THE WAR OF ART – by Sarah MacNeil

As I write this on December 12th it’s impossible not to know that it’s Election Day. So many people will be busy casting their vote and hoping for a party to be in power that will change things for the better, as they see it. For some that might mean, ‘getting Brexit done’ for others it might mean voting in such a way that an independent Scotland seems a step closer. So many different people with differing views but what is inevitable is that some change will happen. Sometimes changes in politics or in our daily lives happen quickly and dramatically and sometimes so slowly over time that it’s hardly noticeable. Often it’s only when we have time to ponder and reflect that we can appreciate how interests, decisions and experiences have changed our lives. On this day I have been reflecting on the changes that have happened this year, not only politically but on a personal level too. 2019 has brought a great deal of change. The biggest change I have tried to implement this year has been to stop prioritising the things that bring an immediate fix of gratification or monetary gain, and to push past my inner blocks to realise a goal and potential that I have been partly neglecting.

My musical journey began as a child on the Isle of Barra at the Summer Feis. I started learning the bagpipes and the clarsach and my love for creating, playing and listening to music started. From then, to now, I have focused on reaching a musical potential and have placed a great deal of self identity in my music and creativity, something I recognise a lot in some of my creative peers. This in itself can be detrimental to reaching goals of releasing music and performing, as negative reflection on creative outputs can feel like a reflection on identity too, but this is a whole other topic! From music in school, to attending the RSAMD juniors, to studying an honours degree at the Scottish Conservatoire I have always been pushing and working towards bettering my potential and reaching for these goals. During time studying I surpassed my own expectations in some respects, winning competitions and getting opportunities to perform abroad, gaining a first class degree in music – I truly felt like I was on the right path to achieving what I wanted most.

After leaving the conservatoire however I stumbled across my first hurdle, with the prospect of no longer being a student and becoming a “professional musician’. With the need to make money and provide for myself I turned to the wedding industry and focused a lot of my time and effort on succeeding in this area. I have been really lucky to make a living from this industry and I really enjoy playing at weddings however I have felt that my creative output has been put on the back burner somewhat resulting in a growing frustration in myself that I am not fulfilling a potential. I heard John Cooper Clark, the poet, describe in a podcast how you have to be lazy to be creative as you have to have time to be inspired. That’s maybe an excuse but my love of creating music had morphed into habitual procrastination and something had to change.

The stimulus came through reading a book called ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield, recommended to me by Simon Thoumire (this book is also mentioned by Innes Watson in his forum blog and really is, well worth a read). The book is about succeeding in any creative sphere and helps you to ‘break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles’. This book helped me to reflect on how I had become expert in putting things off and inspired me to make the changes I had to make to achieve my goals. The chapter I identified most with is called ‘Resistance and Procrastination’. An idea that we invent false promises to ourselves that we are definitely going to fulfill our creative goals at some point, therefore falling short of this is not a failure but just a delay – you’ll make a start on them tomorrow. At this point, in realising this falsity, I decided not to wait until tomorrow but to make a small step in the right direction and I booked some time off to write music.

I rented a little cottage on the Isle of Barra, where my love for creating music began, and in March this year I went there alone with limited signal, no tv, no wifi (ahhh) and ultimately no distractions! Being back in this beautiful place that holds so many cherished memories really helped inspire me to write and I left the island with six new pieces of music feeling reenergised and ready to push myself back on to the right path. It wasn’t easy, in fact at times quite a struggle and now when listening to a musicians polished performance or new release I realise the success is not only in the final product but the amount of self-doubt, procrastination and resistance that was most likely pushed past in order to create anything at all.

The next step was to record the music I had written in Barra and release it as an EP but with limited experience in this and no funding, I had to really push myself to keep making progress. I also wanted to write for string quartet to accompany my initial compositions, something I have never done before and I spent many a late night with the tinny and irritating Sibelius instruments by my side. I found that once I started I could spend hours writing and ultimately enjoyed the process but again prioritising and choosing to put the immediate gratification of a night out on hold; saying no to opportunities to perform at corporate gigs or weddings all in order to invest in something that was too far into the future to visualise, was difficult.

In October this year I was thrilled to record the EP at Glow Worm studios with the brilliant Andrea Gobbi and was delighted to have Patsy Reid play the string parts I had written. Hearing it all come to life really felt amazing and now as the masters go to print I am so delighted that I pushed past my own resistance and achieved something I am really proud of.

In an age of social media with everyone sharing only their “highlight reels” we are creating a surface level façade whether intentional or not, and with traditional music being such a tight community, with many of our musician friends online, the art of comparison can leave us feeling diminished somewhat. It can be tempting to take part in this, and portray a level of success and achievement… and even to start believing it ourselves. But I personally believe amongst this façade and in the wake of honesty considering our mental health perhaps it is more important to own up to the struggle, the pressure, the procrastination and resistance that naturally go hand in hand with our creative projects. Yes the end product is definitely worth it…. But the struggle is real!

So despite who you voted for today, or didn’t, I hope you agree with me that changes do occur but for positive change in your own life, to meet your own goals, you sometimes need to reflect on where you are and where you want to be and just make it happen.

The title track from Northbay:

The EP Northbay will be released on the 17th of January available online and at all streaming applications with a launch at Celtic Connections also on the 17th of January in the Tron Theatre at 8pm

Artwork by Orla Stevens