage, Newcastle), whilst they think and look at the blank pages of an open sketchbook, from the Department of Distractions by Third Angel. Set design by Bethany Wells. Copyright © H. Fenoughty 2018. All rights reserved.