When expectant mothers are nearly due, they often begin fussing excessively about preparations for the soon to be newborn. The decor of the nursery will take on a heightened urgency. Everything has to be just so, or the mother-to-be will experience acute distress. This is nesting behaviour that we share in common with many, if not most, animal species.
I’m going to make an unsubstantiated claim about artists. We often joke about people that succumb to gear acquisition syndrome, who collect musical instruments, or who spend lavishly on art supplies or beautiful stationery. “All the gear, but no idea,” is the usual refrain. Writers who lavish time and expense meticulously arranging their writing environment or buying exotic pens or other writing instruments are thought to be acting impulsively or distractedly, by most observers. Their behaviour is often dismissed as mere displacement activity.
Similarly, musicians that take long detours to build their studio, or who get involved in making their own musical instruments or music making tools are often accused of taking their eye off their true goal, as if making their music wasn’t their real passion after all. I don’t think these mischaracterisations are entirely fair.
Recently, I’ve learned of three musicians that have been working on their music for decades, without releasing it. In every case, they spent a lot of their attention and energy in seemingly unrelated preparatory work, sometimes only obliquely related to finishing their music. During the incubation of their music productions, two of them released commercial software synthesiser plug-ins, while the third built a guitar manufacturing company and executive produced a feature film, among other enterprises. This, I claim, is a species of nesting behaviour.
If you think about it, birthing a creative work that you care about deeply bears many similarities to giving birth to a baby. Both are risky endeavours that will test your resilience and fortitude, not to mention endurance, in unexpected ways. The outcomes are initially uncertain. You are operating way outside of your comfort zone, learning rapidly as you encounter each fresh challenge. There is no rule book or recipe, so you are reliant on your judgement, most of the time. Nobody can really help you. You have to do it yourself. You’re also going to need a little luck. After delivery, your life is likely to change radically, in ways you can’t control or evade. There is the finite possibility of disastrous, devastating outcomes.
Accompanying the delivery, there may be elation and joy, or depression and grief. You might suffer confusion, because of the dilution of your identity, due to the new demands of what you have created. There may be troubling doubts about your ability to cope with the repercussions or you may find the responsibility of nurturing what you created quite all-consuming and overwhelming. There may be morbid regrets, disappointment or else the surprising realisation that this is the very best thing you ever decided to do. Typically, there’s no way to tell how you will feel until you experience it.
In both instances, you only put yourself through the ordeal of bringing your creation forth into the world if you have a lot of love invested in the outcome. Happily, the experience is usually rewarding and character building. You become a better person for the experience. That, I think, is why many artists manifest their nesting behaviours in long gestation periods for their best work, or in trying to get everything just right before they engage in the final, necessary, painful, agonising pushes.
This insight occurred to me quite recently, when a routine, automated, mandatory operating system update to my computer corrupted my registry without a restoration option, compelling me to have to reinstall the operating system and hence all of my music making and engineering design software, from scratch. In an instant, the creative tools I had configured and assembled, over a period of years, were swept away. It was like a bomb going off in the nursery. My data – the way my tools were arranged – was gone. Worse still, none of the standard backups were able to save me. Only a full clone of the hard drive would have been of any use. Who routinely clones their hard drive? It was a return to year zero.
I felt this loss acutely. I’ve spent the past month and more researching and retrieving all of the install programmes (some 300 of them) and upgrading others (fortunately, there were many Black Friday and Christmas discounts available). With over 150GB of install programmes gathered from old computers, backup drives and online vendors, I’m now ready to begin the long, arduous process of reinstalling it all. I’m ready to rebuild my nest so that the album I’ve been trying to complete for a decade can make some forward progress. Interestingly, the loss of my studio software really focussed my mind on what I valued most, in my creative life. I approach music production with renewed enthusiasm, optimism and confidence. I also better understand its importance to me.
So, next time you see an artist obsessing with their materials or creative environment, excuse it as a type of nesting behaviour. It probably is. It’s also a measure of how deeply they care about their creative work. The moment of conception is always exhilarating, but the point of delivery is often sheer hell. The preparations are just part of the process.