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.

1 comment:

ann said...

You're right about starting being a very hard obstacle. I'm writing a book and deciding to do it was the hardest part.