Choosing to Walk
In college, composition students are expected to bring a reasonable amount of new work to their weekly lessons. I never did, though. I'd bring in a few measures, or nothing at all, for weeks. Closer to the deadline, I'd compose in a frantic burst, then bring in several minutes of near-performance-ready music.
This baffled my professors to no end. One of them wondered aloud in a lesson how I'd written half a piano concerto—seven minutes of orchestral music—since he'd seen last me two weeks ago. I was proud of my frantic sprints, though; I thought maybe they meant I was good at composing. After all, I wrote a whole piano concerto in a month. If I could do that, I told myself, I could do anything.
But as a student, I hadn't yet tried any other way to write besides these frenzied, last-minute dashes towards deadlines. Although I used to thrive on those creative sprints, that didn't mean they were the sanest or most sustainable way to write.
When you sprint through your work before a deadline, you leave yourself no time to recover if you slip on an icy patch of self-doubt. A sprint leaves no space for days when you second-guess your decisions and would benefit from briefly stepping away from your work. There's no time to make sure you're doing your best work, either; there's no time for anything except writing as quickly as possible. In a sprint, you don't have time to work meticulously through multiple drafts, refining as you go and leaving space for the piece to rest between each draft. You become so preoccupied with finishing the piece that you barely leave yourself time to fall in love with what you're writing.
Back in college, I exercised the same way I composed. Struck by an urge to start working out, I'd go to the gym four days in a row and turn the treadmill speed up high, running as fast as I could (which, if I'm being honest, wasn't very fast) before I moved on to another machine. After a week, as work picked up, I'd realize this schedule wasn't sustainable, and then I'd go a month or two with no exercise at all besides walking to class.
When the urge to start running inevitably struck again, I'd be back at the gym, doing as much as I could as fast as I could. But gradually, the stretches between my sporadic workouts grew longer. By the end of my senior year of college, I'd actually forgotten where exactly to find the gym on campus.
I've since realized that I don't actually like running, let alone sprinting. I read recently that as your heart rate goes up when you run, your body thinks it might be dying, so it's perfectly logical that some people don't like this sensation. (I do not like this sensation.)
I now have a much gentler, more sustainable routine. I meditate and do yoga for about half an hour one to three days a week, and I go for long walks near-daily. As long as I'm at home, this routine sticks. If I'm traveling or very busy, sometimes I only walk once or twice a week. I realize the tremendous privilege of this, too: to be able to walk, and to have the time to walk for up to an hour on several days a week. I know how cheesy this will sound, but these long walks feels like a reminder to be grateful for the life and the time I have.
On my walks, I still set myself up for the potential to run. I put on workout clothes so that if the urge to run strikes, I'm not stuck in jeans and sandals. If I end up running for a mile, great; if I end up running for a quarter-mile, walking a little bit, then running for another quarter-mile, that's still great. And if I do nothing but walk—simple, straightforward walking, brisk, but by no means a jog—well, I've still succeeded. After all, my goal is to walk. Anything on top of that is a bonus.
I've stopped sprinting in my composing, too. Over the last two years, I've completely overhauled my composing process and accepted that I don't love composing in the morning. The hours between 1 and 5 p.m. are often my most productive, and most weekdays, I schedule the rest of my life around keeping those hours free to compose. When I have a piece due, I sit down to compose near-daily. I expect an hour or two of good work from myself. If I decide that I'm in the mood to sprint—to write for the whole day, or from 2 p.m. into the late evening—then I do. Those writing-sprints still feel exhilarating, but I don't expect them every day.
If I'm very close to a deadline and there's still plenty of work to do, I prepare myself to do whatever it takes to meet it. I'm ready to sprint again. Instead of strapping on literal sneakers, I'll stock the fridge with easy-to-prepare meals and warn my partner that I'm going to be lax on getting my half of our household chores done over the next few days. (We met in graduate school for composition; he knows the meaning of a deadline.) But I wouldn't want to brace myself for these last-minute sprints to the finish line every day. If I composed for eight hours a day, every day, I'd need much longer breaks in between pieces. I'd run the risk of burning out on composition altogether.
I've shifted my expectations for myself, too. On a daily basis, I don't necessarily expect my work to be good. Instead, I expect a solid day's work. I sit down and get that work done. It might not be great writing, but I know I can come back and edit the next day. I've built time for revising into my (slow, steady) work schedule, too. This shifts the goal of each individual day away from what I've composed and onto whether I've composed at all, which--at least for me--is the healthiest way to make art.
If I think what I've written is terrible and I need to step away for a day, it's like turning away from a walk early. That turning back doesn't count as failure. My goal isn't to walk far, or fast; it's simply to walk. There's always tomorrow, and the day after that, to go farther or faster.
I'm still capable of writing quickly, and if anything, my current routine intentionally slows me down. I can still sprint. I could pile all of my deadlines into the same month and meet each one in a frantic, breathless race to the finish.
But I'm happier with a slower pace, and, frankly, my music is better. Taking the pressure off of any given day of work leaves time for the music to evolve organically, rather than my molding it into the quickest shape it could possibly take.
When I do want to write a piece really fast—when the timing is right, and I'm bursting with ideas—then I do. Just as I dress for a run even when I'm just walking, I recognize that the urge to sprint through my work could strike in any composing session. Sometimes, as I'm starting to panic over a deadline, I still remind myself that I once wrote a 15-minute piano concerto in a month; I can do anything. But even when I'm writing fast, I edit slowly. I savor the space and time I've built into my process. I let each near-finished piece sit for a few days before I proofread it, so I can view it with fresh eyes and ears before I send it off.
When it's time to go fast, go fast. You'll know when it's right; as with literal running, you'll know from listening to your body and your brain when it's time to sprint as quickly as you can. You'll also be able to tell from feeling frustrated with your work, completely and unpleasantly spent, when you're overextending yourself and need more room in your process for rest and recovery.
For now, I do my best work when I compose the same way I exercise. I leave enough time to walk—briskly—the whole way. At the same time, I set myself up for the occasional sprint, or even a light jog, so that when the urge (or a deadline) strikes, I'm ready to go fast. I arrive at my destination either way, with a lesser risk of tripping over any setbacks that arise along the journey. Your routine may be different, but if you learn to listen to what your body and your mind need, you'll know when to safely sprint through your work and when to walk.