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He felt 'creatively dead.' Then he harnessed the power of boredom

Hrishikesh Hirwaytk says the cause of his writer's block was a "whirlpool of self judgment."
Tommaso Boddi
/
Getty Images for VOX Media
Hrishikesh Hirwaytk says the cause of his writer's block was a "whirlpool of self judgment."

We are in it right now, aren't we? The holiday season and all the parties that come with it. You've got your office parties. Your family feasts. Your neighborhood potlucks. And maybe you're good at these. You float around from corner to corner making appropriate small talk — deploying witty aphorisms like it's your J-O-B. You love this. You're the queen of the party. The sommelier of small talk.

This used to be me. I don't know exactly what happened — COVID, interviewing people for a living for a long time, age. Whatever. But it's not me anymore. Now, all I want to do is cut the talk about holiday plans or work drama and go right for the jugular. I want to ask the BIG existential questions and I want to ask them right from the get go. Yes, I know this is not so cool to do at parties. Luckily, I get to do that here!

I have been a fan of Hrishikesh Hirway for a long time. I listened to his hilarious dissection of the West Wing, and his podcast Song Exploder (which will soon turn 10) has become regular listening for me and my family on road trips. Hirway is a talented musician in his own right and every episode he breaks down one song with the artist who created it. And they often go to deep places. Which is why I knew he'd be game for a different kind of conversation where we skip most of the small talk and just get into the muck. The good kind — the existential kind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: In preparation for this conversation, I actually went back and I listened to the conversation that you and I had right when you were releasing the video version of Song Exploder on Netflix. So this was like October 2020.

Hrishikesh Hirway: Yeah.

Martin: And it was interesting because in the first couple of minutes of the conversation, you said the word "intimacy" three times.

Hirway: [Laughs]

Martin: Everybody has a sense of what that word means, but I wondered if you would indulge me and put some more words to that definition; like, if you could unpack that. What does that word mean to you in the context of conversation?

Hirway: I think it means that you get to a place where you feel comfortable being vulnerable with someone else. It's sort of a shared environment that gets created between both people, where everyone involved in the conversation can say, yeah, I'm going to let down my guard. I'm going to reveal something true about myself or I have the potential to reveal something true about myself. And I'm going to actively seek out some of those things, you know — we're going to dig past small talk and get into the real stuff.

Martin: So to that end, will you be game to do something with me, conversationally speaking?

Hirway: OK.

Martin: You're like: I don't know, what is it? I'm just gonna ask you questions. But, I've thought about these questions. And these are a few questions that I think are just like a main line to intimacy, right? They're the big ones and I feel like you're gonna be up for it.

So, to start, when have you felt most afraid?

Hirway: Well, this might be recency bias, but a few weeks ago my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and she's my best friend. She is my older sister and is so important to just forming who I am.

Martin: And is it just the two of you?

Hirway: It's just the two of us, yeah. And there was a moment where we didn't know much yet, you know, there had been a biopsy, there had been confirmation that there was a tumor that was malignant. So I went on a walk with my wife and I just decided to allow myself to ask all the horrible potential questions.

Just ask everything and face everything that I was scared of, to try not to keep it off to the side. Because there were things that I felt like I needed to prepare myself for and things that I was going to need to have to deal with. Things that I would have to be able to deal with in order to be helpful to her and her family. She has three young kids and she lives on the other side of the country.

Martin: Is the fear the unknown or is the fear losing your sister?

Hirway: The fear is losing my sister. My mom passed away in 2020. We had another health scare last year when my dad had a fall. And now my sister has this cancer diagnosis. I don't have any kids and I think the fear is how unmoored it would be to be alone like that.

It feels a little bit like there's a gravitational pull that keeps me on earth, and that is these three people. One of them's already gone. Without the other ones, I feel like I'll just careen off the side of the planet.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.


Martin: Do you believe in some kind of God or divine power?

Hirway: I don't think so. Not in the way that I think anybody else would use that word. I believe in some kind of secular magic, I guess, in the world. I think there are really magical things that happen sometimes. They get labeled as coincidence, they get labeled as like, I don't know, cathartic experience or transcendent experience. I think there are really incredible things that are part of human existence. And there are things that are beyond the realm of one person's knowing. And I'm fine with that.

Talking about God, there are all kinds of attributes that get attached to that, that I think just end up feeling scary and are ways of creating divisions between people.

I see religion as a sort of organizing principle for a few important things in a society and in a culture. To provide some kind of framework for all these things that feel beyond our understanding of life and death. And these wonderful things that happen in between. I think it's also a way to structure morality. And it's also a way to organize a community through ritual and tradition and things that a society needs.

I just happened to feel like I have access to those things, or I was able to find my own way to that kind of wonder and morality and my own version of traditions and rituals apart from a religious institution.

Martin: What do you think happens when we die? Secular magic?

Hirway: I mean, it's secular magic in that we decompose and our cells turn into something else.

Martin: Well, I guess that is magical, you're right. It is.

Hirway: Yeah, it is. I mean, the fact that a tree could grow out of what used to be a person is pretty magical.

Martin: At what point in your life have you felt the most creatively alive?

Hirway: Well, Song Exploder came out of a time in my life when I felt the opposite of that, where I felt creatively dead, I'd say. People call it writer's block. That's what I called it for a long time.

Martin: "Creatively dead" has a much bigger impact rhetorically than "writer's block."

Hirway: Yeah. And I realize now that what that's really about is judgment.

The reason why I wasn't able to make anything was because I was just in this whirlpool of self judgment. I was sort of telling myself stories about my own worth as an artist or lack thereof. So I kind of put music aside for a while

Martin: Because you weren't musically where you thought you were supposed to be in terms of a professional career arc?

Hirway: Something like that, yeah. I was in my early thirties, I put out four albums, and I hadn't had a career that broke out into something really extraordinary. I mean, it was extraordinary enough to have a career in music at all, right? But that's not how I saw it, you know. It felt like what I had achieved wasn't enough, and it didn't feel like I could see a path of how I was going to get there.

So I kind of put it aside for a second and I started doing Song Exploder as a kind of distraction, you know, a little side hobby idea that could also be a way to hopefully give myself a day job in between tours and making records and things like that.

And then it ended up taking up a lot of my time and it also ended up reinforcing a lot of the judgment that I had for myself. Because while talking to some of the huge names and people that I just really admired, I felt even more convinced that there was sort of no need for me to keep making music. Because what's the point?

Martin: OK, that doesn't seem like a very healthy mental place to have been.

Hirway: No, it wasn't great, which is why I felt quite creatively dead.

Martin: Even as you were making this thing that has become so amazing, Song Exploder. Even in the midst of that success you were feeling even more vulnerable and sad?

Hirway: Yeah, I think it took a while for that to set in. I didn't realize it at first, but after a few years I started to realize how much I missed making music. And so in 2021 I created this schedule for myself, where one day a week, on Fridays, I would do nothing but music. I would only work on music.

I would set everything else aside. I wouldn't look at my emails. I wouldn't have any meetings. I wouldn't do anything for the podcast. Just music. It allowed some space for my brain to get bored. A thing that I learned was how much boredom was like an essential part of creativity. Maybe boredom is too strong of a word for it

Martin: No, I like it. I get it.

Hirway: It's some kind of idleness to let a kind of alchemical reaction happen in your brain molecules. If they're constantly occupied by something else, it's never gonna happen. But if you go on a walk or you go on a drive or something where you're leaving 80% of your brain unoccupied, that's when I found new ideas could come out or I could sort of metabolize things that have been stirring in me for a while.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.


Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.