What composer Rob Kapilow can teach you about writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Sometimes I get ideas in the most unusual places. Read on to discovered what I learned from a recent radio recording.

It was a cold and rainy November 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 you can use observation to spark your 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 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 Louisiana to interview people he didn’t know.

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

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