The Unstructured Life

Last week we talked about focus and time management while juggling projects. This week we are staying with the subject of time and taking a look from the macro level. Is there a more valuable commodity? It all comes down to time.  

Do you recognize this story: You have a day job but dream of the moment when you can be freed from the 9-5 grind and simply be able to create for a living. Right now it is hard to find the time to write but with that day job gone you would be So Freaking Prolific. Finally your opportunity arrives and you are released from the workforce into the wild of the freelance world. 

But a weird thing starts to happen. You are not prolific. Moreover each morning you wake up and it is hard to not turn to the comfort of Netflix, disappear into social media or simply sit there paralyzed with anxiety about how you are actually going to pay bills once your savings dwindle away. You know you need to write, you know you need to network, you know need to update your website. There are so many things you should do, you have the time to do them, but for some reason it is so challenging to do even one of them. Why?! Why is it so hard to do the Very thing You Want To Do? 

I have definitely lived this,  a few times in my life. It was so incredibly frustrating because when I was not doing music I was miserable, but then when I was given the opportunity to do music full time I felt paralyzed. I knew I wasn’t being anywhere near as productive as I could be. I didn’t understand what was happening until I read Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. He calls this phenomenon “Resistance”. His definition: “It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” Reading this book was a game changer for me. The book gave that negative energy a name, helped me understand it better and gave me tools to combat it. I just wish I had read it in my twenties, but thank goodness it came to me when it did. 

Understanding Resistance helps, but that is just once piece of the puzzle. Deadlines can really help with the issue of resistance and writers block. I think the most challenging time for creatives is when we don’t have a big project on our plate. 

The average period of time it takes to cultivate a full time creative career has been quoted to me by established composers as around 5-10 years. This is definitely my experience. Year 4 in LA, which was around year 6 of being a media composer, was the point where things really starting picking up for me (but I still got a long way to go, for sure!). During your “emerging” period you need to be laying the foundation and planting seeds for a long and fruitful career. When you don’t have back-to-back projects that take up all your time, you are left with the development work: improving your craft, networking, marketing, building a catalogue. This is the work which, i think, is the most challenging (and definitely the least sexy) work we do. Duke Ellington says “Don’t give me time, give me a deadline.” The work I am referring to does not have a deadline. It is constant. It is never ending. And like many painful things in life, it is absolutely necessary. 

Specific examples of this work:

  •  Become better at your craft: WRITE MUSIC! A lot of music. Have you written today?  Have you studied a score?
  • Network and build your web of contacts: go to a screening, go a industry meet up, a film festival, a filmmaker event about distribution of Independent film.  
  • Develop your brand: create a smart, streamlined and positive web and social media presence. 
  • Write for libraries or develop your own catalog for future projects: this includes dealing with meta data, the absolute bane of our composing existence but so incredibly important.  
  • Pitch for work: find new projects that fit your skill set and then put yourself out there, collecting rejections – get as many as you can! (Side note: read this article about rejection and we’ll talk more about this later). 

All of this work is challenging because it rarely has an outside deadline or up front payment. This is all investment work. The only person that will make you do this work is you. If you don’t do it, you will lose out down the road. There can be no trees bearing career fruit if you didn’t get around to planting the seeds. 

So how do you “make” yourself get to work? 

A resource for me with this challenge is the TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius – another resource I visit at least annually. There is a lot of gold in this talk but one thing she discusses is simply showing up. When I sit down to work I tell myself that I am just there to do something. I am not there to write the best thing ever. It is possible that I may compose the worst, least inspiring music of my life. But I am going to show up for this period of time and whatever happens, happens. Starting is the most difficult thing. Commit to that window of time and simple start something. Don’t judge what you are doing while you are doing it. Save that for later. 

One thing our brains like is not have to make decisions. Our psyches are often more comfortable in a day job situation because there are rituals in place: Monday through Friday you go to the job which requires waking up at this time and being on the road at that time to miss traffic. You don’t decide whether or not you are going to work, it is already in place.

Freelance life doesn’t necessarily have that built in ritual. Allowing your brain to not have to make decisions constantly about every moment of the day will relieve the pressure off your psyche. One way I handle that is deciding the night before what the following day should look like. Often I write it down. It also helps my brain slow down at night. Instead of “oh my goodness I have to deal with this and that” it is “tomorrow we are going to deal with this at x time and the other at y.” Things might change (that is the freelance life, it changes constantly) but at least I am setting myself up for success by preemptively coming up with a plan. 

One thing that can help you manage your time and your work is optimizing the space in which it happens (another topic addressed in Clear’s book Atomic Habits and also this article). If you have areas where you both work and relax it can create conflict when you are trying to get into a workflow. You sit down and try to focus but your mind says “wait, this is where we relax” and suddenly you find it hard to do the task at hand. Even in the smallest of spaces (I have a very cozy apartment) you can divide it up in a way where one area is strictly for work and another for play. Another approach you can take is using another space to handle specific tasks. For instance: you choose to go to your local coffee shop when you are dealing with your administrative work. It gets you out of the apartment, a nice change of scenery, and you consistently associate that coffee shop with the specific task, making it easier to focus and get it done. This is a straight forward but surprisingly helpful way to create structure within the blank page of your freelance life.

Let’s get real for a moment: being a freelance creative is extremely hard and it does not come with the guarantee of success.  The idea of being a freelance creative is very romantic, it seems glamorous and exciting. But it is HARD. You are living with constant uncertainty and it all comes down to you: how you work under pressure, how you manage your time, how you prove you are the best person for the gig. If you have taken on this life it is going to be incredibly challenging. If you want to be successful on this path you need to develop the discipline to be able to do the above. I am grateful every day that I get to work in music for a living. It’s amazing. I mean, I’m from Hobart, Tasmania and I now live in Hollywood, right by the sign, and I work on movies! Dream come true!! But it is a difficult existence. 

Let’s get even more real – this is a touchy one but hear me out: not everyone does well in the freelance life. It may not be right for you. Some people do not thrive in this scenario. I want to be clear: I am NOT saying creating isn’t right for you. If you have music or words or visuals inside of you they should absolutely come out. We need to see them. It will make the world better. But creating within the freelance existence may not actually help you do your best work! There is a long list of great creators and thinkers who had a day job for a lot or all of their creative life – check out some of them here. Some people are able to thrive within the structure of a life with a day job. Also it is important to mention the financial relief having a day job can bring. Financial stress is one of the biggest creativity killers. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a creative and having a day job – either part time or full time. In a town like LA it can often be a great way to network! You go to that job, you spend time with people, you make money so you can pay rent and by the time you come home you are probably tired but also hungry to create. You’ve been waiting to do it all day. Yes, it comes with its own kind of time management challenges but it is OK. You can do this. And maybe you can create better in this scenario.  Taking a day job does not mean you have failed as a creative. You need to make the best decision for you. Don’t compare yourself to other people, focus on making it work your own way.

For me I don’t have a day job but I used to teach music – met some film clients that way, and I still have a few students who also work in the industry as writers, editors, actors. I love hanging with them too much to not teach them. Composer Carlos Rivera met the director for Walk Amongst the Tombstones by teaching him guitar lessons. He recently scored the Netflix series Godless and yet he is still teaching at the University of Miami.

Part of my working life is doing “support” work – score supervising, orchestrating, arranging and additional music. At first I started out by doing music preparation. But I was warned against it, being told “don’t get pigeon-holed as a support person or people won’t see you as a composer.” I think this is false. So many great composers started out this way. When I do support work I consider it being paid to grow in my field. I see how other composers work and learn a million lessons in the process. It has helped me become a better composer and I’ve worked on some amazing projects. Moreover I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and for me it creates a nice balance to composing. It works for me. Now I’ve developed this work into a score production company called Joy Music House. This is my unique path.

In my support work zone, with wonderful composer Chris Anderson.

How you pay your bills and how the world sees the work you do is completely up to you. The way you brand yourself, what work you publicize, what work you keep private: completely your call. The most important thing is to curate a livelihood that supports your creative endeavors. (We will definitely be talking more about this later.)

If you are worried about your lack of gigs or career progress, look at how you are spending your time. How much music did you actually write this week? How many times did you pitch on a project? How big is your stack of rejections? How many new filmmaker contacts have you made this month? The freelance composer life is a lot of things – it is wonderful, it is fulfilling, it is (occasionally) kind of glamorous – but at the end of the day it is hard work and requires discipline and time management. This is something I fail at regularly, by the way. But each day is new. I know what needs to be done.  Every day I do my best to rise to the challenge. 


Next Week…..

We will be talk about (you ready for this) COMPOSING! The actual thing. Notes on a page, midi blocks on a piano roll. Also on Sunday Jan 27th at 1.45 p.m. I will be talking about composing with Avid at NAMM. If you are there come and say hello.

See you next Sunday.

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