by Marti Jane Dodson
May 8, 2019
Do you remember that Mousetrap board game? Where you set a marble in motion and it goes through a series of ridiculous pulleys and levers and gears and baskets to get to the endpoint?
This is what I imagine the inside of my brain looks like. One little thought or notion enters from the outside, and sets a whole train of thoughts in motion until I’m thinking about something that’s completely unrelated to the original thought and trying to figure out how I got there. (Why am I thinking about hair extensions right now? Oh, because I listened to that weird Podcast about guys who date humanoid robots.
Today I looked up a picture of a humanoid robot and I really liked its hair, even though the whole concept freaked me out for the better part of two hours, and how does someone even date a robot? But anyway, did it have a wig on or hair extensions? I wonder if anyone I know has hair extensions and I don’t know it. I wonder if anyone I know is secretly dating a humanoid!) That’s kind of what this blog will be like (not dating a robot-just following the train of thoughts until it all makes sense)-so settle in with some cheese or whatever and get ready for the roller coaster.
The original thought was sparked by a post I saw on Facebook by a writer seeking advice on how to feel comfortable writing with a much more successful, and therefore intimidating, writer.
Writing with more successful writers is referred to in our business as ‘writing up’ and it’s a healthy goal to aim at least a percentage of your time toward.
It’s good for us to write with people who are more experienced than we are, because it challenges us and that’s one of the ways we become better writers.
Anyway, I started thinking about the advice I would give this writer, and I realized that almost all of it was a direct result of some work I’ve been doing in my personal life. About a year and a half ago, a crisis in a relationship landed me directly in a counselor’s office. And while the reason I was there was a result of the actions of another person, I knew it was time for me to finally confront and change some of my own behavior that led me to that point. As a result, I’ve been on one of the most challenging journeys of personal growth of my life. While I wish I hadn’t waited this long to become the best version of myself, JUST LOOK HOW GREAT I AM NOW (haha just kidding, still a mess. But a beautiful mess. See what I did there, Clay Mills?!)
AND AT LAST we’ve arrived at the part where the mouse traps the cheese-I started thinking about how some of the lessons I’ve learned in counseling about just being a healthier human being, could be applied to songwriting. And that’s what today’s blog is about-please recline on my couch as we begin.
1. Your needs matter.
We are human. We need to feel valid, like we’re being heard, like we’re important. In my personal life, my tendency to value the wants and needs of other people over my own happiness has been pretty destructive (well, to me at least-it’s been great for those other people haha!). In my writing life, it’s lent itself to a handful of songs that maybe weren’t my best work because I chose not to speak my mind, out of intimidation or embarrassment or whatever. Don’t assume that because you’re the least accomplished writer in the room, you don’t have anything to contribute. Or that what you contribute is of less value than the other parties. Learn from everyone, but also recognize that your viewpoints and opinions are valid, and when spoken respectfully, can lead to a better song.
2. You can detach from unhealthy relationships.
Here’s the bad news: some cowrites aren’t meant to be. Just like in life, in dating and friendships and marriage and family, not everyone will be part of your tribe. You know those writes you get into where you just click with the other person? They get you, you get them, both of you contribute, and everyone leaves feeling heard and satisfied? That’s what cowriting should feel like. It’s nearly impossible to describe to someone who’s never written a song, how physically and mentally draining a bad cowriting session can be. I’ve left some writes questioning my total existence as a writer and a human. And I’ve left other writes on top of the world. Guess which ones produced better songs?
My rule of thumb for writing is that I’ll try anything twice.
Sometimes people have an off day, or you catch somebody on a day where they have personal crap going on, or they don’t feel well, or you don’t, and the write follows suit. But, if you write with someone more than once and you still just can’t get on the same page-it’s okay to move on and not waste each other’s time! It doesn’t mean either of you are not good-it just means maybe you’re not meant to be good TOGETHER. Kind of like green olive pizza and Cadbury Eggs (can you tell I’m still high from buying all the 50% off Easter candy?)-both are magical in my opinion. But Cadbury Eggs on top of my olive pizza is just not something I’m ordering from Papa John.
3. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
I get it. We’re creatives. There are times we feel unstoppable, and there are times we’re so mired in self-doubt it feels like we’ll never create anything worthwhile. Truth is, we exist in a world where we depend quite a bit on external validation-to get a paycheck for a song, it needs to be liked by someone other than ourselves. We go play shows and while we don’t necessarily live for the applause (sorry, Lady Gaga)-it sure does feel nice when we get some. HOWEVER…
Songwriters can’t live and die by the opinions of other people, nor can we make good art if we’re constantly beating ourselves up.
Are you doing the best work you’re capable of doing that day? Are you striving to get better at your craft? Then by golly, give yourself a break, kid. Eat an ice cream sandwich, go to the park, and cut yourself some slack.
‘Happiness can exist only in acceptance.’-George Orwell
This is a big one, because it can mean SO many things in so many ways. I have spent much of my life in misery because I was at war with something I was literally incapable of changing. Trying to control things I could not control. Impossible circumstances. Other people. But how does this apply to writing?
*Accept where you are. (Essential Songwriting Therapy Technique.)
And no, I don’t mean, don’t strive to achieve your goals. But what would happen if you felt gratitude daily for exactly where you’re at in this process? For me, it means accepting that I’ve done this for a long time. I’m still not where I want to be. But I love where I’ve been, and I love where I’m at. So I find joy in those things and leave the rest up to fate and hard work.
*Accept the system you’re working within. Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t want better or dream of more, or demand more. But I accept the framework of where I’m at, in this moment. For example, in this moment, I make a concentrated effort to write more uptempo songs. Yes, I am the ballad QUEEN-but I know uptempos have more pitch opportunities, and my long term goal is to sustain a career, so I work within that system.
I still write ballads. I just try harder to write solid tempos as well.
*Accept that it won’t always be fair. No, I don’t like every song I hear on the radio. I don’t like when people who don’t behave like decent human beings get to have major successes, while some of the best people I know struggle to be heard. Does my not liking these things make them cease to exist? Nope, it just makes me bitter. When I find peace over knowing the music business is not a fair place, I get back to enjoying what I’m drawn to in the first place-making music.
Honestly, this could be about a million page blog. I’m a work in progress as both a human and a writer, and there are SO many opportunities I’ve had for growth and lessons I’ve learned in the past couple years. I could go on forever. But, just like I’m learning in counseling, sometimes you have to know when it’s time to call it a day and say goodbye. SO BYE (for now)!
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