Songwriting, The Muse

Madness and the Muse

“They who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in their soul, and come to the door and think they will get into the temple by the help of art–they and their poetry are not admitted; the sane disappear and are left nowhere when they enter into rivalry with madness.” -Plato (more or less)

We like to be in control.  We don’t like madness or frenzy, and we hate letting go.  But The Fearless Challenge isn’t about being in control. It’s about finding out what happens when we go a little (or a lot) crazy.  The challenge isn’t about anyone’s precious egos or liking what is written today. It’s about writing seven days straight, and looking back after saying, holy shit, where did THAT come from?   

The Challenge is simple:

1.  Sit down to write a song in about 45 minutes.

2.  Let go, say something CRAZY.

3.  Use the last 15 minutes of the hour to make a recording as a artifact of what was claimed from the unknown.

That’s it, and it can be S.C.A.R.Y.

Said another way the challenge is to: find your edge and lean forward, afraid of falling but fall anyway.  It’s  to jump out of the plane of everyday thoughts with no parachute and nothing to hang onto. The good news is there is no ground.  Eventually you’ll come home to your senses and you’ll have a new song.

The challenge aims to enter into communion with the Gods, into communion with powers that, bless our analytical minds & the double-blinds of science, we can’t explain for shit.

That can be scary.

Here’s a mantra to use with fear: BRING IT ON.

Say these words and then run at the fear.

Then say; “I LOVE FEAR,” because fear is nothing more than a little biological energy, and when you sit with it, it will launch you like a rocket into the unknown, and you’ll find flow.  Then time and identity won’t matter until you return back to earth.  Thinking doesn’t help us do that–it helps us AVOID doing that.

This week, I dare you to set a timer for 45 Minutes each day and write a song you never knew you could.
I dare you to share a simple one take recording of that song.
I dare you not to judge yourself for what finds its way onto the page, or into the recorder each day, or even for the whole week.
I dare you not to quit when you DO judge yourself.
I dare you to continue when you’re certain you’ll never write a good song again.
I dare you not to make excuses.
I dare you to write seven songs in seven days. 

The next challenge will be posted at The Fearless Songwriter on Facebook.

Greek, Songwriting

Champagne and Catharsis

“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” -Tom Waits

In Greek, the word for song is Τραγούδι (tra-GOO-thee). It’s a sham friend of the English word tragedy, which means they sound alike but don’t share the same meaning.  This happens a lot between Greek and English.  An example is the word for yes in Greek, which is “Ναι” and has all the nasal negation of “nay” or “no” and it seems every word for no in European languages; non, nein, niet?

Have you listened to some Greek songs? They are emotive, dramatic and lyrically serious downers way over yonder in the minor key.  All things Elliot Smith and Aimee Mann and outside of exceptions like Queens “Best Friend” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” pretty much every other song in the English language songbook.   

Tραγούδι adds a little heft and veritas to the word “song” notable for its germanic pith, and which deserves some heft and veritas.  There are lots of rules for what makes a tragedy a tragedy but the short of it from well known authority Aristotle is that a tragedy needs catharsis.

Catharsis is another word which springs from Greek and is a real friend as the fates would have it.  The word for catharsis in Greek is κάθαρση (CATH-ar-see) Take away that “ess” sound from the word and you get Κάθαρη (KATH-ar-ee) which means “clean.”  So songs, or τραγούδια, could be about coming clean–about that moment of seeing things clearly, clarifying things.  They could also be about purging, purifying, expurgation, ablution, absolution and in one colorful translation of the verb καθαρίζω (cath-ar-EE-zoh), defecating.  And ideas like gloss, shine, sheen, shimmer, sparkle and lustration are all translations as well.

Lustration is a fun word.  It’s root is the latin word luster but why let that get in the way of the good old germanic lust hidden in that shine.

The turning point of catharsis useful to think about when writing songs. It’s a crux, or inflection point.  And it points to something that could be happening both to the characters and listeners before and after listening to a song.  That they come into the song in one state and leave changed–hopefully for the better.

Greek, Songwriting

Dancing with Booger Mcfarland

I went to The Rocky Mountain Song School last week.  I sat in Darrell Scott’s class for four days as he  listened to, and talked about song.  Mary Gauthier taught in the neighboring tent.  She was on fire about writing singable choruses.  The word “chorus” got me thinking because it has Greek roots, and I’ve been learning Greek.

How does “chorus” translate into Greek?  I put the words “song” and “chorus” together into the Google Beast’s translator.  Out the other end came: Χορωδία τραγουδιού. (Hor-oh-THEE-ah  Tra-goo-thee-OO).

In certain plays, which include Oedipus Rex and Antigone, a χορωδία, (a chorus), is a group of people who comment on the action.  Imagine ten or twelve Statler and Waldorfs from the Muppets talking together on stage.  Or, if the NFL is your thing, try a gaggle of John Maddens and Booger McFarlands* calling the action.

The chorus as a peanut gallery is well noted, but what was news to me–and I maybe should have known–is that χορωδία is rooted in the word χορός (hor-OS), which means dance. Choreography is dance-writing. The chorus might also be the dance-y bit, the part of the song where people could come together and dance.   I have some resistant to the idea of a danceable songs.  It makes me think of people sweating in a club to Kesha. It’s not my scene. (That’s also, a little judgy on my part).

But there are lots of ways to come together and dance.  You could ballroom dance,  Big Apple, Bardo Chham and Belly. You could Cakewalk, Cat Daddy and Capoeira.  You could Cha-cha, Charleston and do the Chicken. Circle, Square, Country or Western–what you need, dance has got it.  You might even tango, two step, or tarantella while you watch yourself Gavotte.

Can you dance the fandango?

Trust me, you can!

Whether you come old flat top or groove it up slowly, the point of a chorus is coming together.  It’s to sing together. It’s to dance together.

*Yep, Booger McFarland is some poor, benighted soul’s actual name

Shame, Songwriting, Writing

Shame Resilience & Creativity

I’m supposed to be writing.  Instead I’m in the stacks of the Robbins Library and scouring the library’s catalogue for books on my phone.  Every book I’ve looked up in the online catalogue is checked out. Each time I look up a book I’m hit by a pang of procrastinatory guilt, akin to swallowing a Dorito the wrong way.  My conscience and the library are aligned saying: Do your work.

Many people are compelled to clean when staring down a blank page and a deadline but my bed is already made and the dishes are washed, so I’m compelled to the library.  I’m desperate to know what other people have written about getting work done. I’ve also read basically every book there is on the subject. Hence, guilt, like a Dorito lodged in my throat.  

The thoughts and emotions which drive procrastination have many names (which are capitalized auspiciously): Gremlins, Monkey Mind, The Censor, Resistance. . . Here’s one which is rarely used, but Brené Brown has worked tirelessly bring into style: shame, (no capitalization–shame would rather less attention).  

I think it’s time we talked about creativity and shame and in the shame department, Brené has done us all a solid.  She’s researched it, defined it and talked to people people that have figured out how to defeat it, or at least keep it from inhibiting them from time to time.  Brené describes these unicorns as people with high shame resilience.

But wait!  There’s more!   

She’s gone one step further.  She’s distilled their tactics into four simple guidelines we could emulate.  If you’re a person struggling with how to get your best work out into the world, I think you’ll want these tactics in your tool box.

Brené says shame’s messages boil down to two themes.  Note these, you will be tested:

  1. “Not good enough”
  2. “How dare you!?!”  

If you don’t already recognize these messages here’s the test: Think of something intend to do, but haven’t.  Something that would be fun or exciting, or challenging. Maybe it’s something change your life or your world or your day for the better.  Soon some thoughts will likely arise that complicate your acting on it–what are these? Packed away in those messages will be some variant of “Not Good Enough,” or “How Dare you!?!”

Ok, so here are the tactics:

The four traits of highly shame resistant people:

1.They know what shame feels like for themselves (the physical symptoms that signal its onset), and they know what situations and thoughts create shame for themselves.  

2.They reality check messages and expectations that fuel their shame, i.e., are the messages and expectations fueling their shame even remotely possible to achieve?

3.They reach out and tell their stories to people they trust.  Brené says if shame was isolated in a petri dish, the thing that would cause it to grow would be secrecy, silence and judgment.  The thing that causes it to shrivel like a slug dusted with salt? Empathy.

4.When they encounter shame, they call it out, they call shame what it is: “shame.”

Let me go through how I think these apply to my writing.  

  1. Know what shame feels like and what situations create shame.

For me when I sit down to write, my most common shame trigger is the thought that I don’t I have anything to say.  I feel scared. My belly pits out and tumbles into the void of infinity. My breathing stops. If it’s really bad my armpits may tingle.  The world takes on a surreal quality, like stumbling into a posse of evil fairies in a dark forest.

I get the same damn feeling when I get to a point in my writing I know what I want to say but I’m scared to say it:

Maybe that thing is too real.
Maybe it’s too embarrassing.
Maybe someone might actually read it, like my mom or my girlfriend.  

This, my friends, is how shame feels when I write.

Note well: it isn’t something to run from. It’s something to know about and learn to work with so I can do my work done.

  1. Reality checking messages and expectations that fuel shame

Here’s my least sustainable belief about writing: That every word and every line I write should arrive perfectly formed; Michelangelo’s David, but without any rock to carve away from it.     

I know that when I sit down to write, I’m going to write some shit, which as Pat Pattison says, is the best fertilizer but I carry the irrational belief that my writing should be perfect anyway.  

My writing routine is more like getting out of bed.

I wake up groggy. I stumble into the kitchen not-so-quietly desperate for prefabricated coffee.  My mouth is pasty and my eyes blurry. The day will be fine eventually, but it rarely starts pretty.  My Writing is like that and I tell often tell myself that’s “not good enough.” Note again, this isn’t necessarily something to fix, which could just be shaming myself from a different direction.  It’s knowledge to act from. My writing process needs some time to warm up, so I’ll keep writing.

  1. Shame resilient people reach out and tell their stories to people they trust.  

Here just writing can be a helpful first step.  Just writing a thing down can sometimes alleviate much of the shame of it:

“I hate this”
“I have nothing to say”
“I don’t want to do this today”

or any of a million other variants are fine and time honored ways of starting a day’s writing.

Also, it’s vital to have friends, peers and compatriots you can talk about how much writing, (and anything else that comes to mind) sucks.  The important thing is, the person you share this information with has to understand too, and not judge you for it. If you don’t have a safe person in your life now, seek one out.  The world is filled with Facebook groups and real world support groups which can places to find someone you trust.

4. The shame resilient call shame “shame.”

This simple but can be deceptively hard.

I remember the first time I really started talking about shame. I’d just started listening to and reading Brené, and I had a friend I knew I could trust to hash this stuff out with and I still nearly choked on the words.  The good news is it gets easier and easier as you go. It gets less scary.

Epilogue:  

There’s a secret about shame, vulnerability and art.  It’s something a friend and I tripped over in one of those epic four hour conversations about life and learning that mostly seem to happen when you’re in high school or college.  

I was thirty-five at the time.  

Almost universally, the songs, the art, even the personality traits that people value most in me (and that I value most in others) are the songs, art, and characteristics I (or they) feel squirrelly about.   The things I’m most embarrassed about, the things I feel shame about, my vulnerabilities are almost always tied up in my best work, and consequently the work I most want to hide.

But somehow they slip out of me.

I share a song in a Fearless Songwriting week. I played a song once at an open mike. Then people keep asking me to play it. It wasn’t meant to be a real song. It was just a joke.

I don’t know why creativity seems designed this way but I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters and to a lot of people and they all agree it’s true.  This makes doing the work of reckoning with and coming to terms with my shame even more important. Our fears and our shame are inextricably tangled with our best work. Learning shame resilience, means my best work won’t pass me by because I was too ashamed to write down, to share it.   

 

Songwriting, The Muse, Writing

10 Invocations, dispensations and prayers to the Muse

writing_cat_HDAn invocation to the muse is a welcome mat to creativity.   My creativity often acts like feral cat I’d like to befriend.  I need to offer it some kibble and make it feel safe to have any hope of it ever purring happily alongside me at my desk. An invocation to the muse is a way sprinkling some kibble on my porch for it.   (Yelling, screaming and mentally berating myself sure wasn’t working).

I chose Shel Silverstein’s “Come In” as my first invocation to the muse.  It offers my creativity some quiet, a sense of warmth and safety before I dive in writing. There are lots of ways to do an invocation to the muse.  It could be solemn and sacred, lighthearted and fun, or even dry and sardonic, every muse has its own personality and its own moods.   You’ll know what works when it helps you start writing. If you decide try one, commit to it; recite it and then write every day for at least six weeks. A little bit each day is enough—try ten minutes. Go gently.

Here are ten or examples of invocations and dispensations you could take for a spin. I’m sure there are plenty of others. If you have your own, share it in the comments below.

1. Steven Pressfield’s from Homer’s Odyssey:

O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stay grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope – for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.” – translation by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)”

2. A prayer/exercise from Barry Michels, Co-author of “The Work:”

Get an egg timer. Set it for one minute. Kneel in front of the computer in a posture of prayer, and beg the universe for help writing the worst sentence ever written. “Please let me write the worst sentence ever. Please help me write the worst sentence ever. When the timer dings, start typing.

3. Robert Fulghum’s Storyteller’s Creed:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.

4. Teddy Roosevelt’s evocation:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

5. Pema Chödron’s reminder from “Start Where You Are”:

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here.

6. The thing Michael Bennet Jimmy Webb’s boss on Tin Pan Alley told him when he started his job:

“In this room, you’ll never make a mistake.”

7. Pat Pattison’s writing dispensation:

I hereby grant you permission to write crap. The more the better. Remember, crap makes the best fertilizer.

8. One that came to me as I assembled these today:

I am an imperfectionist, anything and everything that arises today can be written down, anything and everything that arises is a gift from my basic wealth, is bringing me closer to the truth, could be part of the message I want to convey, even if it’s a poop joke.

9. A collection of reflections from Brene Brown:

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do. Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. [On the other hand], Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.

10. Shel Silverstein’s “Invitation”:

If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!