You Can’t Go Forcing Something If It’s Just Not Right?
Today I’m going to write about how I got creative again. I used to write a lot of music in college, and while I still play in bands and performed into my 20s and early 30s, I stopped writing songs. Covers are fun to play, but there’s something magical about creating something from nothing.
Yet I couldn’t do it… for years. All this, despite having much more free time than I had in my college days. It’s nice not having homework.
This year, something changed, and I’m happy to say that I’m in the late stages of mixing an EP of brand new songs.
It turns out that I was able to apply the same principles that I used to writing this blog. Things like making it easy to commit, making it hard to quit, and giving myself space to create.
Let’s take a look at the approaches I used, which can be applied to any creative endeavor.
Goal Setting Is Different for Creators
My first step was to figure out a goal. In the creative world, I’ve found that process and consistency outweigh anything you can define ahead of time. There’s just no way to “force” yourself to create something great (or, honestly, even good). All you can do is commit yourself to putting in the right effort every day and see what happens.
As I elaborate in my extended guide on goal setting, creative pursuits don’t have deterministic playbooks. I knew that I’d need to put in place a solid process, then learn and adjust my outcomes. As such, I set a conservative goal to write a few songs by the end of the 2017 calendar year, which at the time was a few months away. I had no idea how long it would take to write a song, but one per month seemed reasonable. I could always calibrate as I learned how to do it again.
In retrospect, one song a month was too many! But it didn’t matter. Having a clear end state helped me move promptly to the next step, which was to make songwriting as easy as possible by breaking it down into extremely small steps. To write and record a few songs, you have to write one song. To write one song, you need to spend time writing the song. To spend time writing the song…
Getting Stuck; Getting Unstuck
Here is where I got stuck, and where I began to realize what was blocking me. I was treating the writing process like some sort of mystical vision quest, and assuming I needed to get a big block of alone time to make any progress at all. And this sort of time was never forthcoming.
I decided to make a change. I committed that I would spend 15 minutes working on a song at least 4 days a week, and I put that commitment into Beeminder. You can check out my progress here. It turns out that I’ve done about 170 writing sessions in the past year, averaging about 3 sessions per week. Even if I only spent 15 minutes each session (a conservative estimate), that’s over 40 hours of rewarding, creative expression that I wasn’t doing before.
I also put guitars everywhere. I literally have one in each of the main rooms of my house. It seems ridiculous that getting up to walk over and pick up a guitar would be a serious barrier to progress, but I’ve proven it can be!
Now, how to spend the time? I read a few books on process, including Tunesmith and Bird by Bird and decided that to get unblocked, I just needed to either write a melody fragment, a short chord progression, or some words. It didn’t matter which. What mattered was that I brainstormed all of this frequently.
So that’s what I did. Every day, I’d write down some lyric fragments, or strum a guitar, sing, or pluck out a melody. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott calls these sorts of exercises “short assignments.” I quickly learned that I should record everything I do and write down some notes, or I’d spend more time relearning what I played than coming up with new ideas.
Once a week, I’d go back and listen to everything I recorded, looking for ideas that I liked. Sometimes a few days and some perspective can really change how you feel about an idea. Sometimes you feel exactly the same. Either way, each fragment is another potential building block for a larger creative work.
Occasionally, something would just feel right or a few ideas would come together, and I’d start fleshing out a song spontaneously. Twice, I ended up with a complete song demo over the course of a day. When inspiration strikes, take advantage of it!
Other times, writing was a deliberate process of working on building up parts for an idea that I liked and unfolded over the course of several weeks.
Some ideas went nowhere. That’s okay too.
In the process, I learned that whatever idea I start with tends to be the most complex, so things tended to work best when I started melody first. Left to my own devices my melody lines are simpler than the chord progressions that I gravitate towards. In this case, complexity was usually better saved for later.
From Assignment to Song
With a few ideas in my back pocket, I needed to transition to a rhythm of working out more parts. Here I found that having a theme for each session helped to provide variety while making sure that I made steady progress against my goals. It could be something specific like “write a baseline for song A” or more general like “practice drums”; both were valuable. I would plan these themes out once a week and write them into my calendar, then enjoy the fruits of not having to plan for another 7 days.
Once all the songs were roughly written, I took several weeks to record demos. This could have been a time trap. I’m a sound engineer, and it took restraint to not go all in and bog down. Because I know to plan ahead and prevent self-sabotage, I restricted myself to acoustic guitar and voice only. I even decided to not use a click track for these recordings, which in retrospect I’m not sure was a good idea since playing at a steady tempo ended up as one of my biggest challenges when I got down to recording for real.
Having the demos was a great milestone… it felt like an accomplishment and it helped me to think through how I wanted to flesh out the arrangements. It also gave me something to practice with, which in retrospect, I wish I did a little bit more of.
Recording for Realz
Producing polished recordings was my final step. This probably deserves a post in and of itself, since there’s so much to it. Through much trial and error recording myself, I learned that the following order works best for me:
- Record a very simplified guitar guide track, 100% focused on playing in tempo with the click track
- Add a scratch vocal that indicates where I am in the song and makes sure that the guitar guide track marks time correctly
- Add a second guitar guide track that is closer to the actual rhythm pattern
- Sometimes I’d also add a scratch electric drum track if I didn’t have access to my drum kit
- Start to layer on quality recordings, working from the rhythm up: drums, bass, rhythm guitars, vocals, solo guitars, other instruments as needed
- Listen to the track often to identify any problem areas; I like to create a guide track of me giving my reactions to the song as I listen
- Fix whatever needs fixing
- Mix, master, and leave well enough alone
Of course, your mileage may vary. Not everyone is recording themself. Not everyone is writing music for that matter! The important part here is to treat the creative process as a process of exploration and figure out what works for you. Manage your environment to make sure that you put in consistent effort on what is working.
This year I’ve written more songs than I have in the past decade, and I’ve learned a ton about how I work best. Whether the songs are any good is a matter of opinion, but whether I’ve proven to myself that I can create is a matter of fact. Along the way, my specific focus would change as my project progressed, but I always kept up with the idea of dedicating around an hour a week to writing and recording. Sometimes in 15 minutes increments, especially when writing, sometimes in a big block when I was recording.
And here I am today in final stages of recording and mixing my EP. It turns out that it took a little over a year to get 5 songs that I’m happy with, but it feels like time well spent. When I try this again, I’ll have my time better calibrated and I’ll have to do less trial and error on each step. My main takeaway is that as soon as I’m done with this EP, I’m going to start writing the next one. Creation is fun and rewarding. It has that compounding quality that I’m always looking for in my pursuits.
So how about you? Is there something you’ve been meaning to create and you just haven’t had the time or energy to do it? Maybe with a revised approach it can be easily done.
Your Actions for Today
- Take 10 minutes and think about a creative project you’ve been meaning to do. Do you think you could dedicate just 45 minutes a week to it?
- Use effort-based goal setting, commitment devices, and short assignments to get going. If you need more help my comprehensive guide to achieving your goals has details and worksheets to get you unstuck.
- Let me know how it’s going. Reader responses are shaping my next few posts—you’ve got the power and I want to know what you are making a reality.