Writing…Getting Things Done!

“Writing is not difficult, what’s hard is sitting down to write”
– Stephen King
Getting things done is hard. Writing is hard. And no, it’s not the actually doing, it’s actually sitting down and writing. It’s the active decision to alter our brainwave patterns into a different state. I’m good. My current Alpha Waves are pretty comfy. Those Betas are harshing my mellow.
Today I’m going to throw out some tips and tricks to help you get more done with your writing/songwriting.
Take A Bite Outta Crime
I love the 10 Minute Rule—when I want to put off a task, simply begin it for 10 minutes, then abruptly stop.

There.

We get over the hardest hurdle which is simply having started. Originally, I heard this from a student of mine who used this method to get a jump on her assignments. The paper no longer hung over her head, cramping her style, but she had already had a bite taken out of it. It became easier now she just had to “finish” the project.

Take a bite outta crime

Tomato/Tomahto
A more fleshed out version of the 10 Minute Rule is the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, I’m using it right now. Here is a great rundown of it. When I’m procrastinating and have an afternoon with an open block of time, elves run out playing flutes, and it’s suddenly a great time to do laundry, bathe the dog, or chip away the honey-do list instead of the thing I need to accomplish. I become yellow and squeamish and it’s hard to begin, knowing i’m going to be locked in the task’s prison all afternoon. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. The technique originally encouraged a little red kitchen timer to “chunk” out your big task into smaller, fun-sized bits of 25 minute increments.
1) 25 minutes of hard work
2) 5 minutes break

3) Every third break should be 20 minutes long



I personally love the free app FocusBooster—it’s free, really customizable, and already on my computer. There is even a built in “break” that will auto-sound so that you can lift your head out of your prairie dog hole and know when it’s time to go back. I do happen to have a personal reward system for that “break” time—my mind is jumpy and creates ideas and distractions and things I want to Google and songs I want to hear RIGHT NOW, so i just jot them down on a “parking lot” on a separate sheet so my toddler mind knows it won’t forget them. It is a great way to juggle projects. I’ve had buddies tell me that starting a new Netflix show intimidates them in the same way. They don’t want to watch Daredevil or Kimmie Schmidt because the feeling of multiple seasons slogging thru is intimidating.


First Things First
One common trend in most of the people’s lives in Daily Rituals is that almost all the men and women start early. They get their work done first before the rest of the days’ tasks. Not everyone, but most people. Ever since reading that book I have decidedly awoken an extra 90 min before I need to and have that time to write, meditate, and read. I literally crank out 750 words before breakfast. I start with Morning Pages, and most people agree that the mind is better able to handle tasks involved with critical thinking early in the morning. (esp once the caffeine bean kicks in). I personally try to disregard email (not very good at this) and jump right in to writing projects of different kinds, scheduling conundrums, and critical project management. The afternoon is saved for emails/correspondence, meetings (read re:work), grading, and editing. I have dear friends that swear by their late night workloads, and that does have it’s own magic, but that’s a blog for another day.
Lastly, don’t try and do it all in one sitting.
The outstanding remainder will compel us to complete. Hemingway said the secret to his workflow was that he stopped at a point where he knew he’d obviously know where to pick up the work the following day. It created a forward momentum to help him continue a kinesthetic workflow.


Watching: True Detective S2 (Anyone else see that the lyric’s to the Leonard Cohen intro tune changes every time???)
Listening: Brian Reitzell – Auto Music
Reading: Law & Gospel – Mockingbird Press
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How Hoarding Can Help Your Songwriting/Writing

I tell people my twins are “thirty-three months old” because, duh, it’s hilarious to watch people’s faces while creating living satire. Maybe I’m getting older and suddenly I’ve devolved to that 8th grade history teacher that quotes Simpsons references just for their own amusement. Well my thirty-three-month-old/two-year-old daughter bojangles behind the whole fam when we take walks. She’ll find rocks, dandelions, forgotten lego pieces, and teeth from drifters she’s murdered and tries to bundle them all in her hands and pockets (with cumbersome success). My wife says this is a typical girl phenomenon called “collecting”.
I call it “hoarding”.
I walked into her room the other day and next to her My Little Pony collection there were five stacks of yellowed newspapers yay-high, a pile of old phone books, and 8 black trash bags full of McDonald’s-limited-edition Beanie Babies. Gotta get that toddler an intervention.


When it comes to songwriting/writing how can it be to our advantage to collect and hoard? The more you have, the more you have to draw from. Don’t sit there and try to brainstorm ex nihilo. We descend from the Information Age and with the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips, our songs and prose should be savagely different than the last couple of centuries.

I’ve been accumulating ideas for years, My Evernote is Smaug’s horde, huffing around as a dragon amongst seas of gold doubloons. Where do these ideas come from? This list about sums it up. I read once that every quarter or so we should go through our backlog of ideas to see if our psyche can make the coveted connections that we call “inspiration”.
I did this very thing recently. So I I had an original (failed) song draft of that was more a noir crime story, but the plot wasn’t compelling enough. I re-wrote with aggression, digging into my steamer trunk of “good” and “inspired” ideas, dumping as much as I could into one song. I guess it was an event of spring cleaning. The song evolved into more of an impressionistic owl pellet of ideas. You ever have to dissect one of those in grade school? We did in 6th grade in northern-lower-peninsula Michigan. The owls eat mice, rats, and bowls, digest the usable proteins and cough up the unusable bones and hair in a compressed pellet. Yes, another dissection story. My mind seems to absorb inspiration and ideas over time and eventually combine them into an owl pellet of finished work.

Here is the result:

Superbowl Sunday
It was this Superbowl Sunday
I took a jawbone of an ass
I went in to the house of jackals
Took a deep breath of laughing gas
Walking through a thicket of antlers
I thought I smelled somebody telling truth
Then you flashed your Cold War glamour
And said “We’ve been expecting you”
I was fumblin’ thru the wreckage
Thought ’bout Jesus and his dad
It was last Super Bowl sunday
The best that I ever had
It was this Super Bowl sunday
“Dharma bummed” in your parlance
You were my burnside companion
A friend of friends of friends
A man born under hunches
I fought up into welterweight
Though I retired in the Winner’s Circle
But caught the Legionnaire’s Disease
Autopsy showed no foul play
But I know something had
On last Superbowl Sunday
With Jesus and his dad
I’ve continued cleaning out my personal inspiration horde/hook book because I feel like my mind has become stagnant. My boat is waist-high in grouper, why would I need to cast my nets overboard? I’ll put my mind in a place of need for more, and my subconscious should begin collecting the items I need for me to write down in Evernote. Why Evernote, you say? Well, that is a post for a different day…

Does anyone know of any studies done on the the fact-gathering/holding phenomenon that our brains have?


Listening: The Descendents – Everything Sucks
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Netflix’s Bloodlines

Rube Goldberg Songwriting


As I’ve written about many times before, I like the idea of creative systems.
I think I first picked the idea up on my radar from Brian Eno and his work with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies card deck, and he’s spoken about the subject at length in his published journal A Year With Swollen Appendices. The late poetry professor Richard Hugo speaks about a this phenomenon in his essays on creative writing, The Triggering Town. For a poetry final exam, he gave his students a poem project with an insane amount of restrictions, and then says that, without fail,
Too many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say–now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will write their best poem of the term. It works, and I’ve seen it work again and again. While the student is concentrating on the problems of the exercise, the real problems go away fro a moment simply because they are ignored, and with the real problems gone the poet is free to say what he never expected and always wanted to say (pg. 31).
IMG_9035

This week, I also gave my students an assignment with an hearty number of restrictions. The idea is to put your inspiration through the system of your craft, rolling around the creative restrictions. Think of a Rube Goldberg Device (funny name, serious sandwich). I first saw one when I was a young lad on the opening to a moralistic show about a boy with a cartoon friend only he could see.


The assignment: Choose one of Kyle Thompson’s photos from his online gallery and stare at it–generating a large amount of unconscious inspiration. Start with your gut feeling and describe the emotion you are feeling. Keep the emotional content heightened for your chorus. Maybe take out another piece of paper and free-write words and other images evoked by the photo. Form: Must follow this order:
V1
V2
C
V3
C
1/2 VERSE
C2
Special instructions -Must include an instance of contrary motion between the melody moving against the opposite direction of the harmony. (i.e. There She Goes, by The La’s)
Must also include an internal rhyme in the penultimate chorus line, leading to the final title line. Ex. You thought it was fine/to take what was mine
But now you’re just — killing time

I liked this series NPR did called Music Project Song where they’d bring in songwriters—sometimes individually (as in the case with The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt), sometimes a team (Moby + Kelli Scarr), and sometimes a couple that have never even met before (Chris Walla (ex-Death Cab) and Jawbox’s J. Robbins). They’d let them choose from a series of pictures and a series of words, and then write an record the song in two days. The stuff of thrills.




Reading: The Voice of the Heart – Chip Dodd
Listening: Fugazi – The Argument

The Hulk, Wearing Purple Pants Everyday, and Decision Fatigue


Cartoon characters–from Daffy Duck to Pooh–wear the same thing every day, right? My son smashes the day away with an Incredible Hulk action figure, and recently I found myself scrutinizing Hulk’s signature tattered purple pants. I realized that Bruce Banner must be wearing purple pants everyday when he turns into the Hulk in order for the Hulk ALWAYS to wear the aforementioned eggplant slacks.  Maybe they’re his most hated pair of pants, and since Banner knows he’s gonna hulk-out after brunch, he doesn’t care if they get destroyed, and thus purposely wears them. Maybe Banner is a genius—(he IS the world’s most leading scientist on Gamma radiation, after all). Or perhaps Banner is familiar with “decision fatigue”, and with only so many usable hours in the day to do research-y stuff, he is going to stick to the purple slacks and white lab coat.


“Hulk smash below belt!”


With our limited amount of creativity and willpower, let’s conserve it for the things that matter—your creative work, your relationships. This idea of “decision fatigue” haunted Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, who said,

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In one of my favorite books, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey outlines Flaubert’s austere schedule which he used while he wrote Bovary. 

The president does the same thing. Interviewing President Obama for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis records Obama saying,

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.”
We can think of other creative “greats” who have latched onto a similar idea. Steve Jobs’ signature black mock-turtleneck, blue jeans and white sneaks.

Mark Zuckerburg, (while not lauded for the choices) commits to a daily grey tee.

One of my favorite comedians, Jason Mantzoukas (aka “Dirty Randy” on The League), has a whole Tumblr devoted to his uniform of white BDCO’s and blue jeans.


I drink the same coffee every morning at 8:45. Gone are the days of experimenting with alchemic variations of shot and syrup ratios. During a recent summer, ago I ate a Cobb salad every day for lunch from the little bistro counter that occupied the lobby of the First Tennessee Bank on Third St. What daily decisions can I establish as sacrosanct so that I don’t have to decide? I’ve started using templates as I demo songs in Logic X, that has saved me a lot of time. I mainly stick to the same drum, guitar, and keyboard sounds at first, and let’s me focus on writing and arranging the actual song.
The fall of 2001 I didn’t get to go away for school, and I was flipping carpets at a Persian Rug department at a furniture store. I wore a size small (yeeeesh) black Hanes tee everyday. I did like it at those times. But now, opening a closet to one outfit feels a little soul-killing–“variety is the spice of life”, they say. I’ll think about it.

Listening: Gasoline Heart, Thanks for Everything
Watching: House of Cards, S3
Reading: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (trying to finish the last 40 pages)
Playing: Battlefield for Xbox