Songwriting

Rebranding Frustration

I’ve been feeling frustrated this morning. I’m learning the outward signs of my frustration include low grade anxiety accompanied by berating myself and procrastination. (I honed in on this by doing a Daily Mood Log from Dr. David Burns).

This morning my procrastination took the form of cracking open my notes to Daniel Coyle’s “Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for improving your skills.  (It also took the form of a two hour binge of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Scanning through the file I landed on a note about “The Sweet Spot,” the zone in which we gain the most skill from our practice efforts.  One assumes you’d like to get as much gain from your efforts as possible.

First, there are two other zones you might find yourself in. We’re aiming to get to “The Comfort Zone” which is when we are successful in our efforts more than 80% of the time.  It’s marked by a feeling of effortlessness.

There’s also the “Survival Zone,” when we succeed less than 50% of the time and feel overwhelmed and outmatched.  Probably want to find ways to avoid that zone.

The Sweet Spot, like Goldilocks, is right in the middle. It has a success range is 50 – 80%.

And it’s marked by feelings of . . .

Frustration, (as well as alertness to errors, and engagement with the task at hand).  

Eureka!  Frustration can be a marker of success. Frustration can tell us we’re in the right place, at the right time.  

For many of us, we focus a lot on avoiding frustration, getting away from it. That’s understandable.  Frustration sucks. But frustration coupled with engagement and alertness is a sign of growth. It’s a sign of the sweet spot.  It could be something to seek out. And to be honest, once we’re engaged with something it isn’t exactly frustrating anymore. So let’s rebrand. How about Funstration?  

 

 

Songwriting

I Should be Writing Everyday.

I’ve been stuck a lot lately with the thought; “I should be writing everyday.”

What I tend to do, is procrastinate everyday. I like to ride the bus to Kickstand Café with the intention of writing and then manufacture flashcards in Greek for two and half hours. Then, if I have the day off, I might seek comfort in a lunch of steak tips, french fries and a cold Sam Summer Ale. A nap is likely to follow.  

This may start to come across as self-denigration or flagellation, but it’s also not how writing gets done. Writing gets done by looking at our fears and distortions of reality and finding ways to converse with them.  Also, by sitting down and writing. Writers write after all. So let’s work with the thought, “I should be writing every day.”

The gold standard of writing seems to be rolling out of bed into a chair at a writer’s desk where I’ll spend somewhere between the ten minutes and ten hours scrawling away. All the famous writing teachers advocate some form of this from Natalie Goldberg to Julia Cameron to Steven Pressfield. My fear is if I don’t write everyday, I won’t be a writer, I’ll be a phony and a fake.    

Here, Dr. David Burns, podcaster and author of the book “Feeling Good” saves the day for me, (or more accurately, saves some days for me). David is one of the chief exponents of CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I’ve found his tools to be immensely helpful, even more helpful than a one beer buzz and belly full of steak tips and french fries.  

One tool begins when I note what distressful thoughts I have. I Actually write them down. I read through my thoughts and find the fears and distortions in them, searching out ways they don’t portray reality accurately. David has a list of ten common ways our thoughts may distort reality which is helpful here. The distortions have names like overgeneralization, all or nothing thinking, shoulds, mind reading or fortune telling.

Sometimes merely discovering a thought’s distortion is enough to release me from its grip.  In the case of the thought, “I should be writing everyday,” I can see the nasty word “should” is at least part of the thought distortion that’s got me down–rephrasing it as “It would be preferable if I wrote everyday,” may be enough to help me feel a bit better.   

But there’s a paradoxical question that’s even better, basically the Brazilian Jujitsu of CBT:

“What about this thought shows how you I awesome and admirable as a human being?”

This question can make a mind go numb. It’s been helpful to hear David work on his podcast with other people to get some ideas. It can also help to take a different angle like; “What makes me want to write everyday?” That’s easier to answer:  

1. I’d like my writing to eventually earn some money for me or even help support a career.   

2. I want to share things I find useful and helpful with people.  

3. I believe talking about my own vulnerabilities and where I can find strength in those vulnerabilities might help others find strengths hidden in their vulnerabilities.   

So what do those three thoughts reflect about me that’s awesome and/or admirable:

1. “I’d like my writing to eventually earn me money or even help support a career.” This shows hope, ambition, and drive.  Is hope ambition and drive awesome and/or admirable? Yes!

2. “I want to share things I find useful and helpful with people.” This shows care and concern and a desire to help others out.  Is wanting to help others out awesome and/or admirable? Yes!.

3. “I believe talking about my own vulnerabilities and how I can find strength in those vulnerabilities might help others find strengths hidden in their vulnerabilities.” This shows openness, honesty, even humility paired again with the above desire to help others out.  Are these things that are awesome and admirable? Yes!

Hidden in a thought I was beating myself up with are a swath of thoughts and motivations that are useful and admirable. Six months ago, before I’d learned these techniques for David Burns, I couldn’t have done it uncovered the good in these thoughts alone. There are other fears and distortions that keep me from writing obviously. Things like; “What I write won’t be any good,” and “No one wants to read what I write,” are in the top ten of my brain’s playlist. But these are also distortions that can be worked with in similar ways.   

If you’ve interested in check out more of Dr. David Burns, his Podcast is here and his website is here.  Listening or reading may help you start to see how you could work with, and transform your own fears and distortions.

Songwriting

But Fearless?   

I call the challenge I periodically run the Fearless Songwriting Challenge. I named it the Fearless Challenge because calling it the “Write Seven Songs in Seven Days Challenge” lacked a certain verve.  

But Fearless?   

People who hear about the challenge say; “I’m not Fearless.”  And, “who wants to be fearless anyway?” It’s true!  Fearlessness is pretty often a synonym for foolishness. Fear is there for good reason. Fear is an important marker in our lives. But also fear gets in our way.

There’s a lot out there about how to beat fear. The nub of it is if we avoid a fear, it sucks, and the fear increases.  If we face a fear head on head on, it sucks, but the fear decreases. There are different ways to challenge a fear, but it seems exposure to a fear is compulsory to beating it.  So back in the 80’s Susan Jeffers had it right; you have to “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.”

This is the idea behind the Fearless Songwriting Challenge; know writing a song can be scary, do it anyway–seven times.

Saying; “merely do it,” does lack some empathy though, (not to mention some drama).  Empathy helps to take away the edge from a fear. And so, the unsolicited advice:

Don’t confuse your self worth with your accomplishments or your lack thereof.

Tell yourself; “If I write I am good, and if I don’t write I am good.”

Tell yourself; “If I write well I am good, and if I don’t write well, I am good!”

Give yourself that space.

If this sounds like airy-fairy magical bullshit, you’re probably right. Still, you might try it on for size, walk into the arena of your writing and see what happens.  

Remember, no matter what does happens, whether in your judgment or the judgment someone else, you’re good.  

 

Songwriting

List Ten Things, (and Go to Eleven).

It’s a grey rainy day.  My habit the last little bit has been to wake up, study a little Greek, play some guitar, read the news.  Pretty much do anything to amuse and distract myself before leaving for work. Not so say that none learning Greek or playing guitar are a waste of my time but what I’ve been wanting to do is enliven the Fearless Songwriter Group some.  Maybe offer thoughts on editing, songwriting, and generally getting on with it.

For instance, one way I like to get on with it is a list of then things. Here’s an example:  Ten things I could do to enliven the Fearless Challenge Group

  1. Ask members who they’re listening to these days
  2. Post some useful information about music theory
  3. Ask about what’s keeping members stuck
  4. Post some of Dr. David Burns’ work on beating procrastination
  5. Post some info on learning techniques.
  6. Talk about Fluent Forever, mnemonics, and the memory palace
  7. Create a Spotify list of artists/songs people are excited about now
  8. Talk about effective practice techniques?
  9. Ask others about how they practice
  10. Talk about how coffee makes the world better
  11. Look at CBT techniques that could be applied to writing and writing blocks

I like the list of ten things, (and I love making it go to 11). It’s useful brainstorming for me.  It’s a flexible tool and framework. I could ask myself an infinite number of open ended questions and get any number of answers. Some answers will suck. Some answers will feel scary.  But there are bound to be one or two that I can do right now, today. It works as a to do list. It works as a way to think about changes I’d like to make to a song. It works as a way to think up vacation spots. There are few times I’m unfocused, feel blocked, or need to think something through where it’s unhelpful.  

I never have to do all the things I come up with.  I find it’s rarely useful to save a list much more than a day. I just end up with an untenable pile of lists. In a moment where I feel stuck though, it’s pretty much always helpful for write out ten options (and go to eleven).   

 

Songwriting

The Fearless Songwriting Challenge FAQ

What is the ‘Fearless’ Challenge? 

The challenge: Smash though our fears and inhibitions involved in songwriting. The method: write seven songs in seven days.

Can anybody take part?

Everybody is welcome.

What if I’m not a Fearless Songwriter? 

You don’t have to be fearless to take part in the challenge.  Most people aren’t. I’m certainly not.  Fear is a guide toward the meat of writing.  So, in a sense, the goal isn’t to shed fear.  The goal is shedding the aversion to fear.  The goal trusting fear as guide to our best work.   

“There’s no way I can write a song in 45-minutes. I’ve never done that! How do you do that?”

In his songwriting class, Peter Himmelman suggests a thought experiment:

“A person walk up to you with $50,000 dollars in hand to write a song in the next half hour; would you write it?”

Of course you would. So what’s really stopping you from writing a song?

Would you like an example of how?  This Youtube video shows Nate Barofsky (formerly of Girlyman) putting together a song in about 15 minutes. : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYYfXLiA2-g

What counts as a completed song? 

My definition of a completed song is  a set of lyrics set to a melody (usually with instrumental accompaniment) that’s been recorded.  A second definition a is a rough draft I’m confident I can return to and work on in the future if I choose to.   Your definition may differ.   

I started a song a week ago … Can that count for the challenge?

Using songs you’ve started previously isn’t in the spirit of the challenge.  (That said, people have been known adjust to guidelines of the challenge to suit their needs).

What skills should I have to join the Fearless Songwriting Challenge?

The Challenge requires more attitude than skill.  Children and parents write songs.  So do drunks and lovers.  If the challenge excites you, take it on.  If the challenge overwhelms you it’s unlikely to be productive.     

The only way I have to record my songs is on a cheap digital recorder (or whatever). Is this good enough? Do I have to record my song in a studio?

Most participants post simple recordings.  I record my songs with an iphone.

Do I have to show my songs to someone? Or is this on the honor system?

You don’t have to show your songs to anyone but  lots of people post their songs on the closed group created on Facebook for each challenge.  Taking part the community will help you get through the challenge.  Posting your songs often leads to feedback revealing your efforts are more substantial than you give yourself credit for.

Should I comment on people’s songs?

Yes!  People love hearing about your experience of their music.  Let people know what you’ve enjoyed and what moved you, what you found funny or inspiring.   Focus on a songs strengths.  Offer sincere encouragement.  Writers often feel insecure and/or conflicted about their songs.  They may have no idea they’ve written anything of worth.  Let them know where they’ve succeeded.   Since the challenge asks us to share work that is fresh and potentially vulnerable, criticisms and suggested revisions are discouraged unless explicitly asked for by the artist for a specific song.   

What’s a prompt?

Prompts offer writers a single word, phrase or directive as a starting place to help focus and prime people for their writing.  A prompt might offer a subject, idea  or image to start from, or they might ask a writer to focus on a particular facet of their craft, or of music.  Previous prompts have included: “Overnight”, “Relationship Triangle”, and even “Giant Squid”.  More musically oriented prompts have included things like; “write a two chord song”, “write an a cappella song”, or “use a different instrument than normal”.    

Who creates the prompts?

Often I reach out to people who have participated in the Fearless Challenge in the past or to other musician friends I know for the prompts, or I just come up with something myself.

Do I have to use the prompt? 

Prompts are a tool.  If they help, use them.  If they’re unhelpful, don’t.

I started working with the prompt but now my song seems to have nothing to do with it, is that ok?

That’s fine.  The prompts might be a destination to aim for, or a place to start your travels.  Either way the prompts are merely a tool to help us get through the challenge, the goal of the challenge is write songs, not to write to prompts.

When do the prompts get posted?

I do my best to post the prompts between 11 PM and 12  Eastern Time for upcoming day.   

Do I have time to take on the Fearless Songwriting Challenge? 

This is a valid question––To complete the Fearless Songwriting Challenge requires about an hour a day for seven days straight; it’s not an insignificant commitment.  On the other hand, lots of people complain about spending too much time on the internet.  Others  are able to spontaneously generate six hour stints to watch Arrested Development.  Maybe you have more time available to you than you thought?   Is there an activity or two that you could give up for a week to make time for you writing? 

I’m moving, getting married, going to China, the week of the upcoming challenge, should I participate?

You may not want to mix major life events with the Fearless Songwriting Challenge.   The week requires substantial effort and commitment of time.  Be sensible and kind to yourself on the other commitments you have during the week.

How can I best set myself up to successfully complete the challenge?

1. Create a space for your writing for the week.  As much as possible have everything you need set up in that space before you sit down to write.  It’s best to have a notebook, pen or pencil, recording device, musical instrument at the ready.

2. Decide out what time you’ll write at each day and stick to it.  Consistency is best; I’m going to start writing at 8:00 AM each day for the next seven days and have a finished song by 8:45 leaves little room for argument or equivocation.  If you can’t write at the same time each day plan what time you’ll write each day in your calendar.  Then sit down and write.

3.  Create an invocation to your muse requesting humility and productivity.  My favorite example comes from an article in the New Yorker*:

  • get an egg timer and every day set it for one minute
  • everyday kneel in front of your writing implements in a posture of prayer beg the universe to help you write the worst sentence ever written.
  • When the timer dings, start typing.

Maybe you’ll prefer less ostentatious ritual.  That’s fine, figure out what works for you. NO matter what you do the aim is to lower the bar and write a lot.   

*The complete article is available here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/03/21/110321fa_fact_goodyear

I write slowly, can I take part in the challenge?

I encourage all songwriters to take on the Fearless Challenge at an experiment at once.    Inspiration is a creature of varied habits and there’s much to learn in shaking up a routine to see what will happen.   Some people who are slow writers try the challenge and find it helps them condense their process.  Most people who take part in the challenge will continue to revise their songs even after they’re “done.” That said, I know of many great writers who thrive in their commitment to a slow deliberative process writing and revision.   

What if I don’t finish the song in 45 minutes?

They say that a goldfish will grow to the size of its fishbowl.  The same goes for songwriting.  45 minutes is a guideline––if you don’t finish that quickly it’s fine.  But try not to spend all day wrestling with your song.  You’ll drive yourself batty; I always do.

What if I don’t complete the challenge?

John Wooden said it best: “Success is the peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction that you have made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

Are you satisfied you gave the week the best effort you’re capable of?  Then take pride in your effort.  Do you feel like you might have done better?  Then you might consider, objectively, what circumstances or emotions kept you from making your best effort.  If you’re someone who tends to beat themselves up, (and what songwriter isn’t?), go easy on the self-flagelation.

Learn to recognize the places you can improve, but keep in mind self-denigrating helps no one, especially not yourself.  Seriously, there’ve been studies on this sort of thing––guilt and shame weaken resolve.

I don’t play the guitar. Can I still take part in this challenge?

Please do.

Oh no! I just stole the structure and chord changes from “Don’t Stop Believin'”! Is that allowed? You won’t tell anyone will you?

No one has to know and I’ll never tell.  Borrowing, homage and outright theft are time honored traditions in the world of art.  In point of fact, we’re all stealing something.  While we’re here, keep in mind a song’s chord progression and song title can’t be copyrighted.  So steal ’em all you like.

I’d like to support Timmy for organizing the Fearless Challenge, does he have a Patreon or something?

He sure does.  It’s right here: https://www.patreon.com/Timmyrmusic

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.