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In The Zone

I have a confession to make. I am an addict, not to a particular substance, but to a particular feeling. The feeling I get when I’m “in the zone.” That is to say, when I’m in the throes of the creative process.

When I’m “in the zone,” I find myself dreaming about the music I’m writing, and becoming aware that I’m dreaming it, and forcing myself awake at 5AM to scribble the thematic ideas I was dreaming about in my manuscript book.

When I’m “in the zone,” I get on my bike to ride to Trader Joe’s, and as I pedal, I work out the entire arrangement of the piece I’m working on.

When a particular project ends and I get to listen to the finished mixes of what started in my dreams or as I lay awake before dawn, I am mystified as to how this finished product came to be. Its genesis is a blur to me, as if I were on the sidelines when some much more powerful force took over my body and brain.

The Ancient Greeks referred to this state as enthousiasmos – the word we derive enthusiasm. It describes an ecstatic state when the gods have taken possession of your soul. It’s heady stuff. It’s what I’m addicted to.

“In the zone,” every idea is a Eureka moment. In David Eagleman’s fascinating book, Incognito, the author suggests that our subconscious mind is working on solving problems long before our conscious mind gets the telegram that the problem has been solved. Studies have indicated that our right brains are firing feverishly and we’re not even aware that we’re cogitating. What may have been an ongoing subconscious process feels like an immediate bolt from the blue. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I get a distinct sense that I’m just a vessel through which sometimes pours a powerful, divine energy. I’ve spoken to lots of other artists and quite a few of them describe the same sensation.

You don’t choose a career in the creative arts because you want to. A want suggests that you could easily want something else – something more pragmatic. You become an artist because you need to – something is compelling you to take a path that may lead to a lot of heartbreak, frustration and rejection, and every so often, that ecstatic joy that starts with an endorphin rush and ends with a recording of a musical ensemble that you can’t fully believe started with you.

We all know the Thomas Edison quote: Genius is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration. For the sake of the discussion, let’s substitute Creativity for Genius. A lot more work goes into forming a piece of music beyond the initial addicting inspiration where a thematic idea seems to occur out of thin air. The perspiration part, developing, arranging, orchestrating, that’s the Craft that follows the Art. It can be a very satisfying process, but it’s not addictive enough to lure one into committing one’s life to one’s art.

When I finish one project, if another project is waiting in the wings, that feeling of being “in the zone,” will continue. I can keep going as long as there’s something to create sitting on my in box. The big problem for me is what happens if there’s a hiatus awaiting me. After the mad rush that is needed to shepherd a creative project from its initial impetus to its full realization, you want to decompress.

When the next project kicks in, I find it very difficult to get started again. Getting back to “the zone” proves to be a truly arduous journey. A lot of the music I write is on an unforgiving deadline. The clock is ticking and at first, I find myself flailing about. I spend a few days churning out ideas that are just awful. My manuscript book is filled with motifs that will never be developed any further. I’m like the stereotypical writer in the movie with writers’ block. You see a series of shots of the wastepaper basket filling up with the paper of flimsy ideas that don’t bear fruit.

After a few days of banging my head against the wall, the ideas come easier. I start waking up before dawn hearing the music I want to hear in my head. And then, I’m “in the zone” again. But those initial days of generating music that makes me hate my music are agonizing. I fear that I may never create anything of worth again.

I once took this problem to a therapist. I felt that those days when I can’t seem to create anything of value were not serving to pay for the air I’m breathing. It’s as if my artistic life is a toll road which I pay for with the quality of my work. I was really suffering about this. My therapist had a very simple solution for me: “Why don’t you visualize the first few days of uninspired torment as an essential part of your creative process? It’s what your brain has to do to get the juices flowing again. It’s not wasted time at all. It’s your warm-up for the main event!”

This was enormously helpful. I still suffer during those initial days of fighting my way back into “the zone,” but I do so feeling a bit more confidence that I will once again create music that excites and enthuses me.

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