write. play. repeat.

from joy to joy to joy

Mood Lightning

Listen to the rhythm of the rain that’s a-fallin’…

Here comes the rain again…

I love a rainy night.

Apparently, songwriters everywhere love Stormy Weather.  I’m no exception.  When the sky is overcast and gray in the morning, or when lightning shoots over the neighborhood at night, a voice inside me says, “Yay!”

A gloomy day makes me contemplative, while a full-on lightning storm makes me want to dance around the house.   Often, I just end up staring out a window in awe, humbled by the tangle of destruction and renewal offered up by Mother Nature as a reminder of my relatively teensy spot on the planet.

If the rain hasn’t actually started yet I love to walk around outside, feeling the electricity of the impending storm and, in the Summer, the warm, wet wind that almost makes me believe I’m near a beach despite being landlocked in Atlanta.

Once inside, there’s nothing better than a cup of tea or coffee and a book (either to read or write in) and then, inevitably, a nap.

Why are so many songs are written about rain?  Maybe because, if the weather is bad enough, we have an excuse to call the whole day a wash (ha) and do something we don’t usually give ourselves permission to indulge in. Rain is a great excuse to relax and gaze internally instead of focusing on all of the hustle and bustle of a regular day.  When we slow down and focus on ourselves, some of the words that have wanted to spill out may start to trickle down to the page, finally.

Whether we love it or hate it, are saddened by it or made joyful, the rain tends to inspire.  How many songs can you think of that mention rain in the title alone?  I can think of a dozen easily.  I’m sure there are hundreds if not a thousand.

Next time you find yourself completely depleted and in need of some time to get back in touch with yourself and your writing, look to the sky.  If there are clouds on the horizon that would make a sailor tremble, call in for that mental health day, prepare a mugful, and take it easy.

Blame it on the rain.

Get Unblocked.

In an earlier post, my friend Rhett asked, “I often sit down to write, and I get this feeling like there’s nothing much to say. I’m sure everyone gets this, even if I am a more chronic case. Do you? If so, how do you work with that?”

This seems to be one of the many faces of “writer’s block” which, if you’ve ever spoken to someone who writes or read about writing, you’ve probably heard a lot about.

The most common form of writer’s block that I’ve experienced is ultimately based in fear and concern about what others will think. Fear that you’re not good enough, or that nothing you could possibly say is important or will be published, etc. etc.   You are comparing your (as yet nonexistent) work to everything else you’ve read and feel that you’re coming up short.

This is usually the fault of an overly aggressive internal editor (mine’s named Steve) and cripples any bit of creative impulse you had going.   People suffering under this type of writer’s block are worried about the end result of their project before anything is even set down on the page. If, when you sit down to write, you are thinking that it has to be the best, or a completely original concept, or something that will launch you into instant fame…you’ve got a guaranteed way to ensure you continue writing nothing for a good long while.

A related problem is feeling like you have to have something specific to say every time you write.  Again, you’re worried about the ending before you have a beginning.   Rhett is right — this does happen to everyone at some point, and it actually happens to me a lot.   The best way I’ve found to combat this is to take a different approach.  This might mean switching the music I’m listening to, going for a walk with the dogs and observing the outdoors closely, re-reading a poem I love, look over a magazine or recent newspaper, or talking to a good friend for a few minutes.

Most often, I just freewrite.  I write whatever pops into my head, no matter how silly or strange or mundane it might be.  Sometimes these sessions start with, “I have no idea what to write.”   That’s ok.  Eventually, something else comes up.   If, out of three pages of freewriting, I have only one line I can actually use…well, that’s one more line than I had when I started.

I asked some of my creative friends on twitter how they overcome a block and got some great answers:

@vixalicious: I do craft projects – it’s creative, but it uses a different part of the brain or something, and it refreshes me.

@jennyscottmusic: I know it’s nothing new, but I just take my guitar & play spur-of-the-moment, or search for a topic I could write about…

@feachador pointed out a great TedTalks video by Elizabeth Gilbert here: http://bit.ly/7awct

@adampknave:  Keep working.

Christine Kane also has a fantastic list of ways to jumpstart creativity on her blog here.

Keep working…this too shall pass.  You just have to get through it and find an approach you may not have tried yet.  I think we’re all inherently creative beings, and that our creativity *wants* to be expressed.  Our job is to find an outlet and keep the lines open.

quit yer bitchin'.

Last week, I started an experiment on myself.  I wanted to see what would happen if I went for six weeks without publicly complaining.

It’s really easy, when we see something that irks us, riles us up, or that we otherwise disagree with, to jump on Twitter or Facebook or your blog and post something about it. It’s also really easy to create a cycle of negativity wherein a good chunk of your friends list and twitter follower feeds spend the whole day complaining about things.  Now, I’m not talking about outrage over social & environmental issues or treatment of our fellow men & women.   I’m talking about the endless posts about the guy who cut someone off in traffic, the fact that the coffee was cold, and laments over not having won the lottery yet…stuff that is not actually critical to our success as human beings on this planet.

I had noticed that on days when lots of my online friends were posting annoyances and arguments, that my energy and mood was dragged down considerably, and along with it, my creativity.  The ball of stress I was carrying around seemed to be blocking the flow of my thoughts and daydreams like a big, disgusting tub clog.  I needed some metaphysical Drano, stat.

It seemed logical to conclude that if I was affected so easily by that stuff, the people who are reading my updates could be affected as well.   Here’s where the contract comes in.

For six weeks (starting July 7th) I will do my absolute best to not only refrain from posting complaints on Twitter, Facebook, my blog, etc.  but to also go out of my way to share positive things through those forums. When I am about to post something snarky, or sarcastic, or otherwise negative, I will take a moment to think about whether that sentence needs to be out in the public sphere, or whether I can just keep it to myself.

As I write this, it’s Day 10 of my contract and I am already seeing results beyond TweetDeck.

I was raised Italian, so passion is part of my everyday life.  It’s pretty easy for me to get excited about something, and also pretty easy for me to be frustrated.  The upshot is that I can let those things go once I’ve yelled or gestured about it for a minute and not have it bother me anymore…  but this past week, I haven’t even really gotten to the point of being angry.

This isn’t to say that everything has been sunshine and roses all week.  It’s just that, when I feel the impulse to say something snarky, I take a moment to check it.  Having to check my impulse before posting something online has directly translated into doing the same thing in person.  And you know what?   My stress level has gone down a whole lot, and I feel that little well of creativity starting to burble back up.

I decided to extend the contract by a few days so that it ends on my birthday, August 21st, though I don’t think that I’ll ever go back to the level of complaining I used to allow myself.  I figure there’s no better way to celebrate a new year than to mark it with a new surge of positivity.

What small change could you make today that would lower your stress level and allow your creativity?

cyclical creativity

Lately I’ve been thinking about the title of this blog, which is sort of the “motto” for my work.

When I was trying to come up with a tagline that would keep me focused, I tried to think of what the most basic form of what I do is. I thought, and thought, and thought some more…into the next morning, when I was showering. I glanced at the shampoo bottle and saw the familiar, “Lather, rinse, repeat” instructions, and that’s when it hit me.


(The shower is a great place for musing, by the way.)

write. play. repeat.

I write a song, I play it for an audience, I do it all again. And I love it. The motto perfectly describes the day-to-day activity of my work, but it also addresses another reality of being a songwriter or other type of artist. Sometimes, creativity feels like it comes in cycles. There are days, weeks, months when I feel like I’m really on a roll, and ideas are coming too fast for me to get them all out. Then there are droughts when I feel like I may never write another thing that’s fit for human consumption.

It’s easy to feel, during those less inspired times, that you’re in “writer’s block” or that you’re no good, and you should just quit already.   Try not to listen to those thoughts.   I’ve found that if I’m patient, and I keep showing up to the page, and I keep my ears open for ideas, that eventually the cycle comes back around.

Writers need to write, and other points.

Earlier this month I read and loved a post by Adam P. Knave over at Stop Motion Verbosity about being a writer. More precisely, it’s about addressing the question that every professional writer gets at some point, which is basically “How do you become a professional writer?” Even though Adam writes comics and novels and short stories rather than songs, a lot of the same points apply.

Obviously, if you want to be a writer, you need to be writing. This seems like a no-brainer but I’ve met a ton of “writers” who spend their time perfecting the image, poses, and attitude of a writer without ever putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. These people are not writers. In fact, most of the professional writers I know don’t have very much in common with these “writers”.
Not everything you set down in words is going to be lovely. Most of it probably won’t be. But if you aren’t writing it down, you can’t call yourself a writer yet.

Adam also makes the point that you should “read every type of book, comic and non-fiction you can, see movies and listen to music. Don’t ignore any source of story.” This is absolutely essential for songwriters too! A lot of your inspiration will come from unexpected places, so read as much as you can, explore different genres of music, go see a film you would not normally seek out. If you have the same experiences over and over again, your well of inspiration will dry up pretty quickly. Go experience the world and different art forms and you will not be able to keep ideas away.

My favorite part about the post, the thing that really struck me that I feel is not said enough, is the part that I feel separates songwriters who are hobbyists from the professionals. “Act like a professional.”

For songwriters, this means showing up on time, doing the work, following through, etc… And the most important ingredient in that for me is always gratitude.
Gratitude means thanking the person who set up the show for you, thanking the fans who show up to listen, profusely thanking someone who gave you good advice on a song, appreciating all of the folks who allow you to make (even a little) money doing something that you love.

It also means remembering people you’ve met at conferences, following up with email/twitter/facebook contact to say hi, not starting drama with other musicians/songwriters for no reason, and going out of your way to help someone who is just starting out. People remember things like that, and they know whether or not it’s from a genuine place.

To me, those are things that show me someone is a professional, regardless of how much money they have or haven’t made with their music.

Anyway, my thanks to Adam for always giving me something to think, laugh, or write about. And my endless gratitude to you, my readers, for sticking with me through my posting drought!

Falling off the wagon with a loud thud.

The past two months have managed to suck me back into a pattern of non-productivity on the writing front. It’s official – I fell off the writing wagon.  Work got crazy,  My performance schedule got (thegoodkindof) crazy, my allgergies hijacked my body a couple of times,  and my brother is getting married at the end of the month, which is its own kind of crazy.  It’s easy for me to get so busy that one of things that keeps me the most grounded, my writing, falls to the wayside…and that’s exactly what happened, as evidenced by my complete lack of blogging.

This happens to everyone from time to time, and I think it’s important to remind yourself that it’s OK.  The best thing to do is just to start over, get back into a routine, and keep writing.  If I spent two more weeks beating myself up about NOT writing, I still wouldn’t have anything to show for it, so why not just skip that part and get back to work?

I started a yoga class this month and a pleasant but unexpected side effect has been that it clears my mind perfectly to prepare for a writing session.  I’m going to reschedule one of my weekly sessions with myself so that I can have time to write after yoga.     If you’re having trouble with your own hectic life and not having time or energy to work on your writing, I definitely recommend a yoga class or another type of exercise.  It manages to make me both relaxed and absolutely present at the same time, and that is a fantastic feeling.

What do you do when you “fall off the wagon”?  What’s the best way for you to get back in the habit?

5 Things Re-writing Helps Me Do

I actually love to re-write.   Once the first kernels of a song are out in the world, I love nothing more than to sit down and work out the final bits.  Even on days when I can’t seem to get anywhere on a song, the act of living with it for a couple of hours is rewarding, and even fun.   Below is a list of five of the primary things I feel re-writing does to help make me a better writer.

  • Get more specific.  Is it a house, or an “old, red house” ?  A tree, or “a tall oak tree”?  Details can instantly form an image and create mood in a song.  Many songwriters try to stay vague in an effort to make their songs “universal” and applicable to a wider audience.  In my experience, the more specific the lyrics and the story in the song, the more people will connect and identify with it.   One of the songs that is the most personal to me, “Something Holy,” is actually the one that gets me more comments from people saying they were emotionally drawn in.  I want to tell a story, and the best stories have specific details.
  • Stay out of ruts. It’s easy for me to get into patterns with songwriting, especially when one thing has worked well for me in the past.  There’s the curse of using the same chord progression (or slight variation thereof), the reappearance of common lyrical or metric patterns, and the repetition of metaphors or phrases.  Looking back over the lyrics and song structure after I’ve laid down a first draft helps me spot those things and work to replace them with something different or more effective.
  • Avoid common mistakes. This is where the internal editor, Steve, comes in handy.  I feel that I’m always improving as a songwriter, and part of that is knowing when I’m making a “rookie” mistake.  I’m a fan of irregular rhymes, but every once in awhile an over-used rhyme will creep in (like “girl” and “world”) and I have to catch myself.  When a cliche worms its way into a song I’m working on, I’ll either look to remove it or try to work it in such a way that it is useful.  Cliches are only effective if the writer is using them in awareness instead of simply saying something that’s been said a thousand times before.   The internal editor helps me get back on track  if I ever dare to write “deep as the ocean”  or “you’re my world” in a song.
  • Find out what my song is really about. Any piece of creative work goes through many phases before becoming what it’s meant to be.  Sometimes the characters, story, and mood go in a direction that I didn’t intend when I started, and that’s when the process is really exciting for me.  Working on structure, making “mind maps” of lyrics and concepts, and analyzing the song for awhile help me pull out the real story I want to focus on.  Once I have that core concept, I can tweak the lyrics and structure to highlight it as much as possible.
  • Know when it’s “done.” Often one can get so wrapped up in writing and re-writing that the song becomes mangled beyond recognition.  Re-writing is a skill like any other in the craft, and the better I get at it, the more likely I am to recognize when to step away from a song and call it finished.  When I find myself frustrated or re-writing the same verse over and over, I know I need to take a break from a song and come back to it later.  Similarly, I can tell when the re-writing is productive and moving things along.  When the song reaches its final form, I can step back and admire my work and feel completely satisfied, and that is absolutely worth all the time and effort it takes to get there.

Music, lyrics, and … SNOW?!

Well, it’s April in Atlanta and that doesn’t mean much, considering we have the threat of ice/snow looming over us today. The weather here is never very predictable until July, when we can count on it being hot until the end of September.

( A few minutes later…)
Yep. There it is.  It is snowing in Atlanta on April 7th.

Anyway, I’ll take advantage of the cuddly weather to bundle up and address the one question I get more than anything else about the songwriting process, which is

Which do you write first, the music or the lyrics?

(thanks to Kevin for reminding me I wanted to post about this!)

The short answer is… neither.  Or both.

What I actually write first are ideas.  I have notebooks full of scribbled ideas that occur to me at various times during the day.  One of the reasons I always carry a pen in my bag is so that I can write an idea down on whatever piece of paper is convenient when an idea for a song strikes me.   Later, I can flip through my notes to revisit an idea that I want to try to work on during that session.

When I have an idea I want to work on, I’ll sit down with my guitar and just start playing around with words and chords until something feels like it’s in the right “mood” for the song. I may sing words that don’t entirely make sense, or I may end up singing the exact words that end up in the final song.  When I get a line that I really like I’ll write it down and try to move on.  Perfection is never the goal right away – it’s more about just getting it out there and tweaking it later.

Sometimes I have a very specific structure for a song that I want to work on, so that helps to narrow my focus and makes the lyrics easier to write.  For example, right now I’m working on a song that is written in the form of a letter to someone — that directly influences phrasing and the types of words I’ll choose, and makes my job easier.  Or, if I know the song I’m writing is a country song, there is a specific musical formula for that which makes coming up with the song structure more straightforward (verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus is a typical country music “formula”).

So, generally it’s ideas first, then I work on the music and lyrics at the same time.  Once I have the chord progression completely figured out I can edit lyrics with a cup of coffee in hand instead of a guitar.

My favorite part is really editing the lyrics (Ok Steve, so you don’t always annoy me) to make sure I’m telling the story in the way that I feel is most effective.  For me, songwriting is always about telling a story, so the choices I make for the music have to directly lend themselves to the lyrics, rather than the other way around.  I also love the challenge of taking an experience and distilling it into relatively few words, so my songs are generally short & sweet.

Well, the flurry has stopped here in the time in took me to write this post, but I’m sure that won’t  deter Atlantans from buying up all the bread & milk at the grocery store.

Hey fellow songwriters, what do you write first?

making space, part the third

This last aspect of space I want to tackle in this series is at once the most important and the most difficult to write.

Once space in the schedule is made, and the physical space for writing is found, there is still a major hurdle to overcome in order to get to work.  This is the intangible and ever-changing psychological space needed in order to create.   One entry definitely won’t cover it.  In fact, this only touches on the main reason I wanted to create this blog in the first place.  Exploring the process, the psychological space of writing and learning through self-observation as I go along is one of my major goals here.  That said, let’s jump in a little.

The psychological space necessary for creative work is also called mindset, mood, or “the zone,” but I prefer the slang of headspace, because it’s actual meaning refers to the space between something in a container and its seal, i.e. that little bit of air in the jar between your favorite jam and the lid.   For me, being in the right headspace to work is the difference between the concept of a song and it being completed in a way that satisfies me.

Every writer’s productive headspace will be a little different.  One of the first things I need is privacy.  This serves multiple purposes for me.

First of all, the ‘process’ of a song is not a pretty thing, and no one should have to be exposed to the very first draft of any of my songs, ever.  There are lots of stumbles, extremely silly lyrics, and great potential for cursing.  It’s best that I am completely alone for that experience.  Believe me, it’s for your own good.

Secondly, privacy allows me the freedom to play, to makeup the silly lyrics when I can’t think of one that fits right off, to be terrible.  It basically gives me permission to have a really crap first draft without worrying about what anyone else thinks about it.  This is a huge deal.  Feeling that I have the permission to be awful immediately relieves any pressure to be brilliant in the first round.  The ultimately important part of this is that it removes the power from my Internal Editor.  An editor is a lovely thing to have when you are at the point of refining and perfecting a piece, but when you’re just getting started, the Internal Editor (let’s call mine Steve) does nothing except tell you NOT to create.

“That idea has been done before.”

“That is stupid.”

“Don’t write that, it’s idiotic, and no one will get that reference.”

Steve clogs up valuable headspace with all that negative chatter, so the only solution is to find a way to tie him up to a chair and stuff him in a closet of your subconscious until he can make himself useful.  When other people are around, Steve flat out refuses to go to his closet.

“I bet they can hear you in the other room.  They heard you just f*ck up that chord royally.   Right now they are wondering how you can even call yourself a songwriter with a trite line like that.  You should be glad they ever come to your shows.  They probably just do it out of pity.” and so on and so forth.   Having privacy gives Steve one less thing to pick on, and makes it much easier for me to get him out of my way.

My other needs all go together.  The first is  relaxation.  Clearing the schedule helps with that, but so does clearing my thoughts of anything that’s bugging me.  I often make tea or coffee before settling down to write.  The ritual of it is soothing and so is the warm cup.  It helps me get a handle on my intentions.  (One of the main reasons I choose Octane for my editing and blogging sessions is that they serve a nice variety of loose leaf teas by the potful!)  Some songwriters write much better when they are experiencing emotional turmoil or some sort of extreme emotion, but this is not so with me.  I need focus, and focus only comes with relaxation and intention.

Once I’ve got all those things going on at once, the writing seems to be a lot more effortless.  This is not to say I don’t sometimes get stuck and stop for awhile, or that I always come out with something I love.  It just makes it easier for me to fall back into a project at will instead of “waiting for inspiration to strike.”  Inspiration is Out There at any given time, but having privacy, permission to be awful, relaxation, focus, and intent make it possible for me to tap into the right headspace.

Question for my Readers:

Where’s your head at?   I’d love to hear how some of you prepare psychologically for a writing session!

making space, part two

In the first post of this series I talked about having chronological space available for writing, and how I’ve been trying to make that happen.  So now that I’ve learned to prioritize my time and delegate tasks, what is the next step to getting back on the horse…er…in the saddle… wait, why are all of these idioms related to cowboys?  Are there no perseverance-related sayings just for writers?   Maybe not.    Maybe there should be.

Anyway,  I have these small gifts of time now, but I have an environmental problem.   My house is full of pets, and laundry, and really fun video games, and all sorts of other stuff I could be doing.  Given the opportunity, I will probably do anything else before sitting down to work.   In order to actually work I have to eliminate those other options.

There isn’t a specific place in the house that is just for my writing.   Yes, I have an office, with a very foreboding looking oak desk and a window, and yes, I have a laptop with wireless that I can use anywhere with a connection.  Those are great for when I’m sitting down and just working on lyrics or editing a song that’s already mostly written.   When I’m writing the music for a song, though, and playing with melodies and chords and really just getting started, I need a place where I can let go of my inhibitions and fears and just…well… play.
My favorite spot used to be the kitchen.  I’d lean up on the counter, play my guitar, maybe pace up and down the galley layout a few times as I sang.    Lately, though, I have a new spot in the house.

We’ve been renovating the enclosed balcony for awhile, but now it’s almost finished.  It’s a “room”, but I can see outside, and I can close myself off from the rest of the house (read: cats) who might interrupt.  The hardwood floors make me feel cozy and comfortable, but also lend some nice acoustics to the space.  Also, if I can’t see anyone else around, it’s much easier for me to let go and act as if I can’t be overheard.

For someone who regularly performs on stage in front of others, it’s surprising to me how terrified I am of having someone listen in when I’m just starting with a song.  This definitely relates to the next post in the series, so I won’t go too deeply into it now, but the first draft of a song is an intensely private experience for me. Any hint that I’m being listened to, and my creativity takes a hike.


The sunroom still needs some finishing touches.  When I imagine how it will ultimately look, I think of a moroccan lounge or a classic library room.

Somewhere in between the two would be perfect.

I’ve bought some paint that looks like the inside of a butternut squash (isn’t orange supposed to inspire creativity?)readingroom2 which should go up on the walls soon.

A big comfy chair, a bookshelf full of  my favorite books, and a couple of nice lamps… and definitely a small table, big enough only for a no

tebook and a glass of wine.  Once those are in place, I’m confident I’ll have a physical space in which I can be happy and productive.