Ennio Morricone's "mysterious process"

Plus: Advice on kindling your own excitement

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously, we looked at Eileen Myles’s “workshop with solitude.”

Ennio Morricone (1928–2020)

Following the news of Morricone’s death, at age 91, last week, I spent some time looking into the legendary Italian composer’s creative process, which he described (reluctantly, you get the sense) in bits and pieces over the years. By all accounts, Morricone presented a reserved, businesslike persona to the world, dressing like an economics professor and working diligently in his palazzo in Rome to produce scores for as many as 20 films a year (!). Forever associated with his whipcrack- and ocarina-laden soundtrack for Sergio Leone’s 1960s Man with No Name trilogy, Leone was—as John Zorn argued in the New York Times last week—much more than the Maestro of spaghetti westerns. He certainly held himself to a higher standard. “The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other,” he told the Times’s Jon Pareles in 2007. “Maybe my time is better organized than many other people’s. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed.”

Morricone at home in 2007. Photo: Chris Warde-Jones for the New York Times

In 2016, Morricone described his typical composing process to the Independent:

When I have to score a film, I watch the movie first and then start thinking about it. And from that moment on, it is as if I were pregnant. I then have to deliver the child, so from that moment on, I think always about the music—even when I go to the grocery store, I think about it.

In the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, he added a bit more about how this works: “A mysterious process takes place once I start composing; out of the blue, the materials come alive, at once dependent on and independent of my will.”

Morricone composed not at a piano but at his desk, hand-writing his music in pencil on score paper. He woke as early as 4:30 a.m. and generally got to work by 8:30 or 9:00. “I wake up very early, and go to sleep early too,” Morricone said in 2016. “On a typical day, I start with some exercises, then read the newspaper. By 9am I’ll start writing music, and continue until lunchtime. Then I have lunch with my wife and chat to her, and resume writing until the late afternoon.” If this sounds like an enviably simple and focused life, Morricone did not necessarily experience it as such. In the same 2016 interview, the 87-year-old composer said:

I’m growing more and more anxious. Even though I am more self-assured now, my need to always do better and improve myself is stronger. I must seem very worried and concerned most of the time—and it’s because I am. My work carries great responsibility.

Ennio Morricone. Photo: EPA/AMPAS via TheConversation.com


(H/t @austinkleon)


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

I’ve been debating emailing you because I haven’t been sure how to articulate this dilemma. I’ve taught myself to get up at 5:45 and write for an hour, sometimes an hour and a half. I am not super awake but it is some of the only time I seem to be able to protect for myself. I run into the dilemma when I sit down to “write”. It manifests from two uncertainties: to write nonfiction or fiction, and to follow excitement or develop a practice. I can’t seem to figure out how to practice writing when I’m not sure what to write. 

Nonfiction or fiction? Over the past year I have decided to actually write, instead of just dreaming about it. The psychological shift was scary at first. Now that I say out loud that I want to write, I want to write compellingly about everything. Could I develop my writing enough to be some sort of combination of Rebecca Solnit and Tom Robbins? Could I write essays and novels? Do I have to choose right now? I have to start somewhere...

Excitement or practice? My life experience is such that I am not used to kindling my own excitement and also not used to deliberate practice. I’ve tried certain prompts—“write a few paragraphs every day about my morning walk”—but the energy isn’t there. When I sit down in the morning the cynical side of me comes out and it seems silly to be writing a paragraph about my morning walk. I haven’t figured out how to get excited about those paragraphs to write enough and then practice editing. I get excited when I am reading, researching, and from there having ideas, making connections. Pursue what is exciting regardless of whether I’m actually writing? Or figure out how to deliberately practice writing?

Cultivate thrill or discipline? I hope there is a world where I can do both, as they feel like potent partners. Perhaps I just haven’t found the entrance yet. I would greatly appreciate any advice you may have! —Lauren in San Francisco

Dear Lauren,

First of all, congratulations on training yourself to get up at 5:45 a.m. to write! That takes serious self-discipline, and it shows that writing is something you’re willing to prioritize above competing concerns (like sleep!). A lot of aspiring writers never get that far.

Of course, as you’ve found, carving out the writing time is just the first step; then you have to actually do the writing (ugh!). And I can very much relate to your dilemma of making the time to write but not being sure what to write. For what it’s worth, I have had long stretches of being in the same situation, and I know how frustrating and miserable it can be.

I can tell you what helped me move forward, but first I want to gently interrogate your notion that you have to choose between excitement or practice, thrill or discipline. I don’t think these things are necessarily in opposition. There’s a well-worn piece of writing advice from Flaubert that seems relevant here: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In other words: Just because it takes dutiful discipline to sit down at the desk each morning doesn’t mean the writing itself should be dutiful. You say, “I am not used to kindling my own excitement”—but isn’t that a pretty decent definition of what writing is? It’s only by feeling some excitement in the writing that you can hope for readers to feel the same thing.

So how do you kindle that excitement? Partly it’s about paying attention to what excites you (and what doesn’t), which you’re already doing. You say that you’ve tried some writing prompts “but the energy isn’t there.” Great, don’t do that anymore!

You also say that you feel excited when reading and researching, and you wonder if you should pursue that in lieu of writing. This is a tricky one. Previously, I advised another advice seeker that sometimes the solution to writer’s block is simply to read more. But you also don’t want to use reading and research as a way to continually avoid writing. (Been there!) So I would just tread carefully. Maybe do one week of early-AM reading and research, then one week of writing, and assess? Or you could make an effort to read and write together—i.e., do all the reading you want as long as you’re making copious notes, keeping a reading journal, and actively looking for how the reading can provide an entrance to the writing.

You asked some other specific questions, so let me take a moment to address those:

Could I develop my writing enough to be some sort of combination of Rebecca Solnit and Tom Robbins?

Yes! (I love this idea.)

Could I write essays and novels?


Do I have to choose right now? I have to start somewhere...

Why not start with an essay? Unlike a novel, you can write one in days or weeks rather than months or years. And no matter what kind of writing you ultimately gravitate toward, you’ll always need the ability to crank out a well-turned essay.

Plus, on a practical level, there are a lot of places to publish essays online, and publishing something is a great way to get experience being edited, build some momentum in your writing practice, and maybe even make a few bucks (perhaps the very best way to kindle excitement).

I said earlier that I’ve found myself in a situation similar to yours, and that I could tell you what helped me move forward. So here’s what helped me: a deadline! And not just a deadline, but the anxiety and fear that comes with feeling that I might disappoint or annoy someone by failing to meet that deadline.

Deadlines are crucial for a lot of writers, but they’re especially crucial if you tend to be a people-pleaser in your everyday life. (It me.) Hurley Winkler recently wrote about this in her Lonely Victories newsletter. She has discovered that she needs accountability to get any writing done, and she provides a really useful list of the ways that she’s held herself accountable to write.

I’m genuinely curious: Would a good old-fashioned injection of deadline pressure help kindle the excitement that you feel you’re lacking? If you want, we could even try an experiment. I’ll give you a short essay assignment and an aggressive deadline, and if you meet the deadline I’ll give you honest feedback on the essay and see what I can do to help you get it published. And if you don’t meet the deadline, I will silently judge you forever. (Just kidding! Or am I…?)

Shoot me an email if you want to give this a try, and I’ll share the experiment results in a future issue of the newsletter.

Readers—Do you have additional advice for Lauren? (Or totally disagree with what I wrote above?) Leave a comment via the button below.

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Struggling with your own creative dilemma? Email it to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.


Last week’s newsletter featured Eileen Myles on writing in a pandemic, with quotes drawn from a recent Zoom tour of the art in Myles’s Marfa, Texas, home. If you missed the tour, you’re in luck: the video is now online here.



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