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 fawm.org) 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.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Day 3 of Album Writing Month

I'm trying to write one song per day for my February Album Writing Month project. If I can keep up with this, I'll reach the goal of writing 14 songs on 2/14, Valentine's Day, and then I can spend the second half of the month recording quick demos of some of these new songs.

In the past several years, most of my songwriting has been prompted by being struck by inspiration, or has been driven by a fairly specific assignment. It's a little harder to start writing "cold," with nothing to go on. I've turned to my file folder of song ideas collected over the years, and I've also resorted to random brainstorming, just casting about for any idea that catches me. So far I haven't found myself stuck with nothing to write about, but we'll see if the idea stream holds up for 11 more songs.

I encourage songwriters to keep a notebook of song ideas and to start collecting fragments of lyrics and music. Someday your music career might hinge on being able to write a solid album of songs on short notice, and that job will be a lot easier if you've provided yourself some material to start with.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Aim for the target (not the clouds)

After yesterday's lengthy post about how to avoid the difficulties in the creative process, I realized that I left out a very important point.

When you're starting a songwriting session — or starting any creative work — take a sober and realistic look at the resources that are available for your song. Work within your budget, the business people say, and it's a principal that's just as important in music as in business, although the budget you're working with might not be measured in dollars. Work within the constraints of your actual situation.

Who is going to perform or record the song? For example, if you're going to perform it by yourself at a coffeehouse, then don't write vocal harmonies. There's only one singer.

If you're writing for a specific band, write for the band's actual talents, not for the band that you wish you had. If the band can't play funk to save their lives, don't write them a funk song. The band will sound bad, your song will sound bad, and everyone will be unhappy.

It doesn't matter how good a song sounds in your head. It's easy to have things sound good in your head. Your goal should be to have your songs sound good in reality. And I'm not talking about any possible reality, I'm talking about your actual current situation.

Does this mean you have to compromise your creative ideals and betray your timeless inspirations all because of some short-term shortcoming? Not at all! Protect those timeless inspirations. Put them in a file folder and save them for a time when your world is ready for them.

As a songwriter, you can avoid a lot of difficulties simply by writing things that are easy to write and easy to perform. Remember that a song isn't a good song in reality until someone actually delivers a good performance of it. And it's hard to do a good performance of a difficult song.

If you've signed up for February Album Writing Month, be realistic about what you can do withing the constraints of the FAWM challenge. To come up with 14 songs in 28 days, you need to finish a song every two days, and that's on top of work or school or anything else that your schedule demands of you.

This might mean you can only budget two or three hours to write each song. If that's the case, you might have to write shorter, simpler songs songs than you usually write.

Don't think of this as compromising your ideals; think of it as making up your mind that you're going to win this game.

After all, you don't reach a goal line by standing your ground. You get there by taking the ball and running.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Banish all difficulties

After yesterday's pledge to write songs quickly and easily for this month's songwriting project, I nonetheless struggled for at least an hour with the melody and chords for today's song.

I had some music in my head, but it didn't sound right when I played through it. First I slowed down the tempo and added some ornamental chords at the beginning of each phrase. Then I tried different, simpler ornamental chords. It all fit together well enough, but I knew it still wasn't quite right. Finally the verse clicked into place when I shifted the start of the vocal line from the first beat to the second beat, and I changed the chord structure from four 2-bar phrases to two 4-bar phrases.

I'm happy with the results, but I already fell short of my goal of practicing simple, easy songwriting.

How do difficulties find their way into the creative process? First of all, I should be clear that there is a certain amount of honest work in writing lyrics and music. My favorite example of this is the fugue, a musical form in which three or four layered melodies interact with each other and simultaneously happen to create a musically meaningful implied chord line. Writing a fugue is like solving a multi-dimensional number puzzle.

Similarly, in the lyrics I wrote today, I had to find rhyming words and still tell an effective story. English offers a limited number of words and ways of saying things, so it can take some real work to make the pieces fit together while keeping the story as short as possible.

There is also unavoidably an element of emotional risk in any creative work. If you don't put anything at risk, you won't create much of value.

But besides these detailed, mechanical writing tasks, and the risk that an artist must take, there are also more than enough creative difficulties that are unproductive, unnecessary, and (somewhat) avoidable. When you struggle with your material as I did today, it's a sign that you aren't going with the flow of your creative process.

What interrupts the flow of creativity? The top culprit is trying to control the outcome. It's a paradox of being an artist: in theory, you have total control of every detail of your creation, but in practice, if you try to exert that control, the whole thing can grind to a halt or fall to pieces. You need to use a very light touch as you play with your creative materials. The song has to take its own shape, and at best you can guide it, ever so delicately, in the right direction.

But then you worry about how the song is shaping up. I need this song to be good. I want to impress my bandmates. I need a hit, already! I need to prove that I can still do this. These worries are all perfectly understandable, but you can't afford to bring them into the creative process. It's like carrying ten-pound weights in your hands — but these are the same hands that you're using to delicately guide the creation of the song. These extra weights, your worries, make your work clumsy and heavy-handed. You can pound your lifeless song into submission, but it won't be a song you enjoy performing.

You might not be able to stop worrying entirely, but you must find a way to set your worries aside, just temporarily, so you can write. Some writers ritually put their worries into a jar before beginning to write, and promise to take them back out again as soon as they're done with their writing session.

Another closely related way to interrupt your creative flow is to try to do something that is beyond your abilities. Again, this is understandable. Artists perpetually underestimate the value of the things they do easily — their strengths — and overestimate the importance of the things that they don't know how to do — their weaknesses.

It's good to systematically exercise your creative techniques, to build your strengths and turn weak areas into strengths. But do that in the form of technical exercises. Don't bring it into your regular songwriting. When you have a specific goal and a deadline, it's not time to stretch your technique. It's time to use the strengths that you already have.

So if you've signed up for February Album Writing Month — or if you have a real album to record and you need to write some songs in a hurry — go with your strengths. Go with what you already know. Write about things that you already care about. Write in musical styles that you are already comfortable with. Write in your own natural voice. Set all your worries aside and trust your creative process to do its best work. (It always will!) Then, let it flow. Let it be easy to write one song after another. You already have all the power, the talent, the ideas, and the resources that you need. Go to it!