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.

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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.

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New Song: “She’s Life”

a3969957569_2So in a rather unexpected flurry of creativity a few weeks ago, I wrote and recorded a new tune. It’s called “She’s Life”, and you can find it here (along with some of my earlier stuff).

I know that paying for music is really so, like, 1994, but I’d appreciate whatever you feel you could spare. (It’s only one song, I know).

There’s a lot of worse things you could do with $1, after all.

So I hope you enjoy it, and share it with friends and family.

Here’s the really crazy part: there will probably be another new tune in 3 weeks or so.

Peace, and enjoy.

https://ericcase.bandcamp.com/track/shes-life

Five (and a half) Resources to Boost Your Creativity (especially you, pastor)

Creativity Resources

Creativity Resources

If you know me at all, you’d know that I think more creativity in any field is a good thing, especially ministry. Creativity unlocks new approaches and new ideas, as well as improves existing ones. It’s almost an issue of stewardship, since it involves (I believe) reaching the full potential of our resources.

Seth Godin writes in Linchpin that we should approach our daily work like it’s a treasure: “It’s our one and only chance to do something productive today… A days’ work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.”

Now, Seth Godin didn’t write any of the Gospels in my Bible, but there is some wisdom in this. Any vocation can benefit from additional vision and creativity, including ministry, whether in discipleship conversations, preaching, or even arranging our schedule.

Here are a few resources that can jump-start your creative journey.

  1. Sometimes we get bogged down with solving the same problems with the same solutions (which isn’t really solving them at all, is it?). Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko, is a collection of creative brain exercises to help you examine problems and opportunities from radically different perspectives. The exercises will seem odd and counter-intuitive, but they bear much fruit over the long run.
  2. Are you bringing your best energy to the most important part of your day? Manage Your Day-to-Day is a collection of short essays and articles from business and thought leaders (including Seth). It’s a very hands-on, “tactical” book that can help you reevaluate how you are spending your time. The chapters are short enough to read in 10 minutes, and they include summer pages and key takeaways. This book is really, really critical to putting all of the theory into action.
  3. I think everyone should have a collection of poetry nearby. This may be a little out there, but poetry engages a different part of our brain than prose, and in order to bring all of our resources to bear on our challenges, we should be willing to stretch our creative muscles (i.e., our brains) a little. I picked up an anthology of works by Rumi, who is a widely respected Persian poet and mystic from the 13th century. I read 3 or 4 poems a week, always out loud (the way poetry is meant to be read), just treasuring the way the words are strung together. (Note: you don’t have to understand poetry it to benefit from it.)
  4. These two works are combined into one resource: PresentationZen and The Naked Presenter, both by Garr Reynolds, are invaluable works on public speaking or “presenting” (read: “Preaching”). The quality of our message—whatever that message is—is repeatedly compromised by our inabilities to clearly and effectively communicate it. What’s more, our tendency is to add more— more slides, more images, more bells and whistles (animations? ugh)—when a better approach would be to take away. Clear the deck, so to speak. Provide space. Clarity. Reynolds ruthlessly shows how to arrange thoughts and information in ways that shout by whispering.
  1. Lastly, I present the lowly Moleskine sketch book. Early on when I began preaching, I instinctively began using sketches (as opposed to

    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    outlines) to develop my thoughts. As Mind Mapping has shown, our brain doesn’t work linearly, it works through “webs”, and to the degree that we try to visualize our problems with an outline or some other “linear” display, we are actually working against our minds. My sketchbook allows me to work with the brain’s natural tendencies, rather than against them. The next time you are trying to map a project or construct a talk, try sketching the ideas first, rather than outlining them. (Obviously, a nice white board works well too.)

These are just a few tools and tricks that help me approach my work from a more creative space. If you have any others, feel free to share them here.

 

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