Inadequacy and Existentialism: A List of Things I Don't Know
I wrote this a couple weeks ago, but it's still (unfortunately) completely relevant. I'm hesitant to share it with you because it probably won't directly benefit you or anyone ever. But here are some of my deepest thoughts anyway...
It’s Tuesday, September 6, and I’m sitting on my floor in my jammies, even though it’s 4:30 PM. I posted a blog post yesterday about finding who you are (as if I have any idea what that’s like), but I’m so overcome with raw emotions right now that I just need to write again. I don’t have answers to a lot of the questions I’m going to ask here, so contrary to many of my other blog posts, this is going to be more of an exploration that I’d like to invite you to go on with me. I don’t want to say, “Here’s a problem, here’s how to fix it,” because I can’t do that. Instead, this will be a little bit of a window into my brain so you can hopefully find comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.
I struggled all last year with feelings of inadequacy. As I flip through my journal to recount memories, I rarely find any actual happy feelings or fun events I felt were important enough to document. Instead, I wrote countless pages of things like, “I just can’t help but feel like somehow I’ve been lying to everyone and myself about my compositional desires and/or abilities. I don’t feel like a composer, but at the same time, I don’t really feel like anything else…” and, “It’s really discouraging to know how much time and energy I’ve put into an art form only to produce things that I’m not proud of at all, especially when I believe so strongly in music and its power.” For reference, those two verbatim excerpts from my journal were written almost a year apart: one at the beginning of last year, and the other very recently… This is something I’ve dealt with for a long time.
And unfortunately, it’s something I anticipate I will continue to struggle with. I strolled into my composition seminar today ready to learn, and trudged out feeling completely hopeless. We were going over the short pieces we wrote last week as part of a diagnostic test to see how well we could write within limitations while still exercising creative freedom. It would seem my music was completely different from that of my peers…
I’m not one to compare my music to others’. I know I don’t write like many contemporary composers, and I don’t always see that as a bad thing. It’s just a thing that’s there. However, the reason this particular class freaked me out so much was because 1. My music seemed elementary. It felt like I was using rudimentary techniques because I didn’t understand how to compose otherwise… I have a lot to learn. 2. I was feeling somewhat satisfied with my two pieces before I turned them in. I didn’t think they were the best 24 bars I had ever written, but I deemed them acceptable because I figured my peers would have similar feelings about theirs’. As it turns out, my peers were actually proud of what they had written, or at least they seemed to be. It always feels like when I'm listening to other people's music, it sounds way more legitimate than when I'm listening to my music... I wonder if that'll ever go away? And finally, 3. I realized the direction in which this industry is moving. And I’m not moving with it. In a post a few months ago, I compared the current social and political climate to a pendulum that I felt was on the edge of its rotation capabilities. I was kind of feeling the same way about music: “Okay we’ve had Shoenberg and friends. We’re going to start moving back now.” Except what I saw today is that the string that attaches the music pendulum to the center of its rotational axis is considerably longer than I thought it was. We have so much more room to expand, and even though I’m ready to pull back to equilibrium and keep writing in C major, the rest of the world isn’t. And (spoiler alert) the rest of the music world isn’t going to wait for me. I have to either keep up or give up… Right?
Like I said before, I don’t spend a lot of time comparing myself to other composers. Instead, my feelings of inadequacy come from the fact that I’m not doing everything I know I can do. Maybe my expectations are too high. Or maybe it’s actually healthy to be driven by high self-hopes. But maybe it’s really destructive to constantly compare myself to this Reagan 2.0 who does everything and does it all well.
So now it becomes a question of how much of my self-proclaimed inadequacy is based on truth, and how much of those feelings I should maintain in order to be humble and driven, but not crippled by fear of failure. And herein lies the problem. I don’t know.
But the more I think about my inadequacy and my music, the more I realize that it doesn’t matter. Another thing I’ve struggled with in the past year in particular is this whole existentialistic dilemma of what to do with the knowledge that seasons come and go, people live and die, and everything else follows. Embarrassing moments are soon forgotten, failures and shortcomings forgiven, but conversely, accomplishments are often left behind, and art eventually loses its original meaning. So does that mean it loses all important meaning? I don’t know. Wouldn’t the original meaning be the most compelling, given that it’s the most authentic? I don’t know. Is art worth feeling this inadequate all the time? I don’t know.
I wrote over the summer about how we just have to decide to do great things with open eyes, mind, and heart, and we can achieve anything. And I stand by that. But at the same time, I wonder what it would be like to create something and care 0% about the impact it will have. Ultimately, that’s the issue. I was pretty satisfied with my stupid little pieces for class, until I started worrying about the impact my classmates’ work would have on the music world, and subsequently, the impact mine wouldn’t. But when looked at in the context of my previous paragraph, it causes so much internal conflict for me when I worry about my music’s impact or lack thereof while simultaneously being completely aware that nothing matters at all.
What are we supposed to do while we’re on this planet? Even if children and art are worth leaving, the children grow up and die, and so must the art. So why leave either? I don’t know.
I don’t really know how to conclude these thoughts because they’re so non-linear in my head, but I guess I’ll try to wrap it up with a story. A couple months ago, I was starting a crazy piece that I really believed in, but I was getting worried that I wouldn’t be able to execute it as well as I had planned out the concept. I opened up about my frustrations to a close friend, who confessed to understanding my fear of inadequacy and failure on a very personal level. However, although I knew this display of solidarity should have made me feel better, I actually felt considerably worse after our conversation, which was unsurprisingly similar to other exchanges I’d had in the past with different musician friends. These talks always freak me out because I look up to my colleagues and their music so much that I can’t help but think, “Well, if they think they’re not good enough, then I’m DEFINITELY not good enough. I might as well just give up on everything now.” And I still feel that almost every day, not just in comparison to my amazingly talented peers, but also in comparison to people on my hero list who openly admit that they know they’re capable of more.
I don’t know how to get rid of these thoughts, I don’t know how to fix them. All I know right now is that they’re there, and especially in this new environment, they’re constantly being internally reinforced. It’s not even like anyone is telling me, “Wow, Reagan, it’s clear you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re definitely not as good as everyone else here. You don’t belong.” I know it’s all in my head, but I listen to it anyway. Why? I don’t know.
I want to clarify that this post is not an attempt to urge people to tell me that I’m good enough… mostly because my evaluation of my own work is mine and not contingent upon outside approval. My goal with releasing all these thoughts into the world is to articulate something I think a lot of people feel, and let you know the kinds of questions I’m asking, with the hope that it’ll perhaps lead someone closer to answers. I want other young musicians and composers to know that although dispiriting, these feelings and thoughts are normal and maybe we’ll figure them out at some point. But for now, thanks for going on this exploration with me, and I hope you have a wonderful day :)