Somewhere in the homestretch of writing a new composition, I inevitably become convinced that the entire piece is garbage. By now, when I start a new piece, I know that this Day of Utter Suckitude is coming; it happens no matter how much I’m loving the piece, or how smoothly the writing has gone thus far. I become convinced—temporarily, falsely—that not only is there nothing redeemable about this awful piece, but that composing itself is meaningless, I’ve committed myself to a worthless career, and I’m a bad composer. I become briefly convinced that perhaps I should seek out another job, one where at least I’d be getting free health insurance.
I know exactly how ridiculous this all sounds written out, but that doesn’t help me reason it away in the moment. This feeling usually lasts 24 hours, or at most a couple of days. Each time, it feels like I’ll never escape
The Day of Utter Suckitude is different from the small, nagging instinct that a section of music would be better if I re-wrote it. That voice can be trusted. You can recognize the Day of Utter Suckitude because it encompasses an entire piece, finds nothing good about any of your work, and sends you into an anxious tailspin. Sometimes the Day of Utter Suckitude manifests so suddenly it gives you composing whiplash; you’ll wonder how a piece that seemed brilliant a week ago has become something you’re now certain you should destroy as quickly as possible.
During the Day(s) of Utter Suckitude, someone you know will ask how your writing is going. Because you have chosen this career—you got yourself into this mess—you may not respond truthfully. You’ll want to say: “Terribly! It’s going terribly. The piece sucks, and I’m pretty sure that everything I do is devoid of meaning.” You’ll want to say: “I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?” You’ll wonder if this is the curse that comes with having your dream career: that for a few days during the creation of each new piece, you’ll loathe everything about your work. You don’t feel as if you can confess any of this to another person, however, unless you’re talking to another composer who is also a very good friend, so you grit your teeth in response. You say something like, “It’s… going. It’s fine.”
Even writing this essay, I can feel it coming; tomorrow, when I re-read the current draft, I will decide that it, too, is the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that later, by draft four, I’ll have moved past that feeling; I’ll have revised a great deal, and it’ll feel like it belongs to me again. This particular brand of panic always passes, and the piece pulls through every time. When I’m done, it may not be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I’ll have fallen back in love with it.
Sometimes when I’m stuck in the worst part of my composing process, I think about the start of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. You enter a dark room and a door slides shut behind you. As the room lowers—it’s secretly an elevator—a narrator explains that the room has no windows or doors, which “offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out!” Of course, he says, “there’s always my way.” You look up to discover that the ghostly narrator has hanged himself from the ceiling rafters—dark for a children’s ride, no?—but then a hidden side door opens, and you’re free to move onto the actual ride itself.
This is the goal when we’re stuck: to find a way out. Even if I’ve convinced myself that I write bad music and no matter how much I temporarily loathe whatever I’m working on, that hidden door always opens. You don’t need extreme measures, either. You give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.
Each Day of Utter Suckitude is like anxiety: it mimics the feelings of actual physical pain and actual disaster, but it isn’t any of these. It can’t be solved, at least not immediately, by pushing yourself harder. Like anxiety, it may not have a permanent antidote and there may be no quick-fix solution. The only way out is, usually, to acknowledge the feeling, to greet it like an old acquaintance you don’t particularly like—“Hello, good to see you, but now I have to excuse myself”—and then to step away.
Right now, I’m in the thick of this with a piece I’m writing. I have the sensation that what I’m working on is not very good, is in fact maybe the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that after I’ve fleshed it out and revised the orchestration, after I’ve edited it multiple times, I’ll have changed my mind. The first rehearsal I attend will be like greeting an old friend I actually like: I’ll see all of its flaws, sure, but I’ll also love it in a way that can’t be erased.
But here, right now, I hate this piece with all of my being, and as usual, that makes me wonder if perhaps I’m very bad at writing music. I have to remind myself that this is the process. In my non-composing life, too, I experience anxiety, but I’ve learned to remind myself that I am in anxiety when it happens. It is temporary; it will pass. Here, writing this piece, I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.
Instead of letting “bad” days derail the composing process altogether, I’m learning to recognize when to push through and when to be gentle with myself and let the piece rest. Whether I push myself to keep composing or decide to take a break, my process is not disrupted. One bad day won’t derail the process; it is the process, and a single bad day or even a bad week of composing doesn’t ultimately have any bearing on how good a finished piece will be.
Embracing a routine where you hate your own work seems a little ridiculous. You may want a book on getting rid of the doubt entirely, a list of “10 Ways to Be Productive” that leaves no room for days where you loathe what you’re writing. You may reason that if you just optimize your time, determine an ideal morning schedule, and make a really effective to-do list, you should be able to skip over the stage where it feels like everything you write is wrong.
But composing, or any artistic pursuit, is a practice. In this kind of practice, as any musician knows, there is a stage where you’re confronted with your own inadequacy, followed by a stage where you meet your own faults without resistance. That’s the sweet spot, and that’s where you begin to improve. In the practice of composing, that brief, late-game feeling that everything we’ve written is garbage might have a purpose after all. It can lead us to finish the piece strong, to shore up its weak spots and make our way confidently to the double bar.
So much of our instinct when we’re stuck is to want to push through, to work through the doubt as fast as possible, to try to outrun it. But once you’ve learned your process, you’ll know what’s coming. You’ll know when to push through and when to give a piece 12 to 24 hours to marinate on its own before you return to it. I can’t drag you out of the really bad days with good advice. I can only tell you to trust your process, even—especially—when the process feels like doubt, like failure. This, too, is part of the process, but you know what comes next. You know what follows feels like falling back in love. You know that if you wait here just a moment longer, you’ll always find a way out.
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Dale Trumbore is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer whose compositions have been performed by ensembles including the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Modesto Symphony, and Pasadena Symphony. She has written extensively about working through creative blocks and establishing a career in music in essays for 21CM, Cantate Magazine, and NewMusicBox, as well as in her book Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life.