Songwriting, The Muse, Writing

Hubbub in the Living World

Silence isn’t really a part of the living world. On a “quiet” morning when I walk in the woods there’s quite the hubbub going. Finches, doves, frogs, sparrows, muskrats, squirrels. They all furrow and murmur. That’s before accounting what other humans, canines and I add to the ruckus.  

If a person hears nothing it’s either because they happen to be a predator afoot in the world and all god’s creatures have tensed to escape the notice of hungry eyes and ears that. Or, it’s because that person has fortified themselves in some a manmade thing, (edifice or transport), that shutters out the sounds of the living world. That old cliché of where someone says; “It’s silent, too silent,” reflects a truth; out in nature silence is evidence of a world on edge.  

I suspect the same holds true in our big, busy simian brains. Silence, the cessation of thoughts, isn’t an achievable constant in the wilds of our minds. We might scan our minds with our predator’s eyes and scare the fauna of our mind into petrification for a moment or two.  But soon enough they’re back to the business at hand.   

As a writer this is good news. All you have to do to write is be attentive and listen. Give your mind a moment and it will babble like a brook or tweet like a bird.  

Go ahead and join the rest of nature. Make some noise.   

Every Saturday I post a prompt in “The Fearless Songwriter” group on Facebook. There’s a great little community of songwriters growing over there. Join in. (The best way to keep track of all I do is to sign up for my mailing list).

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Fearless Challenge, Practice, Shame, Songwriting, The Muse, Writing

Don’t Much Know What This is Going to Look Like

“Don’t much know what this is going to look like,” is a perfectly acceptable place to start from.

It may be the only place to start from.

Now, take a step.

The next one will follow.

There’s always fog on the path.

Learn to move with, and in, uncertainty.      

It isn’t easy.

It is a skill which can be learned.

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Fearless Challenge, Shame, Songwriting, Writing

Planning for the Fearless Challenge

I’ve wanted for a while to put together an intake to help people prepare for the Fearless Songwriting Challenge. I’d forgotten about “The Ship It Journal,” Seth Godin’s workbook to help people suss out the resistance they’ll find in working on a project, and helps them plan ahead to beat it.  Here’s a link to the free PDF: “Ship It” Journal by Seth Godin

It’s not quite perfect for the challenge.  There’s lots of group focused language, and we’re mostly writing our songs on our own.  I took that language as an opportunity to think about the committee of voices in head that hold forth as I’m writing a song.  You can see how I worked through it and adapted it below.  

It took me about an hour and a half to complete the journal, try it out for yourself, it gave me unexpected ideas, inspiration and confidence. 

You may be saying; “I don’t have an hour and a half to fill the journal out.” I’d respond; “Are you sure you’re committed writing a song every day for a week?  That will take an hour to an hour and a half every day too.” Probably only filling out just the bits on planning your time out and sussing out resistance would take about 45 minutes to an hour.  

The biggest sticking point for me was when it asked me to list all the tasks I necessary to completing the project. When I read that I was close to telling myself I’d finish filling the journal tomorrow. You know how finishing things tomorrow goes.

If you do try it out.  Let me know how it goes.  I’d love feedback on what works and what doesn’t work.  

And. . . Here’s what I did:

(Please note, the following wasn’t edited, it’s a journal entry I’m sharing in the hope it will be useful to see what I did).

Project:  Fearless Challenge

Ship Date: 7 consecutive days, 7/28 – 8/3 

Reasons for not shipping:  

“I don’t have anything good to say”
“I don’t have the time”
“I stubbornly refuse re: D. Burns”
“I don’t care enought”

The project is to run the Fearless Songwriting Challenge which requires: 

Writing seven songs, one each day, for seven consecutive days
Posting prompts each day at 11:00
Checking in and listening to five songs a day, after posting prompt

When does it ship?  

Sun 7/28 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Mon 7/29 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Tues 7/30 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Weds 7/31 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Thurs 8/1 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Fri 8/2 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Sat 8/3 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00

Who is responsible for shipping it: Timmy Riordan* <–That’s me

What am I afraid of?  Writing bad songs, failing to write, but more afraid in some ways of writing bad songs, being judged poorly, people thinking I’m a hack writer, a dilettante, that people won’t like me or my songs. 

What are the distortions? All or Nothing, Fortune Telling, Mind Reading, Hidden Shoulds: I should be a good writer, I shouldn’t work at something that I may not succeed at well, I shouldn’t enjoy a project or have fun doing something if others might judge me for it and think I’m foolish, I shouldn’t write bad songs, I should only write fully formed songs filled with the beauty, pain and catharsis of the human experience. 

Pick some edges:  

Open
Easy, (i.e. low bar for success)
Responsibility (i.e. I’m responsible to finish a song each day)
Give
Real
Fast (i.e. let’s write some upbeat songs!)
Cheap (Money-wise it costs nothing, time-wise I’m investing 2 – 3 hours a day).
Proven (Writing for seven days straight works)
Safe (The emotional risk is a distortion, and I’m learning to handle those).
Disposable (In line with keeping the bar low)
Mesh (We work in a cohort, we’re here to support each other).
Sold
Honest
New
You

Who is your Customer

For the songs, me
For the Challenge, the cohort, i.e. other participants

Who are the key influencers, gatekeepers, and authorities? 

In a sense, Soph, John, the folks I care about that I currently (sometimes) share my songs with. 

Does anyone else matter?

My censor, the imagined throng of critics that inhabits my head. 

Can I ignore them?  I can let them know I’m doing my work and that they need to give me space as I’m doing it. 

Questions and ideas for the devil’s advocate: 

It’s not enough time
I can’t write a good song in an hour
No one important will like a song written this quickly
People will laugh at me

–These are Fodder for Daily Mood Log/IDing the Distortion/Daily Mood Log

Who can stop this project:

Mostly me, I could get embarrassed and let my projections of what others thinks guide my decision to quit.  Mind Reading/Fortune Telling combined with emotional reasoning are important distortions to watch for.  

Who else can stop this project? 

I mean Facebook could blow up, or go down, that would be inconvenient.   

Who is essential to our success? 

Internally, In this case, I think it’s getting the Censor on board, maybe my taskmaster as well.  The thing to remember with the censor is we both have great taste. I’m going to write some mediocre songs during this project, that’s ok, they’re all first drafts and the only people who will see them are other people who care enough about songwriting to write bad songs themselves in the service of writing songs they love and care about. 

Externally, who are my supporters?  John Linn–can I find an accountability partner from the cohort as well?  

What does perfect look like?  

Dear god, perfect for this project is terrifying and overwhelming–laboring over each line, hand crafting and transcribing every melody, I’m not sure I can even consider it. 

What does good enough look like? 

Seven sets of lyrics with chords dangling off them precariously, and a one take video of each one so I can reconstruct each of them at some point further down the road. 

List every Task–

Well, I’ve listed my writing times,
Posting the prompt
Sitting down to write
Brain storming: usually a word map or word tree
Drafting lyrics
Playing guitar and singing/mumbling through a melody while recording to find the song
Typing up lyrics
Doing a one take recording
Posting to Youtube
Posting to Facebook 

Who becomes my competition? 

The people who post songs which I like better than my own.  

What does failure look like? 

Not writing the song–officially even not posting isn’t failure. 

Things that can feel like failure:

No likes or comments
Being unhappy with my finished song
Feeling like my song is shitty
Other people writing better songs than I do
I think that’s most of it. 

The Bradman Test:

That guy’s a jerk.  He’d write effortlessly good songs and sing them in his effortless tenor with a disarming nonchalance that makes the whole thing seem way too easy.  Also, he’d look good doing it without even having to try. 

But I’m not Bradman, what will I bring to this project that someone who is truly gifted might not? 

I’ll bring striving and effort and care.  I’ll bring my cranky baritone that I tend to feel insecure about but does the job just fine, even well sometimes.  I’ll bring my skewed, wry sense of humor and my sense of the human condition, and the vulnerability and hope that I think might make it just a bit easier for everyone.  I’ll bring my grit and determination to work through and finish the project.  

Plus it!  List ten things you could add that would radically or subtly improve your project.

  1. Move some of my chord changes off the 1 beat
  2. Add a note, or melodic embellishment I’m not quite comfortable with 
  3. Do the same lyrically, add something I feel just a bit insecure about. 
  4. Keep the BPM at 110+ 
  5. Write a double verse or two 
  6. Write six verses for every song
  7. Add an extra beat to a measure or two 
  8. Record the whole thing in a professional sound studio 
  9. Invite a piano player to cowrite everything with me
  10.  Start with drum tracks 
  11.  Write killer bass lines

Minus It! 

  1. Write all my songs on just one string 
  2. Write songs using just a drum track
  3. Make all the verses a single line, or a single word even 
  4. Defenestrate rhyming from my songs
  5. Give up on writing lyrics out, just pick up the guitar and start singing
  6. Forget the guitar–just hit record on my phone and sing
  7. Don’t bother with chords
  8. Write a blues every day 
  9. Use only two chords all week. 
  10.  Only write over a simple bass line
  11.  One note song 

When was the last time you did something for the first: 

This morning actually, I reached out to a stranger to ask permission to use her images.  She was happy to share and it felt great. And yes, I forget sometimes about the rush of doing things for the first time.  (Also, working through this journal is a first). 

Turn Pro 

Emotional labor is doing the work you don’t feel like doing, because that’s the work. As Steve Pressfield points out, the act of turning pro is a conscious decision to do emotional labor. If you were a pro at this, how would you do it differently?

I think I’d just aim to lose the drama, i.e. I’d do the work, and forget about the belly aching–though I’ve been a pro a serving tables for ages and belly aching comes with the territory. So, I’d do the work despite the belly-aching.  

Shame? 

“You’re not as good as you think you are…” Are you waiting to hear this? Afraid of it? What would it feel like if you did? Make a list of what you might hear instead of that if you actually shipped, shipped something artistic and generous and world-changing:

Great work, Tim!
That really helped me.
I’ve never written seven songs in seven days before
I wrote one of my best songs ever this past week.  

Take a bow 

You earned it. 

Reserve this page for describing what happened when you shipped. If you want to write down the truth in advance, if you want to describe the end before you begin, go ahead.

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Chord Stories, Music Theory, Songwriting, Writing

Chord Stories (or B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow)

Pat Pattison has a brilliant reduction for the elements of story: 

Stable. 

Unstable . . . 

Pivoting between these two states is the engine of story, (excepting exceptionally dull stories).  You could frame this idea as tension and release as well. A pithy saying which expresses a similar idea is; “If it can’t happen (stability), it must (instability).”

This is known to obsessive watchers of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or any other bingeworthy TV. Is there a greater harbinger of disaster, (instability), than a character saying, “Great plan. It’ll work perfectly.” (Stability). 

Music is story told with sound.  Without stability and instability, tension and release, pattern and “surprise!” music is exceptionally dull.  Just like a story. Chords tell story. Are you familiar with the rules? Do you know how to create stability and instability? 

Almost no one will tell you this, but one of the classic stories is embedded in the standard tuning of the guitar’s bottom three strings.  It’s there to see, plain as dry toast.  Take a look: 

EAD Fret O

Standard tuning on the guitar can seem like it was designed by a cruel madman.  It’s full of sound and fury signifying and B string is in tune. But standard tuning evolved to help tell chord stories. The story on the E, A, & D strings is basic but flexible and full of possibilities.  It’s could be a lot like the story boy meets girl who already has a boy. In it E, A, & D all represent the major chords their named after.  

Here’s a plot summary: A major is the hero of the story, named Amanda. Amanda lives in a house across the  street from her best friend Derek (the D Major chord).   They have a lot of fun together. Derek’s place is great to hang out at but since Amanda is the hero of the story, going back to Amanda’s house always feel like home.  Edgar (the E chord) is an older neighbor who lives next door to Derek. He’s mostly nice but he’s not happy when they’re in his yard.  Obviously, it’s great fun to find excuses to be in Edgar’s yard, it feels slightly risky and daring. After Going into Edgar’s yard Amanda feels safest returning home to the A chord.

That is close the most basic chord story there is.  (There two chords songs out there though). A is the hero and feels stable. D is the best friend and if feels fun to go to his place. E feels a little tense and makes you want to return home, to the A chord.  Following these guidelines, how might you make a calming chord story? How might you make chord story that feels more tense or exciting? There are 1000’s of three chord songs in the world that all create stability and instability following and breaking the rules of that story.  

This story is as movable as your capo.  Clamp a capo on the third fret and the principles are the same but the chord names will change. (The chord shapes will remain the same). 

GCF Fret III

C becomes the main character, the hero
F becomes the best friend
G becomes the antagonist

Do the same thing at Fret 7 and you’ll end up with the chords to a classic E major blues.  

BEA Fret VII

E is the hero
A is the friend
B is the antagonist

I can hear you complaining.  Do I really have to know the notes on the guitar at the 7th fret?  –Nah. 

I mean, it’s not the worst idea, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ve got you covered. Though the answer could be unsettling. You must go to the of the fifth circle of hell.  Just kidding. It’s worse than that.  You have to use the circle of fifths.   

I know. I hate the circle of fifths too. But it’s exceptionally useful as a guide to chords stories. (Has anyone told you that?  They never mentioned it to me. I’m a little bitter).  

You now know that A, D, & E major are the hero, best friend, and antagonist of a classic chord story. Take a look at the circle of fifths, can you see those letter together on it?   

Circle of fifths

Do you see it?  Here’s what I’m talking about:

Circle of fifths(EAD)

The principle is this, assume all the letters on the circle of fifths are major chords. Take any three in a row and you’ve got yourself an antagonist, a hero, and a best friend.  The main characters in a chord story. Translated into theory jargon that’s the I (the hero), IV (the best friend of I) and V (the antagonist) of a key.  It works for any key.  The I chord, the hero will be in the middle.  The antagonist (or V chord) with be clockwise from the hero.  The best (or IV chord) friend will sit counterclockwise from the hero.

Circle of fifths(Hero)

I hear you again. Do I really have to learn the circle of fifths?  –Nah. 

Learn this instead: B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow

That’s a mnemonic for the Circle of Fifths in reverse, or B, E, A, D, G, C, F.  Oddly, this is the better way for guitarists, (and perhaps everyone), to understand it.  That’s because chords “like” to resolve down a fifth. B, E, A, D, G, C, F is only 7 peices of the circle of fifths though.  The other part is B, E, A, D, G*, again, but all flatted.  Then you’ve come full circle.   That’s it.  

*Gb can also be named F#, depending on the context.  If that’s confusing, ignore it for now.

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David Burns/CBT, Practice, Songwriting, Writing

A Better Relationship with Your Critic (Or We Both Have Great Taste!).

It’s easy to feel frustrated, lonely and overwhelmed writing. It’s a fuzzy, poorly defined project. Washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, (both good substitutes for writing), are projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The details of dishwashing’s plot aren’t riveting, but are a comfort in relief to the writing’s unknown topography.

Writing is often a machete through the jungle, trailblazing-type scenario. Vines can seem like boa constrictors and vice-versa. A toothy, slinking predator like a critic could drop onto a tender young idea just finding its legs and swallow it whole. Many times we’re the critic. 

Dr. David Burns has a tool he calls the relationship journal. It’s meant to work through difficult interactions we have with others.  The idea is to take a difficult interaction with someone and journal through a five questions to determine if you used to good or bad communication techniques with them.

 **spoiler alert** If it was a difficult interaction your communication probably fell short of “good.”  

Good communication here means what you say leads to greater openness and trust with the other. Bad communication means what you say forces them to close down, and makes them feel defensive, unheard, disrespected. (Probably all three).

You might see some qualities of good communication already on display through their negatives. Good communication lets the other person know they’ve been heard, let’s them know you respect them and admire them. What if you don’t particularly respect or admire the other person?  Did I mention this is a technique to be used with people hope to develop a closer relationship with?  

What is good communication? 

  1. It acknowledges what the other person has said, and what they are likely feeling.   
  2. It lets the other person know our own feelings. 
  3. It shows our genuine respect for the other person, even in the heat of battle. 

My curiosity with regards to writing is: Could I use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic while writing or editing?  

Do I have sometimes have difficult interactions with myself?  Yup. Am I someone I want to be closer to and have a better relationship with?  Um, yes.  

Maybe it sounds vaguely looney tunes to converse with myself and acknowledge my feelings to myself. I don’t know about you but I dialogue with myself constantly, and quite often, adversarially.  Why did god make me this way: an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other, and slavedriver cracking a whip behind, all of us bickering? (Maybe I could use the techniques of good communication with god too. But I digress).  

What might it look like to use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic?  

As an example, let’s say I’m John Prine writing a song to be called “Billy the Bum.” I’ve just written the line; “He was just a gentle boy, a real florescent light.” 

My inner critic screams; “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever;” 

I respond; “You do better.”

Step 1 of the relationship journal is to write down what the other person said.

We’ve got that. 

Step 2 is to write my response.  

We’ve got that too. 

Step 3 is to determine if my response demonstrates good or bad communication, i.e. 

  1. Does it acknowledge what they other person is thinking and feeling. 
  2. Does my response let the other person know what I’m feeling in a direct way? 
  3. Does it show respect for the other person? 

What do you think? I agree; nope, nope and nope. I didn’t acknowledge what my critic said. I’m pretty obviously feeling resentful, angry, and worthless, I didn’t acknowledge that either.  Finally, my response shows disdain and a suspicion the critic-gremlin-monster is worse at writing than I am.  

Step 4 is consequences, did my response made the situation better or worse. 

I think my response cause my critic to solidify its belief the line is crappy and I’m a bad writer and made it even more adversarial.  

Step 5 Revise my response using good communicaiton.  So how could I do better? 

Dr. Burns says there are Five Secrets to aid good communication, I have to use all of them if I want a better relationship with my critic.   

  1. Disarming technique: Agree with the other person; find some sliver of truth in what they are saying no matter how mean-spirited, unfair and wildly off-base they seem to be. (He claims there is always some sliver of truth in what they say which you can agree with).

  2. Thought and feeling Empathy: Thought empathy is paraphrasing what they’ve said to you so they know you heard them.  Feeling empathy is acknowledging what emotions they are likely feeling.

  3. Inquiry Ask if there’s more they’d like to tell you about what’s going on for them. This shows you are interested in what they have to say and care.
  4. Assertiveness. Acknowledge and directly state your emotions to the other person using feeling words.  Dr. Burns’ advice here is the phrase “I feel like you . . . “ sounds like it might be conveying your feelings but is usually attacking and blaming the other person.
  5. Affirmation. Find things you genuinely like and admire about the other person and tell them those things, even in the heat of battle.  (This isn’t about bullshitting the other person and blowing smoke up their ass, especially if the other person is you. You deserve better).

Here’s my revised response I just wrote up:

Critic: “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever.”

Me: You’re right (Disarming), that line is pretty out there and weird (Thought Empathy). It sounds like you really dislike it.  (Feeling Empathy). I haven’t heard anything like it before. I feel kind of insecure about it to be honest, even a little embarrassed I wrote it down. (Assertiveness). You have great taste. We both like all the same music. (Affirmation)  Could you tell me more about what you don’t like about that line?   

Critic: “How is Billy like a florescent light?   What does it even mean?   

Me: Well, I guess Billy is weirdly dim, and being near him evokes a kind of angst and depression which soaks into the bones: soft, gentle, insidious. 

Critic: Oh, That’s kinda cool actually. It works better than I thought.  

Me: Thanks, I didn’t really realize how well it worked either.  It just kind of popped out. It’s cool you helped me think about it more.  

(Did I mention this takes some practice? David explains often how The Five Secrets can sound simple, even simplistic, yet seasoned therapists have difficulty adopting this technique and using them with grace).  

I’m kinda of shocked by the result here. I’ve been hearing line from Billy the Bum for 10 or 15 years and by going through the relationship journal with my inner critic got some new insight. I chose the line because it’s always stuck out to me as brilliant, but a little weird. I often contend John Prine’s genius is actually something just short of being daft; he kept that line in despite it being weird and it works. (Maybe the line working was obvious for you from the beginning)  

There is a time tested method of setting the critic aside while you write, and it can work well. But by conversing with the critic and showing it respect, (showing myself respect really), I can feel it giving me more leeway to do the work.  “You have great taste, we both like the same music,” is stupidly true. (My critic could go on and on for hours about why Oasis sucks. Sometimes we do). I’ll try this out soon on a real song, see how it goes, and get back to you.  

David speaks about relationships and the relationship journal on his podcast here.

He talks about these techniques at length in his book “Feeling Good Together

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Practice, Songwriting, Writing

Sending Myself to My Room Without Dinner

I’m aiming to make fewer resolutions. 

My resolutions are all about making myself better: I’m going to play scales on guitar for an hour everyday, or I’m going to stop looking at my phone the moment I wake up.  They’re little ultimatums I lay on myself. They’re the equivalent of grounding myself or sending myself to my room without dinner. What’s the chance some sneaky part of myself isn’t going to sneak out the window and go out drinking with my friends?

I’m trying out a few things that offer me more dignity and agency. Things that sound less like a childish tyrant levying decrees.  Here’s one from Daniel Coyle’s “Little Book of Talent.”

After you’ve finished a practice session write down three things:

  1. What worked
  2. What didn’t
  3. Ideas for the next session

This practice says I have the intelligence to discern what works for me, and what doesn’t. It invites me to pay attention rather than instead mindlessly practicing guitar scales until I die. It says that tomorrow I can engage my curiosity and see what works again. 

Maybe what doesn’t work is the ordeal of forcing ourselves to doing things.    

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David Burns/CBT, Shame, Songwriting, Writing

Messing up the song and changing it is the goal.

Editing is hard for me. I kinda hate it. It’s on my mental to do list daily, but I spend my time on other things. I learn David Rawlings licks. Re-binge “Breaking Bad.”

I’m learning I can melt my resistance to tasks I avoid, (tasks which scare me), if I give them some attention with a Daily Mood Log. I pulled one out and wrote “editing a song” as the specific event causing me strife.

I circled the emotions on the page which come along with editing a song for me: Anxious, frightened, inadequate, incompetent, alone, foolish, stuck.   

I wrote down all the negative blurts and thoughts as well, the first of which is; “I’ll mess up the song,” as well as things like, “it won’t be any good,” and “it will end up obvious I stiff and obvious that I workshopped it.”  

Soon I was looking for thoughts to crush the negative thoughts that have been holding me back this came to me:

“Messing the song up and changing it is the goal.”

Soon I was at work screwing up the song I wrote to improve it.

The Mood Log:

IMG-0673

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