Listening to “Only Artists” on R4 this week Howard Goodall is describing the importance of breaking free from the “muscle memory” created through composing on the piano. Once your hands know where to go they tend to gravitate back there every time.
It made so much sense when I thought about my own songwriting. Why was I unable to write like other people? Why did everything I created always sound similar? There is a point at which style gives way to sameness and that’s because muscle memory sometimes gets in your way.
Given an exercise on a songwriting workshop once to write without using an instrument I was hamstrung. The newness was both exhausting and exciting. I struggled with making something which felt as if it didn’t come from me, followed swiftly by an uncertainty about its value, borne solely from its unfamiliarity.
We fall into the same trap when dealing with our emotion. At the point of a breakup, or any experience which causes us anxiety or stress. Despite all the evidence of past error we make the same mistakes and find ourselves in the same sorry state, the emotional muscle memory drawing us down the same hopeless path.
Received wisdom is sometimes no wisdom at all.
Every repeat of a past stumble strengthens the emotional muscle memory, making it harder still to subvert the next time we find ourselves in similar territory.
Ask an addict about the power of emotional muscle memory when fighting back after a relapse. The learning doesn’t necessarily make it easier next time, sometimes it makes things much harder because the instinctive unhelpful response becomes increasingly entrenched.
It is in making the often difficult swift right angle turns in our emotional lives which tend to create the biggest long-term shift.
In the middle of an argument with someone you love, an emotion unrecognisable from the brutal exchange of insult and counter insult, try stopping dead and telling your partner you don’t want to fight anymore because you know, fundamentally, you love her and you want to be with her. Try acknowledging your hurt and vulnerability instead of your anger.
I can’t tell you exactly what will happen if you summon sufficient courage to try it in such a situation, but I can assure you that the result will be different from the one you usually achieve.
If you frequently fall under the unbearable pressure of anxiety through your desperation to push it away try embracing it in all its discomfort. It might sound insane but something will shift.
Time moves forward anyway. Emotions ebb and flow like the tide whether you intervene or not. Your influence and the necessity for your action and reaction is far less than you imagine.
In short. Let go.
Your muscle memory cannot lead you into choppy waters if you release your demands and your iron grip on how things must be.
My songwriting took a back seat when Daisy was a young puppy. I moved the guitars away so she wouldn’t be tempted to chew on them. Picking up the ukulele one day she barked and barked at me as if her life depended upon it. It was exasperating. For a while, it was frustrating to be prevented from creating. But then came the realisation that nothing was preventing me at all. I don’t need any instrument other than my own imagination, my own willingness to do things differently, and anything suggesting otherwise is just emotional muscle memory getting in my way.