Friday, October 28, 2011

Does your song pass the a capella test?

Try singing your melody line all by itself, with no drum track, no chord instruments, no instruments at all. How well does your melody hold up a capella?

A capella (pronounced AH kuh-PELL-uh) is a musical term, originally from Italian, that means "sung without accompaniment" or "no instruments, just voices."

Not every rock melody can hold together without accompaniment. The notes might not make sense without the chord line. Rhythmic syncopations might just sound wrong if there's no steady beat for them to play against. And in some songs, the instrumental lines have all the interesting parts, and the vocal lines are little more than punctuation.

I mention all of these caveats to emphasize that it can still be a good song if it fails the a capella test. It doesn't mean you have to rewrite the song from scratch. But if all of your songs fail this test, then you are missing out on the strengths that melody writing can bring to your music.

A song that works a capella is usually one that people can sing along with easily. It's a song that's easy to remember. It sticks in people's heads. It's the kind of song that people sing to themselves while they're out walking and sing with their friends while drinking. Every album should have at a few of these.

How do you write a melody that works a capella? The most direct way is simply to write the vocal line first, and sing it out loud while you're writing it. After the melody is finished and solid, then come up with chords and the rest of the instrumental arrangement. You'll find that the rest of the writing is easy when the melody is strong enough to stand on its own.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Melody tip: Vary the length of phrases

A melodic phrase is a single line of melody. Originally a phrase was sung in a single breath by the singer, with a rest between phrases for the singer to take the next breath. Some modern-day songs use longer phrases that require more than one breath, but it helps to remember that phrasing is at least symbolically linked to breathing. A phrase is a breath of music.

One of the most effective ways to give shape and pacing to the song as a whole is to vary the length of melodic phrases. For example, you might have 4-bar phrases in the verse and 2-bar phrases in the chorus. The different phrase length gives the chorus an unmistakably different feel from the verse.

Another common formula is to use shortened phrases at the end of the verse, to create a sense of increased momentum heading into the chorus.

Many ordinary songs use 4- and 8-bar phrases all the way through. It's unfortunately so commonplace that using any other phrase length anywhere in your song will help you stand out as interesting and different. Look to the Beatles catalog for some great examples of a flexible approach to phrase length.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Melody tip: Ignore the chords

A pentatonic melody is one that uses the five-note pentatonic scale. In major, the pentatonic scale includes scale notes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. In C major, those notes are C, D, E, G, A. Notice that there's no F or B in a C pentatonic melody.

Pentatonic minor includes notes 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7. In A minor, those notes are A, C, D, E, G. Aren't those the same notes as C major pentatonic? Indeed they are; the difference lies in whether C or A serves as the tonic (the keynote).

One interesting thing about the pentatonic scale is that it doesn't include any half-step intervals. Half-step intervals are central to musical expressions of personal emotion. Without them, pentatonic melodies have a somewhat detached, universal feel. They're great for a big crowd of people singing together.

And the second interesting thing about the pentatonic scale is that, with one narrow exception, you can use whatever chords you want and it doesn't sound wrong. You can use any of your key's six major and minor chords in combination with any series of notes from the pentatonic scale.

The one exception is that the melody can't sit on the 1 note while playing a [three]m or [five] chord. In C major, you can't stay on the C note in the melody while playing an Em or G chord. The C clashes uncomfortably with the B in those chords. But as long as your melody keeps moving around, you won't run into that problem.

Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths, and many others in the post-new wave/modern rock world use this trick to craft melodies that show an utter disregard for the accompanying chord line. Perhaps it expresses a personal stubbornness, a defiance of authority and convention. But you can't argue with the musical results, which are often quite powerful.

Give this a try: write a pentatonic melody, and then use some random technique for picking chords from the key's six chords. Then try a different random set of chords. You'll see that the melody fits in with both different chord lines.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Melody tip: Work against the chords

As I noted in the previous post, the simple way to make your melody sound right is to emphasize notes that belong to the current chord.

The sophisticated way to make your melody sound interesting is to do the opposite: to emphasize notes that don't belong to the current chord. If you do this carelessly, you run the risk that the melody will just sound wrong. But there is a simple secret to doing things wrong and getting an artful result: craft the "wrong" element into a consistent, discernible pattern. Then it sounds like a deliberate choice instead of a mistake.

As you listen to other people's songs, and as you sing and play them, pay attention to which melody notes fit into the chords and which notes cut against the chords. Skilled songwriters use both kinds.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Melody tip: Work with the chords

For an absolute beginner in melody writing, here's the #1 insider's secret on how to write melodies that sound musical: Pick a melody note that's in the chord sounding at the same time. Most chords have three notes, so that gives you three melody notes to choose from. Try one of those notes, and see how it works.

When the chord changes, see if your melody note fits the new chord. If not, find a nearby note that does. You never have to move by more than one step to fit into the new chord.

For a little extra interest, you can add a few notes that don't belong to the current chord. (The fancy technical name for these notes is non-chord tones.)
  • You can move from one chord note up or down to another chord note, passing through one or two inbetween notes that don't belong to the chord. (The notes inbetween are called passing tones.)
  • You can start on a chord note, take one step down to the next note, and then back up to the first note. (That lower note, which doesn't belong to the chord, is called a neighbor tone.)
  • You can also go one step up to the next note, and then come back down. (Also a neighbor tone, the upper neighbor.)
  • You can start the measure with an accented note that's not in the chord -- a pointedly dissonant note. But you quickly resolve the dissonance by moving down one step to a note that belongs to the chord. (If you want to get really fancy, you can also move up one step to resolve the dissonance.)
To recap, here's the absolute beginner's way to write a melody:
  1. Pick a series of notes that fit with the chord progression.
  2. Here and there, change a few of the notes to non-chord tones, using any combination you like of the four kinds of non-chord tones listed above.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Melody tip: Cast of characters

One way to approach melody writing is to treat the notes — usually the seven notes of the major or minor scales — as if each were a separate character in a stage play. In this frame of mind, you treat each note's entrance and exit as a significant event.

For example, you might start with a single-note soliloquy, and introduce a few more notes one at a time to join the conversation. Soon one of those notes wanders off to start a new conversation with some other notes.

When a note has worn out its welcome in the spotlight, take that note offstage for a while and let a different character lead the action for a while.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Melody tip: Nudge the rhythm

If your melody seems basically good but sound just a little too predictable and familiar, try nudging the melody a quarter-note earlier or later with respect to the underlying beat. (In a fast tempo, move up or back by a half note.)

This simple, mechanical change can make it sound like a completely different melody. Sometimes, that's all you have to do to get it into the right groove.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Melody tip: The melody line is a rhythm line

If you tap out the rhythm of your melody line on the tabletop, does it sound interesting without the help of the words and the pitches? Would anyone have a chance of recognizing your song just from the rhythm of the melody?

It's okay if the answer is no. There are many good, successful rock songs with nothing interesting or distinctive in their melodic rhythm. But if you want your song to be catchy and memorable, to get listeners' attention and to stick in their memories, then take some time to look for ways to make the melody's rhythm more distinctive and interesting — especially in the song's chorus and in the hook line.

When I set out to write music for a finished set of lyrics, I write the rhythm first. I don't start thinking about notes until I've settled on a tempo and feel and sketched out the melodic rhythm.

Often, at this stage of writing, I make some edits to the lyrics so that the words fit neatly into the rhythm scheme. Sometimes I have to rephrase things to add or remove a few syllables. I make sure that each strongly accented note lines up with a strong word, a word that deserved to be emphasized.

I've learned from experience that if I don't get the right rhythm to start with, I'll end up at a dead end and have to start over anyway. And if I do get the rhythm right, the notes fall into place without any great effort.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Melody tip: Geometric melody lines

The previous post described the natural melody style that imitates the pitch of ordinary speech. The opposite style of melody involves carefully crafted shapes and patterns of notes. I sometimes call this style geometric melody, because on music paper the notes form neat geometric patterns that you can pick out by eye. The patterns are even clearer if you chart the succession of notes on graph paper.

At its best, geometric melody is catchy and engaging. It delights the parts of our brains that solve puzzles and recognize patterns. (Rhyme schemes provide a similar kind of appeal.)

At its worst, geometric melody can seem inane and childish, and it can wear out its welcome after a while. There are a limited set of pleasing patterns that can be formed with the seven scale notes, and all of them have been used before, so you might have to tinker with the notes until you come up with something that sounds fresh and original enough.

Many conventional songs use natural melody for the verses and geometric melody for the catchier choruses.

Take a look at your own songs. If you never use geometric-style melody, you should try your hand it. And if you never use natural, speech-style melody, that is equally worth exploring. If your melodies are always in the vague area between those two styles, then you have double the chance to improve your melodies by practicing both styles.

If your melody style seems too limited, try switching up the method you use to compose your melodies. Stereotypically, natural melody is composed by singing out loud, while geometric melody is composed while sitting at a keyboard.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Melody tip: The natural melody of speech

Melodies are shapes painted by musical notes. A melody line goes up, then down, then up again, and its particular shape helps make it unique and interesting.

Ordinary, everyday speech has its own shapes. Even without musical notes, the pitch of a person's voice moves up and down in the course of an ordinary sentence. Some of these pitch movements are universal expressions, some are characteristic of a specific language or region, some express specific emotions, and some reveal the speaker's unique personality. Use your songwriter ears to listen to the shifting pitches of everyday speech, and you'll find music everywhere you go.

When you have a new song lyric to set to music, try saying the words out loud in as natural a way as you can. Imagine that you're actually talking to someone, using the words of the song, and it's important that they understand what you're trying to say. Notice the pitch of your voice as you say the words. (If it helps, record yourself speaking, and listen to the playback.)

Often you'll hear three pitches in your speaking voice: a central pitch, a higher pitch for emphasized words, and a lower pitch at the end of a phrase or sentence. Try assigning those pitches to three notes, and see if that works as a melody. Adjust the notes as you need to so that they fit your chords. Sometimes that's all you have to do, and the melody falls into place.

Using the natural melody of speech is easy for you as a songwriter, and it also makes it easy for the listener to grasp the meaning of the words. You can't use this technique all the time — some songs demand something different — but go ahead and use it where you can.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Melody tip: Use higher notes for the chorus

In the previous post we talked about the song's melodic range. Each part of the song has its own melodic range, as well, and you can use melodic range to help define your song's structure.

There's a very conventional way to do this. The first part of the verse uses a low and narrow melodic range, often with only two or three notes. The "part B" of the verse moves to a slightly higher register. And the chorus introduces even higher notes, often including the highest notes in the song.

Using a higher melodic range for the chorus, and often also a wider melodic range, is one way to help the listener hear that the chorus the high point of the song.

In some songs, the chorus also has longer notes than the verse. The verse has more syllables to squeeze in, so the notes have to be shorter. The chorus, with fewer lyrics, spreads out with sustained notes or melismas. (A melisma is a single syllable stretched out over several melody notes.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Melody tip: Know your tessituras

A song's melodic range, as measured by its lowest and highest melody notes, must line up with the singer's range. If it doesn't, you'll transpose the song — move it up or down into a different key — so that it fits the singer's ability.

But it's not always enough to look at the lowest and highest notes of a song. It's also important to the core range of a song, a smaller set of notes that occur most frequently in the song and in the most important parts of the song. Musicians call this range the song's tessitura.

A singer has a tessitura as well. That's the set of notes that the singer can handle most strongly without getting vocally tired. The singer's tessitura is a smaller range of notes than the singer's maximum range. Make sure your song's tessitura matches up with the singer's tessitura.

Some singers, especially those with classical vocal training, know their range and can tell you precisely what their strongest range is. Some other singers just don't know and might even make incorrect guesses if you ask them. The way to be sure of a singer's best range is to listen to songs they've sung before and check what notes they're actually singing.

If you sing your own songs, you probably naturally place them in the best range for your voice. But if you have a low- or middle-range voice, you might have gotten in the habit of singing along with your favorite pop stars in ranges that are uncomfortably high for you, and not actually your best singing range. Don't compete with other singers who aren't even on the stage; transpose your songs down a step or two if that's better for your voice.

Some songwriters bristle at changing the melody to accommodate a singer, and some bands balk at re-learning a song in a different key, but it's a good practice to make those changes as a matter of course. Remember: If you want people to like your song, a good vocal performance has a bigger impact than any other single factor. Or, to put it more bluntly, from the audience's point of view: If it's not sung well, it isn't a good song.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Melody tip: Share the spotlight

Typically the important melody line is the main vocal line, but not always. There are many delightful examples where the main vocal melody has very little movement, and an instrumental line (or sometimes a backing vocal line) steps in with an interesting background melody that moves that song forward.

This comes naturally with rap vocals, because rap is inherently an unpitched style of vocals. But you'll find it also in funk and blues-based rock, where the vocal line might stick to two or three notes while a repeating riff holds the melodic spotlight. And you'll come across it in the chorus of many uptempo rock and pop songs, where the main vocal hook is just a staccato exclamation, and it's the instrumental parts that make the chorus catchy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October is Melody Month

Of all the elements of music, melody is the one that most people grasp intuitively, without any training needed.

To get from that intuitive knowing to a deeper level of knowledge, many hours of training are required, starting with learning music notation. But all of that training still isn't enough. You must integrate the book-learning with your original intuitive sense of melody before you can say that you've mastered it.

This month, we won't go into that level of depth and detail. But this blog will feature some quick tips about melody writing, simple ideas that might give you a few more options to work with as you craft the melody of your next song.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's stopping me?

If you're a creative artist, but you spend too much of your time not creating anything and feeling stuck, take heart! You're not alone. Most creative artists are stuck most of the time — which is a sorry state of things!

It's not that we're weak-willed; will power has nothing to do with it. It's not that we lack discipline — though discipline might help out in the long run. And in most cases it's not that we're not trying hard enough. Many of us run ourselves into the ground with an excess of hit-or-miss effort.

Our fault, if anything, is in neglecting ourselves. We artists are subtle and complex instruments that require careful tuning and alignment for best results. We need to learn to play our creative selves with the same skill and attention that we play our musical instruments, to wield ourselves with the same finesse that we bring to a pen or paintbrush.

Back in February, I signed up for the February Album Writing Month challenge — to write 14 new songs in 28 days. Writing that much material that quickly is indeed a challenge, but, as I pointed out at the time, it's an opportunity to purge your creative process of the difficulties that slow you down. You can set realistic standards based on the limitations of the game, and find new ways to collect creative ideas and make quick decisions.

In the FAWM challenge, I would never ding a songwriter who made a real effort but ended up short of the target of 14 songs. But I was stunned by the actual results: more than 3 out of 4 songwriters who signed up never even wrote their first song. This made me speculate that Just Getting Started is a bigger hurdle than I'd given it credit for. I mused that it's a huge but invisible problem: No one ever finds out about The Things You Didn't Do, no matter how great they might have been.

What would the world be like if we could change the game a bit, so that even a fraction of these lost inspirations instead came to fruition? It would certainly be a much richer place.

This issue of getting started had special resonance for me, because I've often had great difficulties getting started on creative projects. I've learned over the years that it's important to start from where you actually are, no matter how badly you wish your starting point were a little bit closer to your goal. I've learned that if a project is too big to start today, you should pass on it, no matter how cool the idea is, because it's just too big for you. And it's easy to underestimate the importance of simply being comfortable in your creative space.

As I thought further about the difficulties of getting started, I realized that creative artists have a unique challenge: our work requires the ability to enter the creative state of consciousness, a special brain configuration that is not always available when we need it and not under our willful control. Without the creative state, we can't do good work. We face what's called "writer's block" or "being stuck."

The creative state can only emerge under certain conditions. First of all, you must be fully in charge, fully responsible for the creative work to be done. In addition, you must believe you can be successful in solving your creative problem, and also that doing so will make a difference that matters. These two key beliefs — "Yes I Can" and "Yes It Will" — must be in place. If doubts arise and interfere with either of them, you won't be able to enter the creative state.

Luckily, these two key beliefs are only loosely based in reality, which means you have the power to fix your creative block just by changing your thoughts.

On the "Yes I Can" side, you might want to pick a smaller goal, one that's easier to achieve, and give up trying to prove yourself. You also must be careful that your goals don't grow out of control, because your own excitement and enthusiasm can quickly build them up into mountains so high that you can never scale them.

Or you might just need a boost of confidence in your abilities, especially if you've spent too much time in an environment of overly negative and critical people.

On the "Yes It Will" side, you can sidestep your doubts by changing what you focus on. If your focus is on your to-do list, you could easily feel you're getting nowhere. And if you're worried about what people will think, you can never feel sure of success. So focus on things that are already inside your control, and you'll feel more positive about moving ahead.

If you're stuck, don't just say "I procrastinated," because that's an explanation that explains nothing. If you just try again, with more exclamation points this time, you will probably just fail again with more exclamation points. You don't need more will power. You need a different game board. You don't need incredible luck. You need to pick the winning cards and put them in your hand to start with.

Take a closer look at your situation, make a reasonable guess about why you haven't taken action yet, and then try something different. Change your goal, or redefine what it means to be successful at your goal. Change your environment, your thoughts, your timing, your tools, your attitude, or your behavior. You're tuning your instrument for the first time, so don't expect to get it perfect on the first try. But if you keep trying things and paying attention to the results, you can create the right setting where it's easy for you to create beautiful works of art.

It takes time and careful attention to turn going-nowhere into momentum-of-a-freight-train. Don't expect an instant, miraculous solution. But you don't have to do it all at once. Solve today's problems today, and save tomorrow's for tomorrow. One bit at a time, you can build momentum and get your creative life moving. Let's get started!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Don't say "procrastinated"

Procrastinate is a funny word: it's an action verb for a passive state of non-action. More to the point, saying "I procrastinated" doesn't help you understand and change a pattern of inaction. It's easier to defeat procrastination if you get past the word procrastination and get to a slightly deeper understanding of what happened.

If you want to change over to a pattern of action, take a look at your pattern of inaction with these five questions:
  1. What created the expectation of action? How vague or specific was your plan, commitment, or deadline?
  2. What actually happened? (Stick to the facts. Skip the judgments, excuses, and apologies.)
  3. What's a simple and reasonable explanation for the inaction?
  4. Do you still intend to take action? (Make a conscious, active decision.)
  5. What could you do differently that might lead to different results? There's no point in trying the same thing that didn't work, so think of something you could change.
If you keep it simple, you can run through these five steps in less than a minute. For example:
  1. What created the expectation? I promised myself I would start on this project yesterday.
  2. What actually happened? The day went by, and I didn't do anything.
  3. What's a reasonable explanation? There were several unexpected things in the evening, and I completely forgot about my plans.
  4. Do you still intend to take action? Yes, today I'm going to start on it, even if it's just for five minutes.
  5. What could you do differently? I'll put a reminder on my pillow, so I can't go to sleep without doing something on this project.
Here's another, slightly different, example:
  1. What created the expectation? Every year I say I should do my taxes early, so I won't be up against a deadline if something goes wrong.
  2. What actually happened? The filing deadline is two weeks away, and I haven't started.
  3. What's a reasonable explanation? I hate working with numbers, especially with the pressure of knowing that a mistake could get me into legal trouble.
  4. Do you still intend to take action? Yes, I must! I'll be in even more trouble if I don't do my taxes on time.
  5. What could you do differently? I'll sidestep the math fear for now: I'll just do the initial work of gathering the information I need. Then I'll at least be one step further ahead.
As you work with this process, don't sweat over it. You don't have to come up with the perfect explanation (step 3) or the best way to change things (step 5). Just make a quick guess, try it out, and see what happens. Even if it fails, you have one more example of something that doesn't work. You'll still be one step ahead of where you'd be if your thought process ended with "Oops, I procrastinated again."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

You were born successful

I confess I'm sort of squigged out by the current flood of experts, coaches, and authors who promise that they can help you "be successful." Whenever I see that promise, I have to ask, "successful at what?"

I would hope that people want to succeed at some specific, worthy goal that inspires them. The promise that you can "become" a generically "successful person" rings very empty to me. It sounds like a sales pitch that would come from someone deliberately targeting people with low self-esteem, people who might hope to be rescued by some external, magical form of redemption.

To me, you start out successful — no redemption required. You can't "become successful," you can only become "more successful" by adding to your trophy collection of meaningful accomplishments.

I'm sure there is some real value in the current crop of success books, and I'm sure that "success coaches" are really helping people improve their lives. One thing you won't get for your money is becoming successful. You are already successful.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The to-do list and hopelessness

In theory, a to-do list pulls together all of your best current opportunities to improve your life and make an impact on the world. This supercharged piece of paper is a physical representation of your personal power and immediate potential!

Does looking at your to-do list make you feel powerful, engaged with life, and ready to jump into action?

No? Not exactly?

In practice, confronting someone with their own to-do list is more likely to drain the life right out of them. You see their face going pale, their gut clenching, their muscles getting weaker. Their mood somewhere on the spectrum from stoic resignation to utter hopelessness.

The to-do list unfortunately has become a locus of discouragement that seems to make life even harder.

For most people, trying to move forward in the face of this kind of discouragement is like trying to walk with an extra fifty pounds on their shoulders. For creative people, it's like trying to walk while chained to the wall. You'll get nowhere.

You can't use your creative mind -- which is your most valuable asset -- while you're in a state of discouragement.

Time management tools don't work very well for most creative people. As far as I can tell, all the standard tools and systems you can buy were invented by non-creative people for use by other non-creative people. If you've sincerely tried to use a time management system and it didn't work for you, don't let that experience make you feel guilty and inept. If you needed a hammer and the closest thing on hand was a screwdriver, that doesn't mean you're bad with nails.

If your to-do list isn't a happy place, then don't try to use it to manage your whole life. Use it in the narrowest way possible: to keep track of your non-routine obligations that have real-world deadlines and real consequences. Hopefully, that's a short list. (If it's not, let's face it, your life is out of balance right now, and your creative life might need to be put on hold while you clean up more urgent messes.)

And here's one more suggestion for you to think about: You're a creative person, so why not create your own time management system? Devise something that actually works for you, your own idiosyncratic system that organizes the information you need and actively helps you feel inspired.

If you've found or invented an effective tool to organize your creative work, please post a comment here and tell us briefly about it, how it works, and how it helps you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Backwards advice: "Visualize your goals"

Yesterday I wrote about the Tommy fallacy, the misguided idea that you can copy someone's results by painstakingly mimicking their actions.

Of course, there are some things that you can effectively imitate and copy. You can watch how a chef chops onions, watch how a rhythm guitarist uses his whole body in the rhythm, or watch how a singer's facial expressions enliven the vocal line. By teaching your body the same motions that you observed the experts doing, you can improve your technical skills.

You can also find, on the web, recipes and how-to instructions for a million different problems. That's a very precise and practical way to copy someone else's successful actions.

But a generation of slightly confused success coaches took the copying idea too far and made it the centerpiece of their success advice.

They made detailed studies of some extremely successful people, people who had accomplished extraordinary things. They discovered common behaviors among all of those highly successful people. And thus they reverse-engineered a recipe for success. If you imitate all of these success behaviors, they said, you too can be successful.

Of course, those success books that delivered this recipe weren't really any more helpful than the diet books, one shelf over in the same bookstores, were. Unfortunately, their methodology fell prey to the Tommy fallacy; they assumed incorrectly that you can copy the results by copying the visible behavior.

The trouble with relying on a strictly retrospective methodology is that it can only show correlations between two variables, but it can't actually tell you which variable is the cause and which is the effect. The behaviors they observed and recommended were actually the results (or side effects) of being successful, not the ingredients of success.

For example, successful people are passionate and work long hours to achieve their goals. But this doesn't mean passion and hard work are the cause of success. The truth is the opposite: feeling passionate and working hard are the result of highly effective, successful action. Of course you work hard and feel enthusiastic if you see that your actions are highly successful.

Along the same lines, successful people quite often start out a vivid and compelling mental picture of their goal, almost as if it were already real. This observation was turned into a bit of widely repeated advice: "visualize your goals."

The advice goes like this: First, pick a goal. Then, take the time to develop a clear and powerful mental picture of that goal fully achieved.

Visualizing your goals isn't a bad thing in itself. But there are two things wrong with this line of advice:
  • For most people, it's not easy to generate vivid, detailed mental pictures on demand. It takes a lot of time and real effort.
  • Even if you can painstakingly build a mental picture of your goal, this willfully-created image still isn't the same as the visions that led other people to extraordinary success.
The original observation was correct: People who accomplish extraordinary things usually had a vivid picture guiding them. But none of those highly successful people picked a goal and then sat down and spent an hour trying to create a mental image of it. The truth is the opposite. These people had the vivid mental image first, and because they couldn't get it out of their head, they adopted it as their goal. They let their visions guide them.

My read on the profiles of extraordinarily people is that they were not so much driven to be successful per se; rather, they were driven to accomplish specific worthy goals. These people were struck by inspiration, powerful inspiration that arrived with a detailed vision, with a flurry of helpful ideas, and with a big blast of energy to get them started. Each of these people were poked pretty hard by one of those angels who drop in, seemingly at random (from our human perspective), with a mission that they could not ignore. Given a clear sense of direction, these people worked hard, overcame big obstacles, and invented things that had never been seen before, all to bring their visions to life.

You could go through the motions until you drop from exhaustion, but you cannot willfully recreate this pattern of success.

For those of us who have the capacity to receive the poke from an angel, the gift (if you can call it that) of this kind of inspiration, we still have very little control over how and when the angels of inspiration will visit us. I've written at length about how to encourage inspiration in your life and how to make the most of it when it arrives, but inspiration still remains a force that is fundamentally outside our control.

Here's some forewards advice about visualization: A strong, clear vision of a possibility is a good sign that that might be a good goal to pursue. But if you can't seem to visualize a creative goal, or if it's a weak, confused image, that might be a sign that it's not the right goal, or that the time isn't ripe for you to pursue it.

If you are struck by a powerful, vivid, detailed picture of something, something that seems cool and exciting and worthwhile, you might want to consider adopting that as your goal — even when it seems to go against ordinary business logic and common sense. That clear and vivid image just might be a hint that you have an opportunity to accomplish something extraordinary.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tommy fallacy

Imitation is a powerful way to learn new skills, but the specific techniques and strategies that worked for other people won't necessarily work for you.

In the Who's rock opera Tommy, the title character experiences enlightenment and healing through obsessive practicing of pinball games. (Pinball is a mechanical predecessor to video games.) But when Tommy urges others to play pinball and follow his path to enlightenment, it doesn't work for other people. They play and play, but they only become frustrated, not enlightened.

The moral of the story is that everyone has to find their own path to enlightenment. A spiritual path is a personal thing, and if you randomly follow someone else's path, it won't necessarily work for you.

Guess what? This lesson applies to more than just your spiritual life. The path to success in life is just as personal as the spiritual path (and that's assuming that those two things can even be considered separately, which is debatable). And what about your path as a creative artist? That path is most emphatically a uniquely personal thing that you must discover yourself.

The Tommy syndrome is the misguided (but understandable) tendency of coaches, mentors, and advisors to expect their students to repeat their own path to success, no matter how ill-fitting it is.

The Tommy fallacy is the incorrect assumption that you can achieve the same results that someone else achieved, just by copying all of that person's actions. It's the assumption that you can do great stuff by carefully studying and exactly copying someone else's process for doing great stuff.

In practice, this copying process sometimes partly succeeds, but it often utterly fails. Imitating people who are good at something is a fastest and powerful way to learn — but you still have to find your own way to success.

Why doesn't it work to copy someone else? There are several reasons why it fails.
  • Everyone is different, with a unique set of strengths, limitations, interests, and values.
  • You're in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. It's never a match for the situation of the person you're trying to copy.
  • While some behaviors are obvious and easy to copy, some behaviors are subtle and hard to discern — and these subtle differences sometimes make a big difference.
  • Noteworthy success is rarely a one-person effort, and key contributions can come from invisible supporting players who chose to stay out of the spotlight.
But the key flaw, the centerpiece of the Tommy fallacy, is this:
  • The successful person you're imitating did what they did as a natural expression of who and where they were and what they wanted to achieve. The one thing they didn't do is copy someone else's actions.
As a creative artist, you can certainly pick up tricks and techniques from others and use them as raw material. But you fundamentally can't find your creative way by copying someone else's path. This is a practical thing; not some moralistic imperative to "be original." The creative process simply doesn't work if you put someone else in the space where you are supposed to stand.

You, the artist, are the catalyst that sparks the chemical reaction. You provide the transformative space that makes magic happen. And the magic only works if you are whole and intact, taking ownership of the creative process and taking responsibility for the results.

But don't trust me on this. I don't want to be just another one of those coaches, mentors, and advisors that I warned you about eight paragraphs back. Check this out for yourself, and see what your own experiences tell you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Of course you worry about what people will think

It's important to be cool. It matters that people notice and like the things that you've created. It's the very rare artist who doesn't care what people think of their work. Most of us are driven to create in order to communicate something profound that can't be properly expressed in ordinary words. It's a powerful and reassuring experience for the artist when someone in the audience gets that message and acknowledges it.

But there's a pitfall: If you focus on what other people will think of your work, you won't be able to create.

Remember that you can't enter the creative state of mind unless you feel confident that your work will make a difference. And the definition of "makes a difference" is very flexible — it depends almost completely on what you focus your attention on. If your attention is on what other people might think of your work, how can you feel confident? Other people's reactions are almost entirely outside of your control.

Here's my suggestion: Do your creative work on Tuesday night; then worry about whether you're cool or not on Wednesday afternoon. If those worries start to creep into Tuesday night, gently brush them aside, saying, "Please, just hold onto that very important thought, and bring it up in our Wednesday afternoon worry session, when we will cover it in exhaustive detail."

You may, of course, adjust the schedule to suit your own calendar. The point is that worrying about people — which is an undeniably important matter in life — must go into a different time slot from your creative work sessions.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Avoiding "inspiration inflation"

In the past few days, we've looked at a few unhealthy ways that your creative goals can become oversized and thus too big for you to handle. But there's also a perfectly normal process of inflation through which your goals grow larger, when you're filled with enthusiasm and under the influence of the overoptimism that often comes with inspiration.

For example, you have a great idea for a song, and before you even write it, the idea grows into a concept album in which the song is the centerpiece. Your story idea becomes a novel, and then a trilogy.

One thing I've pointed out before as a songwriting coach — and it applies in any creative field — is that any idea can be done at any size, large or small, and on any "budget," simple or elaborate. Don't let your ideas, no matter how brightly they glow, tell you what size they have to be. Make them fit into your creative context in a way that supports your large-scale career goals. In other words, be practical in setting the size of each project.

How do you know when an idea has gotten too big for you? One sure tipoff is if you put off working on your idea until tomorrow, because it seems too daunting to handle today. The sobering truth is that if you put off your project even once, there's a fair chance that you will never complete it. If it's too big to handle today, it's probably destined for the junkyard of brilliant projects that you never got around to working on.

So go ahead and take out that pruning saw today. Cut your project down to a size that you can handle right now. Don't think of it as diminishing your idea or undermining your own inspiration. On the contrary, scaling it down means rescuing it from oblivion. It didn't take any time or effort for your idea to grow oversized, and it shouldn't cause you any pain to scale it back down again.

I make a rule to resist the temptation to make a project bigger until I've gotten the first version of it basically completed. Then, if I still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and if the idea seems to have room to grow, I can still go for it. But I don't want my ideas to swell up before I actually start working on them. (My junkyard of abandoned projects is a very large junkyard.)

What I've learned is that inspiration often arrives with its special kind of optimism. This burst of optimism can can give you a big push to start working, but it has a dangerous pitfall: it seriously distorts your judgment about how much work the project will take.

You might feel sure that something will take just one hour from start to finish, and before you know it, you've stayed up working all night, and you still seem to be "just one hour" away from finishing.

When your estimates can be off by an order of magnitude, that means that any little addition to the project might be ten times as expensive as you think they are. So it's prudent to be firm about limiting your ideas and pushing back when they want to get bigger. Figure out what part of the project is truly essential, and chop away everything else.

Again, the appropriate time for your project to grow is after you've already finished creating the first version of it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

If you're just plain discouraged

I've spent a few days talking about how artists get themselves trapped holding impossibly large goals, goals that they can't even begin to pursue because they don't believe in their ability to complete them.

As I keep saying, if you don't believe you can do it, your mind is literally unable to enter the creative state that makes creative work possible. The belief that you can't becomes self-fulfilling truth, as you find yourself stuck, unable to move forward.

Now, these beliefs have very tenuous basis in physical reality. They come from our interpretations of past events and lessons, haphazardly applied to hypothetical future scenarios.

Sometimes the only thing holding you back is the misguided belief "I can't." Your goals aren't unrealistic or inflated; instead, your self-confidence is undersized.

Maybe you had parents who told you a thousand times, "You never do anything right." Maybe your junior-high-school music teacher told you, "You're not very good at music." Maybe your first performance experiences were painful humiliations.

And it's not just experiences from your past that knock down your self-confidence. There might be people in your life today who intentionally undermine your self-esteem. For example, bullies and psychic vampires who enjoy building themselves up by putting other people down. Or there might be family member or close friends who have begun to sense the positive vibes coming from your creative work; they might (correctly) fear that your success will change the dynamics of your tangled, dysfunctional relationships.

I can't go into detail about how to protect yourself against toxic people and clean up relationship messes — there are plenty of experts in that area who can guide you — but do whatever you have to do to keep their energy out of your creative space. Probably the single most important thing you can do in this regard is to keep the details of your creative work secret, except perhaps for a few trusted, supportive friends whom you select.

If you have family members who are threatened by your independence and success, don't give them a reason to push back. Instead, come up with a pathetic-sounding cover story. All that guitar playing that people can hear coming from your room? Don't tell them you're halfway through recording your debut album on Garage Band. Tell them you're just learning to play along with some Radiohead songs.

Anyway, if a legacy of people trying to discourage you has left you feeling thoroughly beaten down and discouraged, a feeling you've internalized as "I can't," then I have good news: There is a proven antidote. What you need is a massive infusion of encouragement, a steady diet of "I can." Find supportive people, and look up books of affirmations and other encouraging materials. It takes time to tip the balance against years of discouraging voices, but it absolutely can be done.

Meanwhile, don't try to push ahead with goals if you really can't muster the belief that you can do them. But start with smaller and simpler creative goals, and see if you're willing to suspend your disbelief in yourself and give them a try. It doesn't matter how small you start, because if you keep gradually moving to bigger challenges, you'll be doing big, impressive things before you know it. A pattern of success will help you feel bolder, and you'll build a habit of saying "I can."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What are you trying to prove?

Yesterday I described the creative artist's equivalent of being stuck in a one-way cul-de-sac. When your goals are so big that you can't believe you can achieve them, but lesser goals seem too insignificant to bother pursuing, then you have no way to move forward. It's a trap that many artists wander into, and once there, you can feel very, very stuck.

But remember, as I explained just a few days ago, although the condition of being stuck is very real and nothing to joke about, it nonetheless is not a physical trap. It's a mental trap. And sometimes it's possible to think your way free.

To start with, you might ask yourself: How did an impossibly-big goal become the only goal that I'm willing to think about?

Or, you could be blunt about it, and ask yourself: What am I trying to prove? And who am I trying to prove it to?

Are you asking your creative process to carry the burden of problems from your financial life, your social life, your troubled relationships, wounds from your childhood? Are you asking your creative output to redeem yourself, to prove your worthiness, to make up for past sins or errors?
If so, that might be more than your muse can handle. Who wouldn't freeze up under that kind of pressure?

The point is, if you let these external concerns govern your creative life, then it can cause a kind of ambition inflation, where only huge and heroic projects seem worthwhile, and only over-the-top, best-in-the-world results seem adequate.

Do what you have to do to disentangle your creative process from these pressures. If necessary, swear off for a few months any goal that sounds even faintly ambitious or impressive, and let your muse just have some fun with absurd and whimsical goals. Write some short songs about snails and other small, lowly animals. Write fanciful essays about random objects found on the roadside. Draw sketches of office supplies and electronics accessories.

And this would be the perfect time to get Julia Cameron's terrific book, The Artist's Way. Her book is a 12-week course designed to heal and strengthen your relationship with what she calls your inner artist, which I call your muse.

Now, I feel I have to mention, as an aside, that there's nothing wrong with trying to prove something — if you do it in a way that doesn't break your creative process. Instead of letting that impulse distort your planning process and steer you towards bigger and grander goals, bring in into the studio and let it goad you into doing better and stronger work.

And there's nothing wrong with bringing your social woes, your relationship problems, your childhood wounds, and all the darkness of your soul into the studio as raw material. The magical alchemy of the creative process can transform all of that dark stuff into works of transcendent beauty and set you free of the past. The trick is to bring that stuff inside the creative process as fertile material instead of letting it sit on top of the process like some kind of taskmaster.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Staring down a brick wall?

As I explained in the last two posts, to get started on creative work, you need to believe both "I can get this done" and "This will make a difference."

Basically, this means picking a goal that's small enough that you can actually complete it, but important enough that you'll have some enthusiasm for the effort.
Bad news! Those two categories don't always overlap.
Sometimes, I have found myself in an unlucky place where everything that's big enough to matter seems too big for me to tackle today. And everything I can imagine actually getting done today seems so small, it makes me say "what's the point?"
For example, suppose I'm inspired to create some great music that's more or less like the best work of Yes or Genesis. But what I can realistically achieve right now sounds more like rough demos from the roommate of some guy in the local AC/DC tribute band.
Or suppose I have a great idea for a novel. But I know if I sit down and try to start writing, the results will be such poor storytelling that I'll just end up throwing the pages away.

Have you ever been in a situation like this, where the gap between your wishes and your talents seems insurmountably large? It's discouraging! The result is that I do nothing at all. I waste the whole day, and then I feel guilty about it.
Success coaches tell you you can pursue any goal, no matter how large. The theory is that you can break the goal down into pieces, and then break the pieces into pieces, until your reach the level where each piece is small enough that you can tackle it. Frankly, that approach is wrong, and it doesn't work in real life. They missed a key fact: each of those pieces needs to be significant enough on its own that you'll feel it makes a difference to complete it. If tiny piece #1 doesn't pass that test, then you'll be locked out of the creative state of mind, and you won't be able to make any progress at all.
Don't hack your dream into pieces. That's not how real-world successes are made.

If you can think of a piece of your big goal that you can handle today, even it it's a small piece, then go ahead and get started.
But some goals are just too big. Sometimes you have to say, "This is a worthy goal, but clearly it's something I'm not ready for yet." (How do you know you're not ready? Because you're not taking action on that goal!)

What you might look for instead is a goal that you can believe in — something that at least puts you in a stronger position to consider taking on your bigger goal.
For example, I might put that novel aside and sign up for a fiction writing class. By doing the class assignments, I'll improve my writing skills and perhaps become the kind of writer who can realistically tackle big projects like the novel I'm thinking about.

You're a creative person, so apply your creativity to your career strategy. If you find that you're not moving forward, don't keep bruising yourself against an unyielding brick wall.

Who says you have to proceed on a straight-line path to your goal? That doesn't even sound creative! It might turn out that the shortest distance between your two points is some kind of crazy fractal n-dimensional Celtic spiral. Do something that you can do today, even if it might seem like a crazy whim, an irrational side trip. Trust your muse to lead you down the right path, and you'll find yourself in a better spot tomorrow.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Two little beliefs that rule the world

Before creative work can begin, you must have two beliefs in place: you must believe that you can get the work done, and you must believe that it will make a difference.

Let me point out that these two areas of belief have no basis in physical reality.

In reality, the feasibility of a task is unknown until you actually do it. At best, you can make an informed estimate of whether a task is achievable by comparing it to similar tasks that you or someone else completed in the past.

But -- especially in creative work -- each task is unique and brings its own circumstances and surprises. A task that seems impossible may prove to be possible thanks to unexpected help from the universe. A task that seems easy and routine may bring unexpected pitfalls.

The truth is, you don't know whether you will succeed until you actually try. Nevertheless, we hold definite beliefs about what we can and cannot do. If a creative goal falls into the "cannot" category, it's as good as failed, because you will not even get started.

But consider this: You have the power to change your beliefs. If you believe that you can change your beliefs, then anything can be put into the "possible" category. (Wrap your brain around that!)

You can choose to change your beliefs -- but usually the simpler course is to change your goal. Pick a goal that you already believe you can reach, and then you won't have to venture into these mental gymnastics.

(You don't have to repudiate your bigger goal when you switch to another, more believable goal. Just set that bigger goal aside and say that it's not ripe for action today.)

Just as there is no reality beneath "I can," there is no reality behind "makes a difference." It's a judgment based on your own values and perceptions.

Every action has an impact on the physical world. And every action impacts the mental world too! There's no objective measurement to say which of these impacts counts as "makes a different" and which of them count as "it doesn't matter." It's a purely subjective judgment.

You can change what "makes a difference" by changing your perceptions. If you find yourself thinking "What's the point?" that's a sign that your attention is focused on the wrong thing. You can choose what you focus on, and you can keep your eye on the place where your creative work matters. Then you'll be unstuck and able to get started. (More about this in future posts.)

These little beliefs, ghosts of the mental realm, with no solid basis in physical reality, nonetheless rule our lives. Without "yes, I can" and "yes, it will make a difference," you won't take action. But if both of those beliefs are in place, you are free to act. And the difference between action and inaction can make empires rise and fall, can determine the direction of our lives, can change everything.

These two beliefs may have no basis in physical reality, but physical reality is based on these beliefs. Look around you. Everything you see is there because someone believed something was possible and believed that it would make a difference.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Yes I can" and "Yes it will"

What elements must be in place for a successful round of creative work? First of all, there are two things that are fundamentally necessary. You must have:
  • An idea or goal, or a problem to solve, an inspiration, a vision, an opportunity, an irritant — something that gives you a direction for your work
  • A set of resources to work with, for example: time, a pencil, a guitar, and your accumulated knowledge of music and rhyme
These two things are so basic that they apply in any realm of human activity. So let's set them aside for now and look at another pair of essential conditions that apply specifically to creative work.
  • You must believe that it's possible for you to complete the work, to reach the goal, to hit the target, whatever it is.
  • You must have hope that the work will make a difference. It's going to matter in some way to someone if you get this done.
To put it another way, you need to have a definite response for each of these doubts:
  • You can't do that.
  • What's the point?
For example, your responses could be:
  • I've done this before, and I can do it again. Just watch me!
  • This song idea won't leave me alone. I need to give it a try and see what happens.
Now, when I say these two things are essential, it's not hyperbole. They are absolutely necessary. You simply won't be able to move forward without them.

Creative work is different from most ordinary activities, where you can go ahead and attempt something even if you are sure you will fail, and where you can take actions even if you feel certain that your efforts are futile.

Life is full of half-hearted efforts and pointless tasks. You can drive to the store even if you know that it's closed. You can donate a dollar to the Save the Theater Fund even if it seems impossible for them to raise enough money by their deadline. You can paint the first third of the wall even if you know there isn't enough paint to do the rest.

But you can't do this in creative work. You can't enter the creative state of consciousness unless you actually believe that you can succeed and that it will make a difference. Without access to the creative state, you can't get your creative work done. You'll sit there with your goal, feeling impatient and frustrated that you aren't starting to work on it. You might try any number of motivational tricks to get yourself moving, but none of them will do any good.

To flip this insight around, we can say that creative work requires a specific kind of self-confidence and optimism. If you feel confident in your abilities and optimistic about your results, the creative state will open up its doors for you, and then you'll be able to get your creative work done — and you will actually have a chance at getting some positive results.

For artists, self-confidence and optimism tend to be self-fulfilling. Confident and optimistic artists are more likely to be successful. If you want to be a creative artist, don't try to be soberly realistic about your prospects; that's a losing strategy. You're actually better off having an inflated sense of your own talents and a rosy view of your successful future. (Just don't quit your day job.)

It will take another dozen blog posts for me to fully explore this important subject. For now, if you find yourself creatively stuck, ask yourself these questions:

Do I really believe that I can complete this work/reach this goal/solve this problem?
If not:
  • What is something that I actually can do, something that will put me in a stronger position to face this main goal?
  • What is a simpler, smaller, or narrower version of this project, one that I would have a better chance of completing?
  • What is the key obstacle that makes this task seem so daunting? Is there a way that I can tackle that one difficult aspect head-on?
  • Are there people around me who are trying to discourage me and undermine my confidence? Am I carrying around negative, self-defeating thoughts?
Do I really feel that completing this work will make a difference?
If not:
  • What would actually make a difference?
  • Can I focus on a different aspect of this work, one where the difference it makes is easier to see and quantify?
  • What if everyone in the world went ahead with efforts like this one? Or what if everyone in the world gave up on efforts like this one? Would that add up to a difference that I would notice?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The non-negotiable importance of yourself

Yesterday I blogged about a special state of consciousness that's required for creative work -- the "creative state." This creative state is a source of vexation for artists, because it's so not under our control -- it's the Unruly Beast in this blog's title.

You can't enter the creative state at will, even if your life depends on it; but it emerges spontaneously whenever the conditions are right and you give yourself an interesting enough problem to solve.

When the creative state hides out on artists, we might feel lost and worried (and other negative emotions). There are plenty of creative chores we can do in our normal states of consciousness, but it's a little painful and unnerving (and usually unsuccessful) when we try to do our primary creative work without benefit of the creative state. We might say, "Crap! I'm no good at this! I'm a phony and a failure as an artist!" Or, if we recognize what's going on, we might say, "I feel blocked. My creative juices are not flowing."

If this happens to you, it should make you feel better to know that this is something that every artist has to deal with at some time or other. It doesn't mean you're a fake or a failure, but it might mean that there's something wrong in your life that needs some attention.

There is one common theme that runs through most of cases of creative blockage. If you find yourself unable to enter the creative state, it might well be that you have negated yourself in some way. You've neglected yourself, left yourself out of the picture.

If you did, it's understandable. Everything in our culture teaches us to negate ourselves. In school our opinions, experiences, and knowledge have no value, and we must temporarily put them aside in favor of whatever the teacher or textbook is presenting. In religion, sports, military, jobs, and even in the "creative and performing arts," the truth is that suppressing or even sacrificing yourself in favor of the team's or institution's goals and values is usually the successful strategy.

But suddenly you arrive at actual creative work, and the rules are different. You can't do it without yourself. Even if you want to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the greater good, to create a glorious work of art, it just doesn't work. You, as the artist, are the vessel in which the miraculous transformation occurs, from base raw materials to golden new creations. If you're not a whole and intact vessel, the magic cannot take place.

It's surely no coincidence that many successful artists are egomaniacs with a greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance. Not that you have to be a jerk to be an artist, thank goodness; there are also plenty of examples of gracious and humble people at the top of every creative field. But having a strong sense of your own value and importance really does help. So don't be embarrassed to put on your superstar cap in private while you're working.

Here are some examples of negating yourself. Any of these things can be the cause of a creative block:
  • Trying to create something for an assignment that doesn't make sense to you. You can't afford to ignore your own doubts about the assignment.
  • Trying to work in a style that you don't understand. If you don't feel that the style belongs to you, you won't be able to create in it.
  • Pretending to be something that really isn't what you are.
  • Trying to create something that will live up to someone else's standards. For example, you can't write a "#1 hit," because the hit charts are beyond your understanding and control.
  • Trying to create something "good enough" that it will magically change some circumstance in your life. For example, if your goal is to write a song so good that your bandmates will have to respect you, you probably won't be able to write anything at all.
The solution, in a general sense, is to find the way to own what you're doing. If you must create for a class assignment that you think is silly, bring that opinion into your creative space, and discover your way of doing the assignment — perhaps sarcastically.

You can use the circumstances of your life as raw material, but not as rules to govern your creative work. Instead, create things that suit your own standards, create in your own style, do it your own way, and please your own ear.

In my next post, I'll talk about two key conditions that are necessary for entering the creative state, and I'll look at some of the common thoughts and attitudes that can interfere with one or both of those keys.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The creative state of consciousness

Creativity — at least for part of the process — requires a special state of consciousness. In this special state, the brain is temporarily reconfigured in a way that allows most of your conscious processing power to be devoted to a single problem or question.

Any worthwhile creative project is a complicated problem that can make good use of this extra brain power. I often say that creative tasks are multidimensional problems, which means that they include several independent variables that interact with each other in nontrivial ways.

This kind of multidimensional problem can tax the capabilities of today's powerful computers, even if the problem can be precisely defined — but how often is your creative challenge precisely defined? Usually its definition is fuzzy, defined in an incomplete and imprecise way. And still, our brilliant minds can tackle these fuzzy multidimensional problems and come up with elegant solutions that are entirely new, never-seen-before creations.

Hopefully you can see why the brain would need to rewire itself temporarily in order to tackle the difficult problems that come up in creative work. In the creative state, the parts of the brain that keep track of people and relationships temporarily turn themselves into extra computational units for your creative work. So do the parts of the brain that keep track of where you are, who you are, what time it is, and the things you have to do.

Obviously, it's not safe or wise or practical to enter this creative state of mind very often. You wouldn't want to wander around unfamiliar woods in a creative state of mind, forgetting where you are, forgetting that bears are dangerous, and forgetting that you should get back home before dark. For very good reasons, evolution has created a bias against the creative state of mind, making it temporary and fragile.

The fragility of the creative state is one thing that makes our work as creative artists so delicate. We need this special, expanded state of mind in order to do our work, but we cannot force it to happen. We can't push our brains into a creative state, no matter how hard we try. And all sorts of perfectly ordinary situations, such as complicated relationships, time pressure, and anxiety about upcoming events, can prevent the creative state from occurring. If you feel time pressure, for example, the part of the brain that keeps track of time can't release itself to become an extra computational unit for your complex multidimensional problem.

After all this bad news about the creative state, I'll leave you with some good news. First of all, you're already above average in your creative capabilities. That's why you're reading this blog about creativity. For most people, this blog would be verging on nonsensical, because they've never experienced the creative state of consciousness that I'm writing about.

The second piece of good news is that you can practice entering the creative state and learn to do it more reliably over time.

And the third piece of good news is that you can actively manage the elements that are necessary for the creative state, and also proactively deal with things that are likely to interfere with the creative state. Those specifics will be the subject of my next few blog posts.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Angels with sticks

Forgive me being obsessed; I'm still thinking about the phenomenon of creative people not getting started. I'm haunted by the thought of a vast garden of creative potential, with most of it wilting and dying — only a few scattered spots here and there getting watered and bursting forth with bright flowers.

If we tend our garden just a little bit better, we could have many more flowers.

Now, it's perfectly okay if people don't want to create anything. Not everyone is an artist by nature, and that's fine. What troubles me is the people who do want to create, who feel called to some very specific form of artistry, but who find themselves blocked, unable to start doing the work that they want to do.

They're left perpetually frustrated, in a state of suspense. And it can't be good for one's health or happiness to be simultaneously pulled by something and held back from it.

At the same time, we all lose the value of whatever it was the artist was impelled to — and failed to — create. It's not that the world really needs more songs, more movies, or more novels. What the world need is more of the fruits of authentic inspiration. These are the things that are so powerful, so necessary, that the muses or angels (or whoever they are) are willing to intrude in some poor human's life and poke him with a stick until he creates the thing they demand.

Think of the angel whose job it is to hold the stick and poke, poke, poke the artist. Angels are not sadistic torturers by nature; they don't really want to cause pain. We can be sure that the creations that they are hoping to birth are truly valuable and would more than make up for the artist's temporary discomfort. But it only works if we, the artists, are able to follow through and actually create the work.

There are many potential pitfalls. The artist might not have the vocabulary to express the message. The artist might fail to grasp the message clearly, and lose most of it in the translation. But the most common pitfall, I'm afraid, is that the artist just doesn't do anything. He thinks he can't succeed, so he doesn't even try.

What I'm looking for is leverage — some way to intervene to make this creative process just a little smoother and more efficient. It should be better for everyone. Less poking for the angels, less pain for the artists, more flowers in our garden.

And the solution has to be something more than just asking artists to employ extra willpower and determination. Being an artist is hard enough without pushing even harder. In fact, my gut feeling is that the answer, if there is one, must involve making things easier.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dump your Grand Brilliant Scheme

Last month I blogged about my participation in the February Album Writing Month challenge at On the 9th day of the challenge, I observed that four out of five people who signed up hadn't written a single song, a startlingly high percentage of no-shows. At the end of the challenge, 19 days later, only a few more people had ventured past the starting line. The month ended with more than 77% of members missing in action, less than 23% actively participating.

Every time I run through these sobering numbers, I have to emphasize that signing up for the FAWM challenge was completely voluntary, and the great majority signed up after February 1st. So this wasn't a situation where someone thought it was a good idea a few months ago and then forgot all about it. People who signed up knew they had to get started pretty much right away.

The good news is that there was a surge of activity toward the end of the month, and almost half of those who actually got started ended up being declared "winners" because they'd posted at least 14 songs.

The grim news from FAWM's statistics: If you don't get started sooner, you aren't likely to get started later.

(It's even worse than the stats look. Most of the improvement in FAWM's averages came from people who joined late in the month with an immediate burst of activity, not from people switching into gear after sitting idle.)

Putting things off is a habit that gains momentum. It's a pattern that gets harder and harder to break.

Be honest with yourself today: If you still haven't taken the first step in your Grand Brilliant Scheme, you probably will never take that step. Your Grand Brilliant Scheme is already as good as dead. It's inexorably being sucked into that black hole, and you don't have the leverage to pull it back out.

There's a good reason to be brutally honest. Opportunity is knocking: an opportunity to do something much less Grand and much less Brilliant than your Grand Brilliant Scheme. But this new opportunity has a trump card: It's something you can take action on. Something you can actually get started on today. In other words, it's real.

Take that new opportunity, however modest it may seem, and let your long-postponed G.B.S. spiral into its black hole.

We all have a bad habit of discounting the value of today's immediate opportunities, and exaggerating the value of things that are out of our reach. We also overstate the value of ideas and take for granted the value that comes from action. There are plenty of great ideas — but the only ideas that matter are the ones you can actually do something with.

New rule of thumb: If you can't start on something today, it's not a creative project; it's just a daydream. It's fine to have daydreams — but your creative life should be filled with action, not just a fantasy of maybe someday.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Whose style?

A quick question for songwriters and recording artists: Do you own your musical style?

If not you, who owns it? Who gets to decide whether your music is styled correctly? Who do you have to answer to?

Of course, as a professional you sometimes have to do music that isn't in your own style, if that's what the job requires. But, when that job is done and you return to your own style, are you as easy, confident, and comfortable as you are in your own home?

If not -- if you find yourself looking over your shoulder as you make music, if you feel self-conscious, if you're eager to please -- then you just might have some ownin' to do.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Make yourself comfortable

Are you comfortable in your creative space?

If you have a specific room where you do your creative work, does it have comfortable seating, good lighting, and the tools that you need at hand? Does walking into the room inspire you, or does it make you feel uneasy?

If you use a computer for your creative work, are you comfortable with it? Do you know where to find all the files and applications that you might use in a project? Do you know how to use your software, or do you need to take some time to get familiar with how it works? Do you have secure backups of all of your files? Do you trust your computer to do what you need it to do -- or does the computer make you feel uneasy?

Is there anything that would make you hesitate to write down a thought in your notebook or on a piece of paper? I remember a music professor suggesting to his students that we draw musical staves on scratch paper, rather than using up a sheet of music paper for every new idea. The suggestion seemed quaint, even to poor students, but the idea behind it was solid. If you're afraid of making the first mark on a piece of paper, because the idea might look dumb and "ruin" the perfect, clean piece of paper, then you better get yourself some paper that you won't be afraid t0 use. Use scratch paper, if that makes you feel freer about scribbling down ideas. Or buy several reams of paper if that's what it take to quash your fear of "using up" your paper supply.

Getting even more abstract about the idea of "creative space," do you feel at ease in the act of creating something? Or do you worry about living up to other people's standards? Are the critical voices of music teachers, parents, peers, and critics echoing in your head as you try to create?

I could go on, but you get the idea. Make a top-to-bottom inventory of the uneasy and uncomfortable elements in your creative life — and find ways to resolve all of them.

Make yourself at home.

Monday, February 21, 2011

If you're stuck

If you find yourself blocked creatively, having a clear goal but not able to move forward, ask yourself this: Are you trying to start from someplace other than where you are right now?

If you're setting out on a long journey, for example, to New York City, it's understandable to think, "That's impossibly far! I can't get there if I start from here. I'll have to set out from Trenton, which is sort of close to New York City." It's natural to wish you were already closer to your destination, but, in reality, the only place you can start from is right here, exactly where you are right now.

This is easy to understand in the realm of physical travel, but reality is just as central and unbending in the realm of creative ambitions. You can only start from exactly where you are right now. And if you find that you're paralyzed and unable to move forward towards your goal, it might be because you're trying to do the impossible. You might be trying to take your first step forward from Trenton, before you've even made the trip to Trenton.

If so, it's time to reframe your questions. Instead of asking, "How can I get from Trenton to New York?" try asking yourself, "Where can I get to from here, if I just start moving?"

I'll have more to say about this soon, in a non-riddle format.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Things You Didn't Do

Last week I made an observation about the overall progress of songwriters in this month's FAWM challenge. With the month one-third over, 80% of participants still hadn't posted their first song. Now the month is two-thirds over, and that number is creeping downward, but only slightly: the proportion of no-shows has dropped to about 78%.

FAWM's participants are all people who recently and voluntarily took on the challenge of writing 14 songs this month. You'd expect some proportion of procrastinators, the overcommitted (who don't realistically have the time for this extra activity), and the disorganized (who, for example, lose the domain name or lose their password) — but it's sobering to see that the non-starter faction is such a large majority.

It makes me wonder what the world would be like if just a few percent more creative people followed through on the things that they said they were going to do, or got started on the things that they secretly know they should do. It makes me wonder just how many people wimp out on the very things that they were born to do, who find some excuse or other to back away from their true life's work.

There's no one in the world who can hold you accountable for the things that you didn't do. Until you actually go ahead and do them, no one even knows that those things are on the threshold of possibility.

It's all up to you, the artist, to find the courage, the discipline, and the resources to bring your secrets to life. If you can't manage it, it's okay — apparently Just Not Doing It is the overwhelming choice of people with a creative calling. But if a few percent more of us could find the way to follow a few more of our visions, the world would be a noticeably richer place.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Making quick decisions

I reached my goal of writing 14 new songs for the 2011 February Album Writing Month challenge, and I was able to stay on the schedule of writing a new song every day for 14 days in a row.

After boldly claiming that writing 14 song would be easy, it was a bigger effort than I planned on. Even the simplest of songs took me a few hours to write, and finding a few extra hours a day, even for something as fun as songwriting, is no easy thing.

Pressing that "non-negotiable" daily goal against my tight schedule forced me to find ways to simplify things and to make decisions quickly and to keep going, when normally I would have been overcome by the accumulation of complexity and uncertainty. Without a deadline, I certainly would have put many of those songs aside in the middle of writing them, planning to pick them up another day when — hopefully — I'd have a fresh perspective that would help me see how to proceed.

But this month, setting things aside was not an option, and when pressed I found I could make some of those difficult decisions, I could dodge the messiest tangles, and I could get a song done by the end of the evening. Can't think of a bridge? Hey, you know what, this song is fine without a bridge!

Of course, the whole point of FAWM is to provide a arbitrary deadline so that songwriters can learn to push past obstacles like these and get their songs done.

I think my songs turned out just as good, maybe better, than if I'd given myself all the time I thought I needed. But, more important, the songs got finished — and, in reality, if I'd set all those songs aside to "finish later," less than half of them would ever have gotten finished.

Being decisive means making compromises, settling for things that you know aren't quite as good as they could be. But those compromises are less severe than they seem at the time. I can always return to the songs later and fix any problems that bug me, any weak rhymes or overly repetitive chord patterns. It's much easier to tinker with a finished song and polish up the details than it is to take a half-finished song and get it finished.

Being decisive — being willing to make decisions quickly even when you're not sure — is one of the key strengths that you need as a creative artist in any field. Creating anything brand new requires diving into the pool of infinite possibilities. But the only way to get yourself back out of that pool with a new creative work is to make some decisions — many, many decisions. Most people won't even dip their toes in; they find it too unsettling and bewildering to have that many options open. It challenges their confidence in the solidity of reality. That's why we need to have artists. Artists are specialists in making decisions.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just Getting Started

The February Album Writing Month challenge is to write 14 new songs in 28 days. When I signed up for this year's challenge, I knew that my main obstacle would be finding time to write. Because I hate finding myself facing a deadline with time slipping away, I decided to proactively rule out that possibility by writing all of my songs in the first half of the month — a song every day, no matter what corners I had to cut to get the song finished.

It's now Day 9, and I've managed to write a song every day for nine days. Just five more days to go! As I foresaw, it has been a challenge finding time to write. And I very likely would have weaseled out of it by now, if I hadn't made my pledge so publicly. The pain of writing a weak song is much less than the embarrassment of falling short of what I said I would do. So I managed to make some quick decisions and get each new song wrapped up each day.

You know, sometimes you can tell it's time to stop working on a song, even if you're not completely happy with it. If the song makes some kind of understandable statement, if it's internally consistent, and if it lives up to the rules of a genre or musical style, then you might be done writing, even if the song doesn't seem to be very good. At that point, unless you can quickly think of a clear-cut way to improve the song, it's time to put the pencil down. The truth is, any changes you make after that point will probably just make the song worse. The song is what it is, and you'll just make it worse by fighting with it.

Luckily, my "surprisingly awesome" new songs outnumber my "disappointing weak" songs so far.

The biggest surprise in my FAWM experience so far is seeing the collective results from all of the songwriters who have signed up for the FAWM challenge. It takes some guts to sign up and say "Yes! I'm going to write 14 songs." It's like signing up to run a marathon, a 26-mile race. Just getting to the finish line is a proud accomplishment, and there's no shame if you make a valiant effort but just can't muster the strength to get to the end of the course.

But what's happened with FAWM is sobering. After finding the courage to sign up for the challenge, many of the songwriters have not yet been able to finish a single song — and the month is now one-third gone. Now you'd always expect a certain number of people to sign up for something on a whim, and then drop out, but this is more than that. More than 80% of participants haven't logged a single song yet.

To look at it from the other side, the entire body of FAWM 2011 songs, so far, has come from fewer than 20% of participants.

This tells me that, in the creative world, just getting started is the hurdle that weeds out most of the potential players.

And on the other side of it, just getting started — at whatever you hope to accomplish — is enough to make you immediately above average.

Sure, it's hard to get started. There are all sorts of obstacles: fear, and procrastination, and remembering where you left your staff paper. They must be big obstacles, because they defeat most of the people who face them.

What is your strategy for getting past this first and biggest hurdle?

If you noticed, I did three things at once: I set an incremental, non-negotiable deadline the first day (and every day); I made a public boast that would be hard for me to back down from; and I jumped into a social setting (at that made my daily accomplishments concrete and visible.

And this is what it takes to get started in a skill area where I've already proven my mastery. Now, we'll see how long it takes me to get started on recording my new album this year.

It's no joke; getting started is hard. But, when you do finally get started, you immediately stand out from the crowd. Because the crowds of people are all still just standing there, and you've taken one step forward.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Seed your creativity

In computer programming, a seed is a bit of data that you throw into a quasi-random process. If the process is truly random, it shouldn't really matter what your inputs are, but using a new seed is an extra way of making sure that the output you get from the process is different from the output you got the last time.

In the same spirit, I suggest using a seed when you're are brainstorming (or idea grabbing) for new song ideas. The seed can be:
  • something that's on your mind, that you know you'd like to write about
  • something that's literally right in front of you, a random object in your environment
  • a word or phrase from any available random generator
Strange as it seems, it's easier to think of songs about "white trucks" (for example) than it is to think of songs about any possible subject. Somehow narrowing the field of options makes it easier for your creative mind to get started.

Try any of these random tools, or invent your own:
(Those last three items, by the way, are from a "random album cover" game making the rounds of Facebook. According to the game, the Wikipedia article supplies the band name, the last quotation on the page suggests your album title, and the third Flickr photo is your album cover art.)

I also have several decks of cards with words and ideas on them. Some are intended as creativity tools, like the Once Upon a Time storytelling cards. Some of my decks are leftover from word-oriented board games, dream interpretation games, and even song lyrics-oriented games. And some were meant as oracles (fortune-telling tools), but also happen to serve as random content tools. If you happen to come a similar deck of cards at a flea market or garage sale, I recommend buying it and adding it to your collection of creativity tools. It's fun to shuffle the cards and deal out a few seeds of song ideas.

Note: I apologize that my own Songwriting Assignment Generator is offline. I think it's just that my web host changed the PHP configuration, but I haven't had time to troubleshoot it.

My suggestion for how to get the most out of your brainstorming:
  1. Pick a seed at random from any of these sources
  2. Start a timer or stopwatch for a short period of time (3 minutes at most), and race to write down as many possible song ideas as you can, based on the seed idea
  3. When the time is up, pick a different random seed and start the timer again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Grabbing a handful of ideas

The word brainstorming is well established in the dictionary, but I can't help thinking there should be a better word. Brainstorming evokes images of neurons gone wild with chaotic bursts of high-energy activity, which in reality would be a frightening, perhaps life-threatening malfunction.

The focus shouldn't be on the brain, or even on the storm. There's a purpose to the process: to gather lots of new, non-obvious ideas. Because ideas slip away easily, they need to be captured — written down, in words that will still mean something the next day. Brainstorming is a form of gathering.

Imagine that someone on the upper level is tossing down colorful coupons by the thousands. You know that some of the coupons are for free coffee drinks and deep discounts on your favorite shoes, along with all sorts of other offers that you might or might not care about. You could sit on the floor and look through the coupons one at a time, hoping to find a few good ones. Or you could grab a big handful of them, as many as you could quickly gather up, and then go through them at your leisure later at the food court, with the help of a few friends.

Brainstorming is essentially the latter strategy. And it might be more accurately called idea grabbing, although that name has its own problematic overtones.

The traditional idea-collecting method, essentially the sitting-on-the-floor strategy, has never worked very well. People tend to stop when they have one or two workable ideas, while the floor is littered with much better ideas that remain undiscovered, even though they were easily within reach.

When you're gathering ideas for songs, don't settle for one or two ideas that are right in front of you. Grab up 20 or 50 ideas. Sure, many of those ideas will be kind of dumb, but you'll get several really good ones at the same time.

I'll list some specific techniques for brainstorming — or idea grabbing — soon.