Breaking the Wall
This is part 2 of a series of songwriting posts designed to personally break me out of songwriting hell. Part 1 explains what that hell is and why I want out. The link to Part 1 is here.
The beginning of getting out
About a week ago, I got myself to a cafe located in the local town I was in, and sat down facing a wall to have no distractions. After an hour and a half, I came up with many different patterns in my songwriting that may be contributing to my continual negativity during the songwriting process. So far, here are the 16 that I have found:
- Always writing at night-time
- Doing lyrics first then music second
- Using Garageband or my guitar as main instruments
- Being tempted to create a full band on Garageband before I even have 20 seconds of music
- Writing on days I have not had decent exercise
- Writing songs soon after having consumed high-carb, high-fat/sugary foods.
- On days where circumstances or mood are particularly bad, I often use songwriting to vent it. Doing this repeatedly has caused me to be either reluctant to pick up an guitar, or to feel down on the rare occasions I do use it to write songs.
- Writing in English
- Always writing alone.
- My lyrics continue to have negative, answerless questions.
- I tend to dress the same way when writing songs every time – Jeans, Sneakers, T-Shirt, etc.
- Never under the influence of any stimulant during songwriting. (Maybe coffee or tea can help?!)
- Drawing on past experience rather than visualizing a future.
- Not rewriting more than once.
- Not changing the volume of my song at any point.
- Not meditating on what I want to convey beforehand.
Are any of these issues for you?
What I am noticing is that maybe I am not the only one who gets drawn into a negative funk when writing. It is very well possible that even the greatest of artists have had to dive down into mental mud in order to pull out something that will make them a living.
I subscribe to the view that it doesn’t have to be that way. By looking at the above 16 things, what possible solutions can you come up with in your head to create a different, better songwriting environment for yourself? Comments will help fellow readers and myself.
Flash is like fireworks. It gets people’s attention with its bright light and its loud bang. It remains in the public consciousness for a little while and then disappears only to be forgotten. People talk about it out of surprise, awe, or disgust, but only for awhile.
One-hit wonders are flashes. A guy kissing another guy on the American music awards is a flash. Getting a vice presidential nomination when you are governor of Alaska is a flash.
Constants, unlike flashes, may not grab you immediately. But when you start to pay attention, you grab onto them, not letting go until they cease to become constant.
Creating great music and performing it well all the time is constant. The google home page is constant. The leader who does what she says she is going to do is constant.
There is one evident weakness with being constant. When building a brand, constancy is repeatedly overlooked by others, and it sometimes requires a small, deliberate bit of flashiness to raise awareness of it.
Think about the flash and constancy going on in your actions. How much is devoted to each?
Maybe you can think of some examples where people are using the two well or very poorly over the long term.
Let me know by commenting.
Let me fill you in on a situation I’m going through.
I can write okay songs, but I want to do better than that.
For as long as I have had this blog, being the best you can possibly be has been one of the core principles that I talk about, and it should not be any different for me. It is a fact that if an artist writes okay songs with the goal being to entertain, his/her chances of success are slim to nothing. An artist in this situation needs to do one of two things:
1. Be the best there is. If your goal is to entertain, be the best entertainer. There are just as many forms of entertainment as there are ways to present them. Mediocre songs will get you nowhere, so write the best songs, or take the best songs other people wrote and be the best at presenting them.
2. Redefine what it is you are trying to do with your material. Not everybody’s goal in music is to entertain. For example, religious musicians often don’t even focus on the entertainment value of their music. My goal is to be involved in creating things that entertain, inform, and liberate people (as opposed to being merely a distraction). After I define how much of each I want to do, a more unique style is created that allows me to practice being the best in an area that has less competition.
As you can see, working towards being the best remains a key component of success, regardless of which route you choose.
Here’s where it breaks down for me right now. My history of songwriting contains a lot of negativity from my past. While much of it has been dealt with to the point where I am a positive, productive person, I have not lived long enough in this state to write songs that entertain, inform, and liberate. For me, songwriting draws me back into a cold dark place, making it frustrating, and nearly impossible to create the art I want to express. It bothers me so much sometimes that I do not practice long enough to really build the skills I need.
This is a wall. And while many creative people claim they can only create what they feel at the time, that’s not me. I am a mixture of artist and businessman, and therefore I am thinking about how to make the changes necessary to get really great.
Here is what I propose: Set a time aside that is a whole 1-2 days. For the most part spend that time alone, yet call someone if it feels helpful to do so. Make sure it is someplace you won’t be disturbed (if you have to get a hotel room and make a weekend retreat out of it, do so.). Bring your laptop, whatever instrument(s) you use, paper, something to write with, and whatever else you feel you need. Take that time out to ask yourself why you are at a wall, how it made you feel, where did it come from, and how to change it? Explore different strategies for changing how you create or what you use for creation. After that, try creating some things without worrying what emotions are coming out, and changing the song/lyric (or part of a song) until it starts to have what you want it to have.
That is what I want to do, and it looks like I will spend Thursday, and Friday doing that. If not, I will definitely get it done by month’s end. Hey, it is the holidays!
Why am I sharing this online? Well, I don’t want anyone to make illusions that I am some sort of guru. I am 22 years old, and I have some answers, and want more still, on this life-long journey. If something I have an issue with is shared by other people, seeing my journey may help…and seeing your journey may help me.
I don’t want to see another mission statement whose words were designed to win playing Scrabble.
But, Señor, What Are Mission Statements?
Mission statements are simple, one to four sentence long phrases. Companies use them in advertising to bring in customers, raise funding from investors, and keep their employees working towards the same objective no matter what tool or task they may be working on.
They also can sound business-like, and boring. In fact, it is possible to read some mission statements and still not know what an organization actually does, or what to expect. Here are some examples:
Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance-based infrastructures. (Dilbert’s Automatic Mission Statement Generator)
Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. (Enron)
If your eyes glazed over reading that, or if your brain stopped working at “assertively network”, I understand and expected it. Notice the difference between those, and Amazon’s Kindle statement:
Every book ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.
This one is more reasonable. You know exactly what Amazon wants to do, and you may have even hoped for their success. Same goes with Apple’s “1000 songs in your pocket” Ipod idea.
Why YOU need a mission statement
- It lays out what your goal is. When you know and see what you are trying to do, it is easier to do it.
- It keeps you on track – avoiding decisions that take you further away from your goals.
- Other people can read it and know what you want to do, as well as how they might help you.
- Maybe you have more than one passion – a statement that tells you what you want to achieve can help you choose which passions to follow and which ones are best left for time off/vacation..
- Potential team members who want to accomplish the same thing will follow or join you if you follow a statement that attracts them.
My advice: avoid traditional, fortune 500 style business statements.
Maybe you are working by yourself, or in a team. You could also be in a succeeding band, or involved in several different businesses. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile (couldn’t help it).
Your mission statement, when you write it, should do what you want it to do. For example, here is mine:
My mission statement: Taking creative minds from a place of obscurity to a place where they lead, and even change, our culture.
As you can see, I do not have huge words like “infrustructure” or “empowerment for our future”. In short, if you can hear it in an oil company commercial or during a shareholder meeting, I will try not to include it in my statement. In addition to it being better-worded (in my opinion), it gives me a path to work towards in everything I am interested in (from music and business to technology and politics). Regardless of what stage I am at, I can look at that sentence and instantly create goals (action specific mission statements) that will get me there.
It is not without its flaws as well. My statement has absolutely no measurable points to let me know whether I have reached it or not. But then again, It is a path and not a destination. It is like saying I want to start a fire. The fire is working whether it is on the edge of a match or a Californian forest. Bad example…think of it instead as a creative, constructive, sexy fire.
You are more than welcome to comment if you think my statement is cool or bullshit. What is your mission statement? I would like to see what it is based on who YOU are.
A friend of mine is a lifecoach who spent thousands of hours both paid and volunteering to help others find emotional healing and reach their life goals. Right now he is in the process of transforming his coaching model from a ministry model to a business model so that he can better provide for his family, who has recently been on the receiving end of some unfortunate medical emergencies.
Yes, it seems that “life”, that thing my pessimistic parents talked about all the time, happens even to coaches/gurus.
I mentioned that the fact he has kids and a wife probably affects how he works with his “new” business. While I am not a fan of kids (11 and under), a part of me was still focused on the positive with his situation.
I didn’t know how to explain what I was thinking, yet an article I read today said it perfectly:
“The baby turns ’shoulds’ into ‘musts’…In the past I used to put off key decisions, or saying ‘no’, because I didn’t want to deal with the discomfort. Now I have no choice. I have to make the decisions because my time has been slashed in half.”
What I was trying to say: having kids forces your subconscious brain to focus so much that you can get more done even though you have less time.
The big question: how can young, ambitious, youtube-generation twenty-somethings replicate this form of productivity without impregnating all the women and marrying all the men of the world beforehand?
Enter the world of Cal Newport, Parkinson’s Law, and overall badassery.
Cal Newport, author of Study Hacks, gets tens of thousands of visits to his site every month, and for good reason. In one summer, he managed to write six peer-reviewed academic papers (the long tedious types), Completed his Ph D. at MIT, with his dissertation, and turned in the manuscript for his third book. We read about people like him, accomplishing a lot, and we may have even seen a few in person, and it is tempting to think they pull all-nighters and never stop working.
Cal stops. In fact, he doesn’t work after 5:30 on weekdays. He takes Saturday and most of Sunday off. He also includes daily exercise and walking his dog (an additional hour) in his 8:30-5:30 weekdays, even further demonstrating his freedom from overwork.
This link to Ramit Sethi’s blog takes you to the full article about Cal, which takes about 25-30 minutes to read. I will summarize what I got out of the article, as usual, and you are always welcome to check it out.
1. To-Do list= bad – If you simply use a to-do list, it is possible to add so much to that list that the list’s length starts to rival that of ancient religious texts. Don’t do it.
2. Parkinson’s law – All activities will expand to take up the time you have allotted to do them. This can cause you to procrastinate for weeks on an assignment, or do a week’s worth of work in a few hours. Play with tasks based on their size by changing the amount of time you give yourself to do them and see if any different results are reached.
3. Fixed Schedule Productivity – This is similar to how the U.S. army plans their own missions. Fix your own schedule, find out what you need to get done, and then work backwards to figure out the steps needed to get there. “Ruthlessly cull obligations, turn people down, become hard to reach, and shed marginally useful tasks”.
4. Have a time where you stop working – the amount of stuff you can do will always exceed the time you have. Set a time that you stop working, giving you time to socialize, read, pursue interests, or rest.
Good stuff. Getting an efficient plan for getting a lot done and still having time for living is necessary, especially in a business as demanding as music.
As I am finishing a week of finals, I am humbled by how much I need to organize.