Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

What a Composer Can Teach You about Writing

It was a cold and rainy winter evening. My husband and I drove downtown, found parking and then ran through the raindrops to find the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Once inside, we were guided to a surprisingly large and airy studio and settled down in chairs with about 100 others. Moments later, host Sheryl Mackay and guest Rob Kapilow walked in.  

I then experienced 90 of the most entertaining minutes of my life. In fact, Kapilow — who is a conductor, composer and music educator — barely needed an interviewer. The man exudes confidence and charisma, is funny and has interesting and profound things to say about music and his life.  

Kapilow is fascinated by creativity — a challenge that faces not just composers but also writers — so I believe his thoughts will interest you. I could probably spin a dozen columns out of his talk, but I'll limit myself to the most interesting one.  

Among his many stories, Kapilow described how he received a commission to write a symphony to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Louisiana Land Purchase. "Imagine, having to write a symphony about real estate!" he said to a big laugh. But as he described his struggle trying to come up with anything suitable, it wasn't as funny. "When we're struggling with creativity, we're inclined to think it's an 'inner game,'" he said. "But it's not!"  

He then recalled a famous saying from the composer Igor Stravinsky. "Creativity comes from observation." Thus, when you're struggling with writing music or words, and your mind is a blank, the solution is not to go into your room and try to think even deeper thoughts. (Here, Kapilow mimed Rodin's The Thinker pose.) The solution is to get some outside feedback. 

Here are five ways I think we can all use observation to spark our own writing creativity:  

1) Talk to other people. But there's a key secret. Don't just talk to your friends and colleagues. Instead, speak with people who are different from you. (Kapilow went to reservations to speak with Native Americans for his piece Summer Sun Winter Moon. For another piece he went into gangland to talk to rappers.) Yes, this can be intimidating, but it's the best way to get new ideas and approaches.  

2) Read something that falls outside of your normal interest or comfort zone. If you're writing about the financial services industry, for example, read about the production of wine in France. Trying to write about mining? Read about Zen Buddhism. The suggestions here are arbitrary but underscore the point, which is to make fresh and interesting connections or find new and unusual metaphors.  

3) Write about something outside the topic you need to write about. Pushing your pen across the page or to having your fingers fly across the keyboard may act as a kind of jumpstart to the writing in which you are feeling "blocked." So find something that you really want to write about and get started on that. As well, you may find some unusual associations between the subject you choose, say, a fight with your partner, and the subject you need to write about, say, that annual report.  

4) Get some sleep before you write. As a student, I was interested in the theory that memory could be aided by sleep — and that therefore you should sleep directly after studying. Can't say that helped improve my grades, but there is evidence that creative problem solving, such as writing, is enhanced by sleep.  

5) Go for a walk. Getting away from your computer and having the stimulation of fresh air, noise and new visual distractions, can pull you out of that rut and allow you to have new, fresh ideas. As well, the rhythm of walking also seems to enhance creativity.  

I don't know why so many writers persist in adhering to the notion that creativity occurs only when you sit in front of a blank computer screen, staring at it. Does that sound like a good idea to you? No! Creativity is not the partner of discipline. It's the product of being open to differences, to crazy ideas, to stuff that won't fit into boxes.  

Instead of writing about a real estate deal, Rob Kapilow turned the Louisiana Purchase symphony into an ode to inclusivity. He held focus groups, put bits of music on his website and drove more than 5,000 kilometers across the U.S. to interview people he didn't know.  

Is that any way to write creatively? You bet it is! 


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 12th 2010, 3:17 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I’d love to hear this symphony, as I haven’t yet. Could you please let us know how can we acquire a CD having this symphony recorded on it?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Virginia L.
Fresh, timely and helpful. Find the idea appealing that creativity is about differences.
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: James E. (Tucson, AZ)
I agree with Igor. Observation is the engine of creativity.
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
I think that Stravinsky is describing some exercises that assist creativity but is missing the engine of creativity: priming. Priming is the act of asking questions that are of importance to you. When we ask a question we see the universe differently. Creativity occurs when an inquiring mind (one with an unresolved question), pardon the phrase, leaves its usual environment and enters an unusual one.

Creativity can be blocked by staying in our usual environment. Our mind tends to go down the same path day after day because it is guided by the same stimuli. It’s Newtonian; an idea in motion tends to stay in the same motion unless acted upon by an external force

Stravinsky basically said that you should talk, read, write, and walk in unfamiliar area. If you have an unresolved question on your mind your mind will try to resolve the question using the new information that the universe is providing.
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:45 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Sprightly and light...yet full of useful hints to crack that block. You go, Daphne Cary-Grant, er, make that Gray-Grant. Sorry -- but don't tell me nobody else made that gaffe . --TheErn

P.S.: Not to be picky but I caught a herring in the text, know what I mean? See if you can find it, too. (Hint: third paragraph up from the bottom.)
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Sheldon L. (Hilo, HI)
Hey Paul, I agree, our thinking can become singular in its views because of our drive and perseverance to "reach the end" of our thoughts. We know that the fastest route between any two points is a straight line and this mentality invades even the most creative without recognizing we're on that track. The "block" is the only way we catch ourselves. Thanks for the comment!
Thursday January 14th 2010, 5:30 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Whoever is still troubling oneself to answer my question, thank you so much for all your trouble, but please stop trying as I found the answer myself (see below):
http://www.schirmer.com/default.aspx?TabId=2420&Composer_2874=Kapilow&cpn_2874=1&ps_2874=100
Publisher G Schirmer Inc

Robert Kapilow , 03 (This New, Immense, Unbounded World) (2002) - 20 Minutes
Instrumentation SATB chorus; 3(pic).2+ca.3(bcl).3(cbn)/4331/timp.3perc/cel.hp.eb/str
Publisher G Schirmer Inc


As for experiments, I am very enthusiastic about whatever comes my way, especially when it talks about creativity. I began with outside feedback.


So, I got “some outside feedback” from Ambrose Bierce who advised that if I really want to talk to “people who are different from” me (1) I should definitely talk to the GRACES (“Three beautiful goddesses, Aglaia, Thalia and Euphrosyne, who attended upon Venus, serving without salary. They were at no expense for board and clothing, for they ate nothing to speak of and dressed according to the weather, wearing whatever breeze happened to be blowing”). For “something that falls outside” of my normal interest (2) I’m still searching, though, if I’ll find nothing, I might settle, at Ambrose Bierce advice for WEATHER (“A permanent topic of conversation among persons whom it does not interest, but who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned.”). For the third point (Write about something outside the topic you need to write about) I might take again Ambrose Bierce’s advice and consider NOISE (“A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.”), and in order to get some sleep (4) I might consider using some TZETZE (or TSETSE) (“ FLY, n. An African insect (Glossina morsitans) whose bite is commonly regarded as nature's most efficacious remedy for insomnia”) which will greatly help me going for a walk (5) into the FUTURE (“That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.”). Now, my topic being “on the necessity to know Derrida”, I’ll let everyone know if this experiment helped my creativity.


And talking about “the fastest route between any two points is a straight line” it occurred to me that when this axiom is applied to terrestrial matters, the fastest route between any two points is a curved line, as the earth is round.
Sunday January 17th 2010, 8:03 AM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
Thank you Daphne Gray-Grant for yet one more demonstration of your ability to practice what you preach in the "8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster>" Mary Lou Shields
Monday January 18th 2010, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
It was a great read indeed...Thanks especially for "Creativity is not the partner of discipline. It's the product of being open to differences, to crazy ideas, to stuff that won't fit into boxes."
Monday January 18th 2010, 3:07 PM
Comment by: arpyen (santa monica ca, CA)
Lovely story, thank you. Such extraordinary insight -- "Creativity is not the partner of discipline ..." Am I alone in observing that creativity results in something different as a result of the process "...open to differences,..."
Sunday January 24th 2010, 10:34 PM
Comment by: nobodyz Susan
[quote=arpyen] Lovely story, thank you. Such extraordinary insight -- "Creativity is not the partner of discipline ..." Am I alone in observing that creativity results in something different as a result of the process "...open to differences,..." [/quote]

That's what struck me most as well, arpyen: "Creativity is NOT the partner of discipline".

Pardon my somewhat idiosyncratic description here, but my first reaction to that sentence was "well, yeah, duh"....Then I went back to re-read the sentence because something bothered me about it (and no, it wasn't the grammar, which is fine!). In my pondering I soon realized what bothered me is how MUCH I have struggled with that exact and incorrect association and that is of hitching up the horse of discipline to the bird of creativity. Simply put, they don't work well together. Bluntly put, they don't "get" each other at all, in any way, shape or form. They are aliens to one another except that they are species inhabiting the same planet. Yes, they breathe air, so what? Discipline and creativity are both necessary for many endeavors in life since we all somewhat agree that necessity is the mother of invention. It's a simple leap to see that these two SHOULD somehow, work together, but they do not. And in fact, it also matters that one not do them in the wrong order: put the discipline before the creativity and you have buried yourself alive. No horses before birds here; the bird must ALWAYS fly first.

I am using the word "discipline" only when meant as the narrow definition of "self-control" in regards to writing. And I'm doing it for a rather large reason: when a writer is blocked, they are not fluid, not creating. The worst thing one can do is then impose the self-control (not to mention relentless self-flagellation for failing) of the act or business of writing. While the act works, the business does not. Anything having to do with writing, besides just plain writing (such as I am doing here, neither for profit nor foreseeable goal except for my own personal satisfaction) is not going to work. What works is just plain writing. Something. Anything. No judging, no editing......Editors be Silent!....in order to reinvigorate the creative flow.

All this assumes that first the pump of creativity has been primed by bringing creativity to us in some form of observation.

Thank you Daphne Gray-Grant for the article and also for focusing on just one of this obviously brilliant man's remarks. It gave me much to think about.
Monday February 8th 2010, 5:47 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the terrific comments, everyone. The interview was supposed to be aired in January (and then made available by podcast) but it doesn't seem to have reached the list, yet. I will email host Sheryl Mackay to see if I can get a date. Or, if you prefer, you can check her website: http://www.cbc.ca/nxnw/

To TheErn, I've never heard the expression "a herring" -- as relating to syntax or grammar -- but I assume you are referring to the sentence

"I don't know why so many writers persist in adhering to the notion that creativity occurs only when you sit in front of a blank computer screen, staring at it."

You are quite right. I should have changed the YOU to THEY. Is that it? Best, -daphne

PS: Sorry for the big delay in replying but we are rebuilding our house and I've been frantically busy lately.

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