Creativity processes

I’ve been writing about my writing process, breaking it down into steps in order to think about the parts separately. This process of breaking the work down into discrete steps is helpful in other contexts as well. I benefited a lot from doing a similar thing with music while I was working on the Nosferatu soundtrack. The steps were different, but the principle of creating a repeatable process got me through the project with a lot less pain than I would have had without that structure.

I got some of this way of thinking from books like Sam Carpenter’s Work the System. It’s not a perfect book. I feel like it could do with more practical examples and less of the “look at how I turned my business around” narrative – like most books in that genre, really. But it does convey the mindset of thinking in terms of systems and processes. And I did most of the work on the soundtrack while using the work cycles system, which gave me a lot of opportunities to think about the process, make it explicit, and make improvements.

This systematic approach allowed me to see progress. By creating a repeatable process, I could see which steps I had completed for each cue. Early on I drew up a table of cues and steps, and I could visualise the progress as I checked off each box in the table.

Not only could I see the progress, but I could also predict it. I could time how long each step took me and from that make an estimate of how many hours of work were left. In summer 2020 I made a prediction of 300 hours of work, which had me finishing the soundtrack around the end of the year. It turned out to actually be done in early 2021, but that’s still a remarkably accurate estimate, all things considered. “It will be finished when it’s finished” is a poor state to be in for morale, and is sometimes avoidable.

A lot of creative work is just applying a lot of effort to an aesthetic problem: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But you do get to shift the proportions slightly by optimising the perspiration part of the problem. That’s the part where you have some sort of understanding of the work you’re doing, and so can make changes to the process.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years is watching Youtube videos of music producers and in particular, looking at the templates they create for their work. The repeatable process and the copying of techniques from other musicians is part of what makes these highly technical music genres possible. Indeed, a genre can be thought of as a set of patterns and recipes for producing music that have been developed and tested by other musicians before you.

So I’ve been creating templates or automation for various steps of my process too. One of the things that I did with Nosferatu, once I’d found a drum tone that I liked, was create a rack in Ableton that wrapped up all the processing that I was using so that I could drop it into each cue that needed drums. That not only gave me a speed boost from not having to recreate it manually each time, but it also gave me consistency in the drum tone throughout the soundtrack.

Making small tweaks to the sequencing of operations can improve the speed and reliability of a process. While working on mixing Nosferatu, for example, I would work on the bass instruments first to get a good balance on them, which then influenced how I went into doing the instruments occupying the mid-range. Standardising that meant that I didn’t then have to ask the question about the process for each cue separately, and it meant that after doing it a few times I had a good sense of how the bass and the mids would interact. If I’d done it differently each time, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have built up that sense so well.

Getting a good order of operations can be even more important when doing things that are time-critical. I always chop all the vegetables prior to cooking a stir-fry because I’m too slow to do it while I’m doing the frying.

Standardising a procedure is also an opportunity to work on the quality of the instructions, making them as easy as possible to follow. I’m frequently annoyed when reading recipes because the steps are poorly broken down. Consider this part of a brownie recipe:

STEP 5: Using a shallow 20cm square tin, cut out a square of non-stick baking parchment to line the base. Tip 85g plain flour and 40g cocoa powder into a sieve held over a medium bowl. Tap and shake the sieve so they run through together and you get rid of any lumps.

This is just the first recipe that I found. How is that one step? Putting the baking parchment in the tin and sifting the flour and cocoa are clearly two separate steps. When I find a recipe that I like, I often rewrite it to suit the way that I want to think about the process.

Creativity and defined processes are often presented as being in conflict, and to some degree they are, but you can think of processes as being a higher level at which you apply creativity. Choosing the right level to apply creativity at is an under-appreciated problem, I think. Jazz improvisation is clearly creative, whereas playing a Bach composition seems less so. However, the compositional process itself was clearly creative. And Bach takes that up another level as well, because part of his creativity was in the constraints that he created for himself – with the fugue structure, for example. So there are multiple levels at which you can apply creativity: to the performance, to the composition, to the process for generating compositions, and so on.

Cooking has a similar distinction, in that there’s a recipe, and the cook can follow or deviate from it as they wish. The process of cooking isn’t just pure inspiration at every step. The recipe gives you a structure in which you can exercise creativity. Even if you’re not explicitly following a recipe, you will still have patterns and constraints. I might improvise which ingredients I put into a pasta sauce to some degree, but I’ll almost always start with chopping and frying an onion. The most improvisatory part is often the choice of herbs and spices, but even that will be based on some established patterns of knowing how certain combinations work.

One of the factors that determines how much creativity you can exercise in the moment is the feedback loop between making changes and seeing (or, in this case, tasting) the results. If you can immediately taste the food to identify the results of adding each ingredient, then you can be very improvisatory in your approach. Baking, on the other hand, relies on setting everything up correctly at the start of the process and not getting any feedback until the end when the finished cake comes out of the oven. So then, rather than improvising, you’re doing something closer to running laboratory experiments.