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Everyone Lies About Composing

Recently I read the autobiography/memoirs/random musings of one of America’s (and, in my opinion, the world’s) leading actresses and comediennes: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. I found it real and raw; an honest insider’s look at the world of being a professional artist.

​Within the first few pages, I knew that this book would speak to me personally. During the preface, Amy had this to say about her experience in writing the book (some words have been altered to make the quote family-friendly):

Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone” – blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of turds. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

​I’ve often found myself feeling envious of other composers, especially my colleagues. It always seemed like they simply hatch another great new piece every so often, and the performers and conductors would yet again shower them with praises, flowers, and gold coins, and all the while I’m over here struggling to get a few notes written that sound halfway decent.

In a big way, I was lying to myself on their behalf.

It is so tempting to view others' progress and success the same way that professional Instagram-ers post their content: a fully finished, perfectly posed, heavily photoshopped picture, with a nice filter to boot. 

It’s all a lie.

Composing, just like Ms. Poehler said about writing, is messy work. It’s hard on most days and grueling for most of the rest. There are a few days when you can write down forty measures with seeming effortlessness, and there are more days when you struggle just to get four notes down. And then other times you amaze yourself with how much you can write during a five-minute bathroom break. 

This is a tough job. Masterpieces are born one hard-fought note, one scribbled-out measure, one “I did my best with the time I had” at a time. The sudden, glorious bursts of inspiration do happen, but remember that they are more the exception than the rule.

So forget about that picture you have of the tormented composer, frizzy-haired and quill-in-hand, frantically scraping at the staff paper by candlelight, desperate to get all that’s in their head onto the score. It doesn’t work that way.

​And if someone tells you otherwise, remember it’s all a lie.


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