Morning Pages, 3 Dec: When the Music is All Around

There are moments when the music is all around, when it surrounds me like a great blanket and I feel LOVE and there’s nothing between me and the universe and I’m not taking (nor faking) and there’s only notes BUT notes aren’t really notes they are BLOOMS and messages to and from the soul place. 

There are moments. 

There are moments when all the HURT and PAIN and DOUBT DISAPPEAR and I-am-making-a-difference to myself at least and that is usually enough and I can give and receive at the same time because they are actually both the same. 

I do not think of the shoes I’m wearing then, not do I remember why I picked the shirt to wear then I only CHOOSE without thought — is that a choice? — Maybe I only have to MOVE TOWARDS (not choose) the next note or chord, only because THAT’s the next note/chord to play. I need no reason, because THE MOMENT IS THE REASON. 

I don’t have an itchy soul then. I AM ERIC, and ERIC is music, because MUSIC is what is happening then. When music is not happening, then to be Eric will mean something else…

… making-eggs Eric

… reading-books Eric

… having-an-argument Eric

… praying Eric

… sleeping Eric

… being-lazy eric

ALL of those Erics are Eric, and they are all valid and LOVED.

It’s just that… music is… well, music is…

SSHHHHHHHHHHH. 

Manifesto: What the World Needs Now…

(Is for you to write for 10 minutes.)

Somewhere—I can’t remember where or even exactly when—I stumbled across the idea that my vocation, in general, is to “live creatively in response to the gospel.” 

Actually, the implication was that this truth applies to all people who call themselves Christ followers (“Christians”). 

Truth is, most of us don’t really do a good job of this. 

We get the “living” part, and even though I’m convinced a lot of us don’t really understand what “good news” (that’s what “gospel” means, in case you didn’t know) actually means, many of us could quote a Bible verse or two about the term. 

But what about that little adverb there: “creatively”? 

Many of us would just ignore it, and pretend it’s not there. Just do the “living” part, and go to church, and hope that things get better. 

We leave “creativity” to people with tattoos, funny hats, skinny jeans, and interesting glasses. 

(Artists and hipsters.)

But let me push on that just a bit. 

First, CREATIVITY AND ART ARE NOT THE SAME THING. “Art” is a subset of creativity. Creativity simply means bringing something into being, and for most of us it occurs when someone simply brings two things or concepts together that typically don’t belong together, and the result is somehow useful, or beautiful, or delightful, or just simply moves people in some way. 

In this way, ALL OF US can be creative. It’s actually pretty easy. 

(NOTE: It’s not always easy to get results that are amazing, or beautiful, or delightful, etc. But results ≠ process. We’re talking about PROCESS here.) 

Second, I believe the world is begging for more faith-inspired, intentional creativity.

Why? 

Well, Einstein said it best: “You can’t solve the world’s problems at the same level of consciousness that created them.” 

(I paraphrase.) 

We need new solutions to the problems that continue to plague our world: selfishness, greed, pride, anger, divisiveness, etc., etc. 

I’m pretty convinced that all good people—even (especially?) Christians—want to do the right thing, but what we are faced with is the same approaches to the the same problems. 

We need MORE. We need NEW. 

We need more/new from our leaders, we need more/new from our preachers, we need more/new from EVERYONE. 

(Including YOU and ME.) 

Let me be clear: we don’t need MORE/NEW so that we can ONLY have more/new songs, paintings, poems, sculptures, etc. We need more/new so that we can have more/new IDEAS, INSPIRATION, APPROACHES, INNOVATION. 

Because one of the great gifts of creativity is the increased ability to make “lateral leaps”—surprise linkages—in our thinking. THIS is how we stumble into new ways of thinking, new and innovative ways to approach old problems. 

MORE/NEW. 

Over my years of creative exploration, one tool has emerged as an absolutely essential building block, a foundation for songwriting, leadership, blogging, problem-solving, etc., etc. I first discovered it in The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s seminal work, and I’ve continued to tweak the process as I’ve gotten older. Cameron called them “Morning Pages”, and the concept was actually pretty simple: 

  1. Write three pages—absolutely no less—every single day. Even if the pages are filled with “I don’t know what to write,” etc., you have to fill the three pages. 
  2. Do NOT stop to edit, or go back to read what you wrote. Immediately put the pages away (I used to put a time limit of a minimum of two weeks). 

Later on, I combined Cameron’s approach with something I read in a book on lyric writing by Pat Pattison called “Object Writing,” where you take an object around you, and for ten minutes you write EVERYTHING you can about the object: it’s shape, it’s significance, it’s color, it’s position on the table, etc. Other principles remained the same: you HAD to write for ten minutes, not stopping, and you could NOT edit or go back and read. 

(NOTE: You can ALSO use these same exercises—particularly the “Object Writing” approach—to solve more specific problems. You simply take whatever problem or challenge you’re trying to solve and write SPECIFICALLY about that problem for ten minutes, using the same rules. No editing, have to keep the words flowing, etc. In THIS context, you CAN go back and read what you wrote, but maybe give yourself an hour gap between writing and reading.)

This SIMPLE act is the foundational creative exercise: it’s like stretching in the morning for an athlete. Sports and training metaphors are often found in the New Testament, and I believe they apply—critically—to more than just our physical bodies. We need foundational “exercises” that prime and prepare our minds (AND hearts AND souls) for more unexpected (i.e., “creative”) thinking. 

Remember: as best I can tell, Jesus says we are ALL—not just some of us, or the “good Christians—supposed to be the light of the world. That means ALL of us have a job to do, to do a little good in the world.

In other words, “to live creatively in response to the Good News.” 

The world needs more CREATIVE action that is Good News. 

So go: pick up your pen. Spend 10 minutes (or three pages, whichever you prefer). Then do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, etc. 

And let the ideas come. We need them. 

Poison

Poison.

It’s not what you think.

It’s way trickier than that.

It’s when you start doing the thing that you think is the thing, but what you’re actually doing is creating something that you think the thing is supposed to be, so that it can get the likes it’s supposed to get…

The retweets…

The shares…

When did creating become a commodity in my life?

It’s snuck in, that’s for sure.

I used to have a musical, songwriting friend, and we would have this argument all the time…

Him: “Let’s get together and play guitars on our back porch.”

Me: “Let’s book a gig.”

Him: “Let’s just write songs that no one has to hear.”

Me: “Let’s book a gig and share them.”

You see, I get this about me: I love the audience. I have been performing since I was 5, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it, and pretty used to it. With music it seemed like such a natural fit.

But then I started dabbling in writing, and wow they had these things called “Blogs” and you could publish to the world!

So I would write, and I would publish.

And I would write, and I would publish.

And I would write, and I would publish.

So much so, that writing began to equal publishing.

Writing = Publishing… ?

And sitting down to type always meant looking over my shoulder, or more accurately, “out there” to the world.

I’m not sure you can really write like that.

You’ll always pull back. Or nudge things this way or that way to make them more palatable, or more fantastic.

(Or, at least, I will always tend towards those behaviors.)

Click bait, anyone?

The book Writing Down the Bones is really all about this; creating a writing practice that gives you a safe space to get stuff out.

As Mick would say maybe, “empty some blood on the page…”

But I haven’t got that habit back in my life just yet. I’m still struggling. Turning the Wi-Fi off while I write is a beginning step, but it seems as if there’s another place to go that’s even more simple, more analog, more primal than this.

Don’t make me get out my pen and start writing! Hand cramps anyone?

But I know I need it. I need the place to be raw. To get at the essence of things. To mess up. To be a beautiful disaster.

Ironically, songwriting is still a bit like that for me. Somehow, I just instinctively know how to be more free in that space. Not sure why. It may be simply that it’s just more honest and true to who I am.

Anyway. Desperately seeking space.

Let’s get there.

Productivity/Creative “Contultants” v “Practitioners” 

So, about 4 years ago I discovered this whole genre of life and learning called, “Productivity.” Among many others, the field includes books like Getting Things Done, along with authors and podcasters like Merlin Mann, Todd Henry, and Scott Belsky. You can learn about it on websites like Lifehack.org and 99U.com Essentially the field is about efficiency and creativity: getting your best work out to people with consistency, excellence, and a degree of interest.

However, more recently I’ve noticed an interesting trend: basically I think the field is dividing into two types of thought leaders: those who write about creativity and productivity, and (2) those who have actually done something creative. 

I don’t want to name names, but I was listening to a productivity/creativity podcast months ago when it occurred to me that the person was basically a productivity expert because, well, he was a productivity expert. 

In other words, he hadn’t really created anything, except more information about being productive.

There were no stories about being “in the trenches” of productivity: He hadn’t written a screenplay, completed a record, led a company or team that was constructing (and delivering) a tangible product.

He was a creative/productivity “consultant”.

… And frankly, I wasn’t that interested.

For this current season of my life, I find myself drawn to people who are practicing creativity and productivity, not merely writing about it. To my mind, they have more to say about the blood and guts part of “getting things done”, like:

* inspiring people over the long-term

* creating a signature style in the midst of a corporate culture

* navigating the scarcity of resources (human and otherwise)

* the pressure of constantly having to come up with “the next big idea”

The list of productivity voices gets a lot shorter when you look for people who are actually getting work done, rather than merely posting about creative theory and interesting life hacks.

In fact, I’m going to recommend starting with a list of three people. These folks have done the work over the long haul, therefore (in my opinion) they have an authority and wisdom that comes from a slightly deeper place.

  1. James Victore is a NYC-based artist/designer who has been creating posters and visual art since the 90s. His work is provocative and engaging. His YouTube series, “Burning Questions“, answers some of the basic levels of creativity, and does it from the perspective of a guy who has actually done it (he does a year-end reading list, which I love). I’d encourage you to subscribe. (He’s also quite funny.)
  2. I’ve written about Twyla Tharp before: she is an award-winning, acclaimed choreographer and dancer (who also lives in New York City). Her book The Creative Habit is simply one of the most interesting and thorough works on how to be creative “in the real world”. It is full of lists and suggests (yay!), as well as stories of how this stuff has born itself out in Tharp’s life. She’s done it for a long time, and she speaks with the voice who has seen it all. If you do any type of vital work in the world—leading people, creating, or simply envisioning change and a future that may or may not exist yet—and haven’t read The Creative Habit, you really owe it to yourself to pick it up and read it. Quickly.
  3. The last name is this list is also a heavy weight. Steven Pressfield is an author and screenwriter, most notable (perhaps) for The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. He’s also published more than half-a-dozen works of historical fiction. However, in 2002 he published a little (relatively) book called The War of Art that has proven to be a game-changing work for many of us artists, creatives, and folks that just need to get stuff done. Pressfield writes with a directness, vulnerability, and authority that is seldom seen. It’s both practical and conceptual, and is worth reading repeatedly (once a year maybe?)

In my opinion, these three people are great places to start if you want to be challenged about productivity and creativity from people who are actually doing it. They are not consultants; they have seen the battles, and slogged through the frustrations and disappointments of trying to bring something to the world that is new, refreshing and effective.

Noticed in November, Pt 7 :: “I Don’t Wanna”

Hear all the songs here.

So… I started playing guitar probably in 1982 or 1983; this means that I am, more or less, a musical child of the 80s. This means a couple of things: first, I definitely know how to play guitar solos. It was like essential musical knowledge for us. A lot of that changed literally after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but before that, the notes and the fingers were a-flyin. 

Secondly, I’m influenced by the way music was played in the 80s. To make a long story very short, the 80s were a study of musical contrasts. On the one hand, some bands were very distant and style-conscious. Music could be very cold and precise. On the other hand, there were a handful of artists that rebelled against that detachment and chose to wear their hearts boldly on their sleeves. In a documentary on the making of U2’s The Joshua Tree, Brian Eno said that U2 recognized that “being cool was a sort of detachment from yourself,” and they decided to reject that. Their music is full of vulnerability and “grand-ness.”

But they weren’t alone.

There were other bands who leaned into this engagement. They decided to make music that was big and emotive. In ways it was very un-pretentious, and it lacked self-awareness. It just… was. People jumped around on stage; there was no shame in “being into” the music. Enthusiasm was welcomed.

The other two bands that most readily come to mind that made this kind of music were The Alarm (from Wales) and a band from America called The Call. (If you listen to The Call’s, “What Happened to You“, you can actually hear a young singer from Dublin who named himself Bono singing backup.)

Neither of these bands achieved anywhere close to the longevity of U2, but for those of us who were there, we realized that bands like these were touching something inside us that was innocent and excited to be alive.

Sometimes I wonder where music like that is now; it seems like bands—and music in general—exist in this calculated, “always on” zone where “being cool” is always necessary. At its extreme, it can feign humility and flirt with some kind of false embarrassment about being in a band, like enjoying art is some kind of crime.

The Call’s “I Don’t Wanna” is about as simple of a song as they come: it’s two chords, for crying out loud. Over a tribal drum beat, singer Michael Been sings tortured lines to someone or something. 

Truth be told, I don’t know the exact story behind the lyrics, but they are powerful to me, particularly these:

I ain’t here to tell you what you need
I ain’t gonna take a noble stand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I can only tell you what I’ve seen
I can only tell you how it felt
When my heart was crushed so bad inside
Till I felt the hatred slowly melt

I need this, have felt it once or twice, that moment when something presses down on you so heavily that all of a sudden the walls come down and you feel something break and release inside you.

It’s sort of what it means to be alive, I think.

Enjoy.

The video below is their first single, “The Walls Came Down”. (The studio track surprisingly featured Garth Hudson from The Band on keyboards, whom I wasn’t to discover for another decade.)

*Postscript: Singer Michael Been tragically passed away just a few years ago at the age of 60. However, his son was in one of my other favorite bands from the early 2000s: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He did some shows fronting the Call in a tribute to his father. Legit. 

 

Noticed in November 3 :: Gimme Something Good

My ongoing effort to blog about music I’m listening to in November. You can check out my list on Spotify.

Generally, I don’t like to listen to loud music in the morning. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I actually like to “wake up slow” and start quiet. I don’t usually hit my stride, rock-wise, until about 10:30 or 11:00AM. Early morning drives are usually accompanied by Sigur Ros; maybe The National if I feel like pushing the boundaries.

But the way my week has been—and considering I had to drive an hour to class this week—I decided to bend those rules a bit.

Ryan Adams has long been an inspiration to me. His run of releases—11 between 2000 and 2014—is simply amazing. The man knows how to “to the work.” (In fact, it’s a fairly known fact that he and Stephen King, another guy who knows how to sit down and get to work, are fans of each other.)

I’d venture to say that not one of those records was a flop. Maybe there were some “B-” records, with some C- songs on them, but on the whole the whole catalogue is just solid. 

(BTW, this is no way mean to say that the man cannot turn a phrase; he’s an absolute master at it.)

When I was writing for Maida Vale, Adams was my bar: each year I’d set out to write somewhere between 25 and 30 songs, starting around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and taking advantage of every spare minute. When Maida Vale stopped playing in 2011 (?), I stopped listen to Ryan Adams; the association was too strong.

But I started again when he released his latest, and I haven’t been disappointed. He has a way of making music that I’m convinced I’ve heard before, but really haven’t. Someone once told me that the best music is like that: it simultaneously sounds like classic rock and yet utterly new at the same time. It’s simple, and just solid, and consistent.

I’ve been moved by a couple of his songs—”Dear Chicago” maybe, and “Friends” probably the most—but mostly what Adams does for me is inspire as an artist/creative person to sit down and write. Not care too much about “innovating” or making something radically new. Just get it out the door… 

… And for where I’m at in my life right now, this is healing. Music is still very much my craft, my release, and when I get to make something, to create it, it touches something deep inside me that is still pure and youthful and innocent. It is relatively untouched by all the egoism and self-laden burdens that plague so much of my life.

 

Noticed in November 1 :: The Healing Day

Every artist is a cannibal / every poet is a thief

All kill their inspiration / and sing about the grief (Bono, “The Fly”)

Like all great artists, I have decided to rip off an idea. My sister, who is better than me at just about everything (especially encouragement) wrote every day in October about music that moved her. I, on the other hand, grew increasingly silent in this space. This is for some highly personal reasons that I am working through, but I also still feel drawn to write. Just this afternoon, while sitting in a class on theology, I decided to do what she did (even though I’m starting way late).

So for the next period of time—not sure yet—I’m going to write about songs that are impacting me. Again, I won’t say much, but this recent season has been a rather intense one in my life, so there’s a lot going on.

Also: get ready, because my tastes certainly run the gamut.

You can hear the songs here.

The first song on the list is “The Healing Day” by Bill Fay.

By nature I am a melancholy person. Most of the time it’s not really that big of a deal (except for the fact that I’m called “Eeyore” at work). However, every so often—maybe once ever 18 months or so—the bottom drops out, and I enter a pretty big skid.

Depression.

I went through a pretty big one—at least 24-30 months—when we first moved to Tallahassee, but I had not really drunk from that bitter cup since then.

Until October.

Maybe it was just seasonal; maybe it was something I did or didn’t do (truth is, it was/is probably a result of a combination), but “The Black”, as I sometimes call it, hit me forcefully in October. There were plenty of days that I limped through (with varying degrees of success), and the struggle was fierce for a lot of it.

(It’s still hovering, by the way.)

Monday, November 3 was a particularly difficult day. I was in Orlando for a class, and for a variety of reasons I was just in a tailspin.

“Despair” is not a word I use lightly, but in this case, well, it fit.

One of my mentors once told me once, “You need to know when to deal gently with yourself.” 

As I drove around northeast Orlando for lunch, this phrase popped into my head, and I found this tune on my phone and pushed play.

Bill Fay is an English singer/songwriter. Though he did most of his work in the 60s and 70s, he released a record—Life is Peoplebillfay2in 2012. I remember hearing the title track and instantly thinking, “Wow, this guy really influenced Jeff Tweedy.” The music is simple and gentle; the word “pastoral” comes easily to mind. I really don’t know a ton about Bill Fay other than these two songs, but they are a good soundtrack when I am trying to “deal gently with myself,” when I am trying to forgive myself and live without shame (which for me is a struggle).

A good friend of mine said recently that he wants to listen to music/art “that will wreck him.”

Sometimes I don’t want music to wreck me; I do a find job of that on my own. Sometimes I want music to help put me back together again, or at the very least just remind me that I’m “okay” even when I am in pieces.

“Healing Day” is not going to be musically revelatory to anyone; it’s pretty simplistic. However, it’s like a great big gentle hug from a good friend or family member when I need it most.

+e