My Cellphone - A Trusted Songwriting Tool

Used to be I would plunk down in front of the piano with a piece of music paper and a pencil, start improvising and scribbling down whatever I liked. And  if I got lucky I would end up with a song at the end of my writing session. Most times these efforts didn't amount to much, and I would end up discarding 9 out of 10 songs after revisiting them a few days later and deciding that they were utter garbage.

I still write lots and lots of crappy songs. Songs that I toss off in order to de-clutter my mind, or ideas I play around with; ideas that I might revisit sometime later. Usually though, those ideas end up in a folder, never to see the light of day again.

Then there was the period when I slept with a notebook by my bed, in case an idea struck in the middle of the night. Trouble was, sometimes I would dream of the most beautiful song, and a part of my mind would urge me to wake up and write it down. But another part would calm me down and encourage me to stay in dreamland. Surely a beautiful concoction such as this song would stay with me far into the waking hours. Wrong - unfortunately. These dream songs were lost to me the minute I opened my eyes the next morning. All I had left was the aching beauty of them, an ephemeral echo of a thing so tender it could not be captured.

So, no more journals next to my bed.

And sometimes ideas for songs, phrases, hooks would hit me at the most inopportune moment. At the gym, in the steam room or shower, while walking down a busy street with not a shred of paper on me, let alone a pen. Or at a party. Those songs, too, were lost to me. Funny thing, the memory of songs. It doesn't work, at least not for me. Once an idea passed me by and I didn't grab it by its tail and smite it onto the page it would float away, probably on to some other poor soul in search of inspiration. 

Lately though, with the advent of the oh so smart cell phone, I have been able to hold on to my ideas by recording them right away. Even if it was just a line that I liked. Nowadays I don't really care anymore if people look at me funny when I walk down the street, singing into my phone. It's always with me, and it dutifully saves all my ideas - the good and the bad.

I have also taken to recording everything I write on the piano. Unfortunately the fancy cell phone is no substitute to showing up for songwriting duties and tickling the ivories. But again my phone is by my side, and when I have a groove, or a chorus, or a verse done, I record it. Because, people, nothing is more frustrating than to revisit a song the next day, only to discover that you don't remember how it went, because you, lazy being that you are, only scribbled down the words and chord changes. No rhythm, no bars, nothing.

So, here's a shout-out to the creative potential of the smart phone! It has become a vessel to my ideas, the pensieve (thank you, J. K.) to my thoughts. I still have to write charts in the end, because I do work with other musicians. But at least I can wait with that until the last minute, until I'm sure I actually like what I have written and played it about 100 times. By then the song has either made it into my set or not. But it exists, it is there, in my phone. It is real.

Beyond the Procrastination Hurdle and Into Excitement

There are days when the daunting task of writing the next chapter or the next scene looms larger than the cliffs of Dover. I set my starting time for writing, the moment comes and goes, and Scrivener is still firmly closed. In fact, the more I write, the more I come to the conclusion that I better get used to the procrastination hurdle, because it is simply there. Maybe it's time for that second cup of coffee? (It always is.) Or maybe I need to click on my e-mail inbox a few more times to see if any news has come in. (Apart from the latest spam? Not really) But I have also found strategies that help me get to that first sentence faster and with more joy than before, and I stick to them with vigilance.

The first strategy is so obvious, it's ridiculous how long it took me to impart it:

Disconnect from the internet and silence your phone!

I shut down my e-mail page, facebook page and skype, so I don't get tempted to answer when one of my nieces wants to chat. And my phone needs to be silent because all those alerts - facebook, twitter, e-mail, test message - make different sounds that pull me out of my story. This has obviously been discussed in various books on writing. But reading about it in a book and actually taking the step to withdraw from the world this way are two very different things. I do stay connected to my online dictionary - English being my second language, words sometimes elude me, and it's easier and quicker to jump start my mind with the use of this tool. I have it bookmarked prominently.

The second strategy was a bit less obvious to me, but it came up in two separate books on writing, and so I went ahead and tried it:

Connect to your creative joy, to the spark, the delight in the creative process.

Rachel Aaron writes about psyching yourself out about the scene you are going to tackle before you hit your first key stroke in her thoroughly helpful book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. Having spent over two years on writing and rewriting my book I can relate to that. I must have rewritten some of the plot points in my novel about fifteen times, so it gets harder and harder to be excited about writing the same scenario AGAIN, only better.
(I'm far from done. My third page-one rewrite draws to a close, hopefully by the end of this week, and then I have to start editing the thing and basically find out if my new draft is just a pile of garbage or worth spending another couple of months on. So yeah, I need every ounce of "psyched-out-ness" I can get.)

Brooke Warner, in What's Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author describes a quick meditation before you start writing that I have adapted for my purposes: I visualize  holding a crackling ball of pure, joyful creative energy in the palm of my left hand. In my right hand I hold the weight of "I have to write". As I envision spinning that fireball of creativity in my left palm, the pull of "Obligation" in my right loses some of its weight. This is the essence of Brooke Warner's meditation, not verbatim, but you get the idea. I added an end bit, in which I toss the fireball up in the air and let the drops of creativity shower down on me. It makes me smile every time, and the whole thing takes maybe 30 seconds.

Over the years I have learned that procrastination is not going anywhere. It's part of the deal, the pull away from the page the minute I sit down to it. The question is not so much how to avoid it, but how to deal with and get past it.

 What are some of your strategies to get over the hump of procrastination? Do you have to do the dishes first? Empty the litter box? Water the plants? Or do you not suffer from this affliction at all? In which case I say: Congratulations! And how do you do that?

Why Do We Do What We Do?

It's a heady question, isn't it? Why indeed?

Why do we follow the call to create something, write a song, perform on stage, write a novel? And why do we keep going even after a myriad of set-backs? After being told that there's no money in this, no future in that? The market is dead. Jazz is dead. Too many people are releasing crappy books, etc. The winds of adversity do blow harsh and unrelenting.

As a jazz vocalist and writer I have questioned my choices many, many times. Am I wasting my life chasing after the impossible dream? Should I settle down, get a job somewhere, have a family? While there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing such a life, I simply can't do that. I don't have it in me. The older I get the more I want to go for what interests me, what challenges me. I want to listen to that nagging voice in my head that keeps yakking on about this melody, or that story.

Don't get me wrong. I am not sleeping under a bridge, sifting through garbage. In fact, my life circumstances are pretty comfortable. I make enough money to have food on the table, go out to the occasional dinner and buy new clothes at some discount store. But I do spend a very large chunk of my time working on my voice, my novel, my new songs. Time I could spend doing things that don't interest me quite as much but hold the promise of a whole lot more steady income.

However, I find myself shrinking away from fully committing to the money gig. Every day is a challenge to carve out enough time for my creative endeavors while making rent, working out how to balance what I need with what I am passionate about.

 How is my quest relevant to the world at large? How do I contribute with my particular circus act of plate spinning? I think, looking at the bigger picture, as artists, we strive to speak and live our truth. To follow the call of the heart, the flame of creativity that burns, sometimes a roaring fire, and sometimes barely a flicker. I think the world would be utterly dull and boring, if we didn't allow or encourage such a pursuit. And while I follow my very own set of follies for purely egotistical reasons - having created gives me great satisfaction, and performing is thoroughly energizing - I do believe that by doing so I might blaze a path for another to follow. For one more person to listen to their very own call and get going on that long, winding journey with impossible odds and an unclear outcome.

At the very least, it beats watching TV for 4 hours every day.

It's All Chris Tarry's Fault

Yep. If somebody is to blame for my foray into writerdom it's Chris Tarry. Look him up. He's a cool dude who writes killer short stories and is a phenomenal bass player and dedicated Brooklynite. Here's his website. http://www.christarry.com

Anyway...he gave me an early draft of his novel to read in the summer of 2010, I think. And unwittingly rekindled an old, old passion I had for writing. Like so many other people on this Earth, I have been a closeted fiction writer all my life, starting with fairy tales at the age of 10, continuing with poems throughout my teenage years - and be honest here - who hasn't written love drenched ditties at the age of seventeen?

But my love for music pulled me toward songwriting, which I incidentally also started dabbling in at age 10. I love love love music and anything to do with singing, so I went down the musician road. Of course, when you're a musician, you never really stop writing. There is your bio, your press release, your husband's bio, your husband's press release. The whole thing translated into German, etc.

But then Chris Tarry came along with his brand spanking new novel, and it blew my hidden writer's existence wide open. Suddenly I looked more closely at that book idea that had been ruminating in my head for years, and I started fantasizing about writing it down. But I was frightened pantsless. How could I possibly write an entire book? I was used to song lyrics, some maybe 8 lines long.

But with much encouragement from my friend and formidable writer CO Moed (check out her wonderful blog here: http://myprivateconey.blogspot.com/ ) who kept cheering me through my very, very first draft, I did come up with the origin version of "Billie Lupescu: Wormhole". Needless to say, the book has gone through several massive transitions, and I am now on my third tabula rasa page one rewrite. But it's a fascinating journey.

So, thanks, Chris! Now I have another baby to fret over at night.

Who inspired you to create? To dance, to act, sing, get over yourself and shine a light on that long festering idea of yours?