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:


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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.


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.   

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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!

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