write. play. repeat.

from joy to joy to joy

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.

moroccanlounge

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.

Thanks, NACA!

Now that I’ve had more than three consecutive hours of sleep, I think I can form the thoughts to make this entry.
This was my first NACA conference and it was definitely a great way to get introduced to the wacky world of college booking.  I don’t envy what the Student Activities Boards are having to do in the next couple of weeks — look through the piles & piles of materials they gathered at the conference, decide who they’d like to book, plan and budget everything… not an easy or fun process.

NACA kids, let me make this easier for you:  BOOK ME, BOOK ME!

*ahem*

Not subtle enough?    Oh well.

I think the download cards were a hit.  I will definitely be releasing all of my future recordings in this format — it saves space, materials, and money.   That’s a win/win/win situation.  For any of you who picked up a download card at my booth and aren’t sure where to redeem it, go here:

http://julianafinch.com/products.html

and click on the “Redeem Juliana Finch Card Code” link.   That’ll start the process and you’ll soon be humming along to me on your iPod.  Simple.

I had a great time and hope to see some of the same faces at the regional conferences later this year.  I’m going to try to get a showcase spot for one of them, so cross yer fingers for me.  Right now I’m working on adjusting to “Normal Person” hours and preparing for my upcoming shows.  It’s definitely a total switch from staying up all night in the Magical Mystery Gardens of the Opryland.

Lost at NACA

I’ve been up in Nashville since Saturday, participating in the NACA National Conference. This is my fourth time visiting Nashville and I like it more every time I come.  The conference is taking place at Opryland.  I’d never been to that area of Nashville on my other visits so I was curious to check it out.

The Opryland Resort & Conference center, if you haven’t been, is best described as something halfway between Disneyworld and an old southern mansion.   The hotel has narrow, nearly-hidden hallways of rooms off of countless little stairways, lobbies and balconies.  There are lovely lanterns lighting the halls.   It’s really quite beautiful.   That said, I’m really glad I’m not staying at the hotel because it reminds me of a well-maintained version of  The Overlook Hotel and I wouldn’t want to have to find my way to my room after midnight.

Delta Island at Opryland
Delta Island at Opryland

In between the hotel and the actual conference center  is a “conservatory” that houses several shops and restaurants under an enormous glass roof. It’s also home to a series of indoor waterfalls, fountains, and plantlife.  I spent a good half hour when I first got there roaming around that area and admiring the set up.  There are a total of three indoor gardens, each with a different theme.  It’s very well planned out and has probably hundreds of different types of plants.   Guests can even ride in a riverboat along the indoor river path.   One couple I saw was enjoying a romantic Valentine’s day dinner on one of the boats.

While extremely lovely, especially at night, the indoor gardens prove difficult to navigate. The occasional directory maps are entirely unhelpful. In fact, instead of “You are here,” it should say, “Welcome back,” because I’ve walked in a big circle on more than one occasion trying to get somewhere.

wait, werent we just here?
wait, weren't we just here?

Luckily, I’m not the only one having navigational issues.   There are usually plenty of folks wandering around with a sort of glassy look in their eyes, and I can commisserate with them.    Eventually I end up in the place I’m looking for, but often not without help.   I’m sure I’ll have the whole place figured out immediately before I have to leave.

The conference itself has been a whirlwind, and a strong reminder that I’m not eighteen anymore.  The students spend their days in panels and classes on leadership and campus activity planning.   In the evenings, they come visit all the entertainers who have booths in the marketplace and gather information.  We generally have about an hour to make an impression, give them our demos, and hopefully inspire them to book us for the following school year.  My college booking agency, High Note Partners, represents four songwriters and we’re all up here meetin’ and greetin’ folks.  It’s been really fun, but takes a ton of energy.

Today I’ve had some time to hang around Nashville and visit one of my favorite spots, Fido.  They have awesome food and coffee drinks (and free WiFi!)  and a really cool atmosphere.  I try to come here every time I’m in town.

Later on, I’m hoping to play the open mic at the Bluebird Cafe.  Signup is at 5:30 and the line is usually already long by then, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get a spot, so wish me luck.

That’s all for now.   If you happen to be at NACA National and see me walking around with a dazed look on my face, please take a moment to help me out before I make three laps around Delta Island.

making space, part one.

Last year, I was busy.

Working at my “day job” (which I actually love), going to school part-time, doing some work as a labor and postpartum doula, moving into a house, adopting animals, repeatedly resolving to go to the gym (and sometimes going!) — I was really, really busy.   As a result of being so busy living a “normal” life, I let some very important things fall by the wayside, namely my regular writing schedule.

“But I just don’t have time!” is so easy to say with regard to writing, or any kind of artistic discipline.  Sometimes, especially when it’s not our full-time way of making a living, our creative work is the first thing to go when things get hectic.  I’ve learned that in order to have the time to write, I need to make the time to write.   Extra hours will not spontaneously appear in my day as a gift from the gods, nor will any new songs spring, fully-formed, from my pen while I’m sleeping. It’s really pretty simple, but easy to overlook in favor of excuses —

If I want to be a songwriter, I need to write songs.

I need to have an “appointment with myself” every day in which my only assignment is to write.  With a schedule like mine, that seems nearly impossible at first glance.

So how do I recover from my lapse in writing discipline?

The first step is to unstick myself from the mire of my over-scheduled days.  I need to re-evaluate how much I should be doing, what I can and can’t volunteer for, what time I actually have versus the time I’m promising for others.  When I was writing every day, my schedule was much more loose and free.  I could walk down to the coffee shop in my neighborhood and sit with my notebook for a couple of hours.   Given that I now have more responsibilities and a full-time job, that sort of setup just can’t happen anymore.  So how do I create more space in my schedule?

A fun thing I only recently discovered is delegating. It honestly did not occur to me until a short time ago that I don’t have to do everything myself.

This is a big one for me.  I’ve always been very independent (and just love slapping “independent” in front of “singer/songwriter” when telling people about my music) so it’s actually pretty hard for me to come to grips with the idea that I can ask someone else, someone equally or more capable, to help me with a project or take on a certain aspect of it that I’d normally want to do on my own.

A great example is my friend Emily.   She and my friend Wes (now her husband) did the artwork for my album “How To Take The Fall”.  It’s great artwork, I love it and get complimented on it all the time.    Emily has since been helping me with a lot of my poster/artwork needs for promotional stuff.   I am teaching myself how to use photo manipulation software, because I’d like to be able to do it myself if she’s not available, but in the meantime, why not delegate these tasks to my extremely creative and talented friend?    Once I told myself (and Emily told me) that it was OK to rely on her for these things, a big portion of my stress went *POOF*.

I think a lot of us in America are raised to be independent, do-it-yourselfers.  This can-do spirit is fantastic for innovation and motivation, but honestly, most of us get burned out on it at one time or another.  I know I did.   Learning that just because I am capable of doing a project doesn’t automatically mean I am obligated to do it was the first, and one of the most important, steps in getting my writing back.

Something amazing happens when you learn to delegate and take on less.   Time appears.  A half hour here, two hours over there.  Like a gift from the gods.

Yesterday, I drank a cup of English breakfast tea and worked on a song.  I felt guilty for a moment about delaying making chili for a church function tonight, but then realized it could wait, because I had more important things to attend to.

bookmarked

Hey folks,

This is going to be my new blog home about my writing process, being a songwriter, shows I play, etc…

Eventually it’ll be integrated into my main site but for now I wanted a separate home for it.

Please update your twitter and AIM accounts to reflect the new screen name, too —  writeplayrepeat.

Thanks!