An Artist’s Dilemma: Should I Move to a Cave?
As a musician, I crave artistic growth. Nothing scares me more than stagnation. I have this vision for the music I need to create, and there's so much left to learn first! Yet juggling life’s daily challenges while attempting to find enough time for meaningful creativity usually leaves me frustrated (and un-practiced). After struggling with this for years, I’m finally asking myself: Should I move to a cave?
Every Sunday afternoon, I sit down with a strong cup of coffee and Google Calendar to map out my week. I block off time to teach lessons, a few freelance editorial projects, and any upcoming shows. After throwing in the gym, personal obligations, housework, and breaks (I guess), I fill in the rest with practice/composing time. At this point, I usually feel pretty good about the amount of time I’ve blocked off!
The problem, of course, is that the week never goes the way I very optimistically planned it. Work takes too long, I get a last-minute offer to play a gig I can’t turn down, my car breaks down. Whenever my day gets screwed up, guitar time is the first thing out the window. It’s the most expendable, because there’s no external consequence to missing it. No one complains or yells at me if I don’t compose. I don’t get paid more if I practice. But I know I’m not meeting my goals as a musician. Instead I’m always left promising myself that next week will be different.
Hence the cave solution.
Mental Real Estate
When I first moved to Boston, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a full-time musician; in fact, I was sure that I didn’t want to be one! But I still tried to compose and perform on the side of my two jobs (non-profit administration and pizza delivery, for those curious). That didn’t work super well, as you can imagine. It took me over two years to write enough material for an album.
Eventually, a fire started growing in my bones and I had to admit to myself that I actually did want to do this music thing. I was still working two jobs, having swapped out my pizza delivery job for teaching piano. Between juggling fundraisers and teaching “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” artistic growth was not really much of an option (although I did become an master of nursery rhymes!).
I tried to find ways around this, setting up lengthy practices for when I would get home from work at 7 pm. I could do this for about a week at a time before reaching exhaustion. Back then, I thought it was simply a lack of time. But I’ve realized that the actual problem was a lack of mental real estate.
Mental space is finite, and a certain amount of breathing room is necessary for creative flow. Each commitment in life (work, relationships, self-care) takes up a small plot in your mental neighborhood. These days, I’m lucky enough to work about half-time. And although my mental real estate is significantly emptier than it used to be, you need a lot of land to build an artistic palace, so to speak.
Carving out the space for creative pursuits clearly requires a certain life-ruthlessness: you have to be very careful about how you spend your time and mental energy. For most people, this is very, very hard (myself absolutely included).
But is that enough? Figuring out how much mental real estate you need is important. Sometimes it feels impossible to lead a “normal” life and also an artistic one. I’m constantly feeling the pressure to expand the psychic territory reserved for music.
I feel this so deeply that it makes me want to move to some remote cave. OK, I don’t literally mean a cave (although I’m open to it). It could be a small hut in the forest, too! Somewhere without the distractions and frustrations of everyday life and work. Somewhere with just a guitar, a notepad, and preferably a toilet.
If I want to free up mental real estate, what other options are out there? Do I have to abandon the world and become a hermit? Or can I cobble together a life in which I squeeze as much music out of each day as possible? I recently made this helpful chart to highlight a few of the different options I’ve considered.
If you want to create extraordinary art, do you have to take extreme measures? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m ready to go full cave-mode just yet. One, I lack the financial resources such a step requires. More importantly, I feel as though my involvement with life, people, and even work gives me the psychological fuel to create meaningful art.
Right now, I’ve decided to put my current lifestyle to the test: how can I organize my life around squeezing as many minutes of music into each day? I won’t pretend to be a master of this, but here’s a few things I’m trying:
Blocking off non-negotiable time for art. If I don’t set aside specific time for practice, it really won’t happen. Instead of fitting in music around other obligations, I try to fit in other obligations around music. Practice is now non-negotiable. If I haven’t spent enough time with a guitar in hand, I may have to stay in for the night and practice.
Fitting music into tiny spaces. How many minutes of music can I wring out of each day? I practice singing and listening in the car between lessons. Ten minutes before a phone call? Time to get in a few scales. I listen to a new album of music each morning while getting ready for the day.
Getting up early. I don’t know why this works, but it does. Early for me means 7 am. I try to get up around then regardless of my bedtime. This can be very tricky for musicians, given how late we’re often up. But it’s so easy for obligations to take up most of the afternoon onward -- you have to get an early start on the day. So buy a coffeemaker and get to work.
The artist’s struggle is to reconcile art with life. We cannot escape life and still create meaningful art that resonates with others. But the everyday realities are often so time-consuming that it is extremely difficult to reconcile with the musician’s journey. I’m not yet sure that I’ve blocked off enough mental real estate, but it’ll have to do for now.
At least until I can actually move to a cave.