Waiting for the Magic to Happen

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Back in December, Dan Newman wrote a wonderful post about the living through that moment in the arranging process that lies between the groundwork and the realisation. This is how he describes the experience:

I’m currently in the Land of Potential under the Shadow of OverAmbition. It’s a scary place.

This is the point in the process I have described as ‘magic happens here’, and I think anyone who arranges regularly will empathise exactly with Dan’s description of what this moment is like.

He talks through all the groundwork processes: memorising the songs, listening to different versions, analysing meanings, researching background. Basically, getting to know the material in as many different registers as possible.

And then there’s that moment: when you’ve basically done the prep, but before the vision has cohered:

Somehow, I have to trust that my subconscious will start making decisions for me, giving me inspiration of how the pieces fit together. After much headscratching and tea drinking, ideally there will be some plan of action on paper before I start putting note to page (which will be another creative battle on its own).

Two things leap out at me about this passage.

The first is the point about trust. This moment when you’re waiting for your brain to come up with something can be daunting. It can feel like you’re empty, that you’ll never have another idea again. ‘What if I can’t do it?’ you think. And the important thing to note is that everyone feels this way at this moment, and you just have to live through it. With experience, it doesn’t get any less blank-feeling, you just get used to feeling that way and, as Dan says, just trust that in due course your brain will come up with the goods. Don’t Panic.

The second is the tea-drinking. Tea helps the creative process. It doesn’t have to be tea, of course; it doesn’t even have to be a beverage. Going for a walk is very effective, or having a shower, taking a nap, doing some gardening. What is needed is something to take up the front end of your attention without tying up the bits of your brain that are trying to get on with the arrangement. If you sit around constantly asking your brain how it’s getting on, it gets fractious and distracted – you need to leave it alone to work without joggling its elbows.

(Brief interlude to contemplate what a brain’s elbows would look like.)

But tea-drinking can stand as a symbol for all of those different kinds of activities as it a traditional and effective facilitator of thought. The ritual qualities of the preparation help (and all regular tea-drinkers have their rituals, whether of the warming-the-china-pot or the dunking-teabags-then-flicking-them-across-the-room-to-the-bin variety), and the process of infusion itself seems to echo the relationship between song and brain that’s going on meanwhile. There is that sense that ideas need their proper time to brew – if we try to hurry things along by pummelling the mental teabag, then the result is more bitter and tannin-heavy, less fragrant than it would be if we were patient.

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