Over at The End Times Spasm Band’s site, I’ve written a bit about touring and being productive and all that.
Not long ago now we finished our longest tour to date. Nine days, eight shows. We swung through Michigan, drove out to Kansas and Nebraska, and returned via Indianapolis. If the others are like me, then we caught a giddy second wind towards the end and the last few days felt like we’d only just left. It was a success by our own standards, but we also know it hasn’t made us pros overnight. In fact one of the reasons I can’t wait to do it again is so we can apply the lessons we learned.
This has been one of the bigger differences between End Times and the other bands I’ve been in. If we’re doing the same things we did last month, we feel unsatisfied. We make as many mistakes as anyone, but within a day we’re saying to each other “next time, lets try it this way.” We’re always asking “what’s next?” even in the face of failure.
A few days after returning I listened to Merlin Mann’s 2009 presentation “With All Due Respect to the Seduction Community” for what must have been the fifth time. The presentation is about creative projects and the barriers that stand in the way of starting a new one. I highly recommended it for anyone who’s been meaning to get to work on a project, whether it’s an album, a novel, software, or some fantastic experiment in knitting. The last few times I listened to it, I heard it in relation to songwriting and it was helpful. But this time – because of where my mind already was – I heard it in relation to touring and tour-planning. Read that way, it sends a very clear message to every band out there.
You have what you need to book a tour right now.
There’s a new blog post by me over on The End Times Spasm Band’s blog. It’s about finishing and songwriting.
While the SpasmVan cruised north along I-69 for the hundredth time and Zach and Eric bobbed heads to Miles Davis up font, Lyndsy and I sat in the back and talked songwriting. She described her pile of partial songs needlessly gathering dust, and I admitted to having such scraps of my own. I think most songwriters have a folder or notebook filled with the same. Each song consists of a good line here, a satisfactory verse there, or maybe just an idea expressed hastily. Each midway between the idea pile and the first demo. Whenever we revisit them, we find our last attempt to bring the song to a close too weak or – attempting again – we find ourselves unable to summon the right words.
I was in a good state of mind to talk about these things with Lyndsy because last week I forced myself to stamp “Finished” onto four songs for End Times. This always feels like a major accomplishment because there’s often a big gap between the beginning and end for me. Months even. Up to a year in some cases. Since forming End Times, I’ve tried to become more aware of my own songwriting process, and have come to realize that there are two major reasons for the delay in my case.
I was cooking a pasta dish and, as I normally do, disregarding all the things people say about cooking proper pasta. I imagined some great Italian-American chef looking over my shoulder, scolding me, and had to consciously stop myself. I was cooking for myself. There were no judges grading me on texture, stickiness or authenticity. The dish was going to taste fine. As many in academia have experienced, this is a minor taste of what it’s like to live with what’s informally called impostor syndrome.
I was reminded of my pasta experience when Rob Deemer wrote over at New Music Box about the role of doubt in a composer’s life.
As I’ve been interviewing these many composers, I have posed the question of whether or not they deal or have dealt with self-doubt and, if so, in what ways have they faced that challenge effectively.
The answers have so far been relatively consistent. There are a few for whom self-doubt has never reared its ugly head, but those tend to be composers who started very young (pre-teens). Some have run into severe bouts, to the point where they quit for a time, only to be brought back by the need to create. Most, however, deal with doubt on a consistent and localized level and primarily for either creative or career-based reasons. Those who doubt about their creativity (internal doubters, if you will) seem to face the challenge at the outset of every new project, and only through the combination of force of will and hard-earned technique can they get past the hump of beginning a piece to the point where the doubt disappears. Those who doubt about their careers as composers (external doubters) find their challenges in both the day-to-day hurdles of getting grants, securing commissions, enticing conductors and performers, etc., as well as questioning how they are doing compared to their colleagues. To a person, they have all found their own way of navigating their own doubts to the point where they can not only continue, but thrive.
I like Deemer’s distinction between internal and external because I find I don’t have this issue when writing songs. The feelings crop up once a record is ready to press and promote, but while I’m still putting pen to paper or generating ideas for songs, I’m feel free. Starting a new project is no issue for me, and it might even come too easily since calling a project finished and releasing it into the wild is always a chore for me.
I usually internalize criticism stronger than I do praise, and this sometimes effects my willingness to put myself and my work out there. Lately I’ve been attempting to book End Times‘ big return to performing this summer. This involves a lot of cold emailing of venues and promoters I don’t know personally, and I hesitate before I hit send every time. Compared to our past efforts, we’re getting a much warmer response, but even if we weren’t, hesitating at all makes no sense. I know our emails are polite enough (I promote too – I’ve seen worse). I know our website is better than a number of others (again, I promote – and others have said it’s what they look for). No venue/promoter out there is likely to take the time to write some scathing attack on us or our music. The worst that will happen is we don’t get a reply and I spend a few days waiting for one.
In fact, I know that will happen. The response rate will never hit 100%. It’s why we began planning and booking months in advance. I should find it ridiculous that the voice in me that says “this venue’s probably not interested in you” is so powerful.
There’s actually been quite a lot of feminist writing on the topic of impostor syndrome lately. I found Brainwane’s post on the Geek Feminism blog very useful. Her “five ways to feel as competent as you really are” apply to things far wider than her personal experience as part of the computer science community.
There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.
I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
One of many quotable moments from Austin Kleon’s “How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. His focus is on writing, but the 10 things mentioned apply to any creative endeavor. In addition to stealing, he mentions imposter syndrome, writing “what you like” vs “what you know” and much more.
On stealing ideas: A while back, artists/cartoonists on LiveJournal and DeviantArt were pasting together “influence maps.” I thought it was a great partial solution to the dreaded question of where ideas come from, but it was also interesting to see some stark differences between relatively successful artists and those whose work was of lesser quality. The latter’s work was often purely imitative of surface characteristics, and their maps showed this by displaying a lot of the same thing over and over (often manga and popular animation) or by simply being a compilation of things the artist enjoys. But the successful (on the internet) artists’ maps were often overflowing with variety even when, on the surface, the examples seemed similar. (For example, Kate Beaton’s map contains lots of scratchy line art but no three of those influences uses color or negative space in the same way.)
Anyway, I’ve thought about making a songwriting influence map, but it’s been difficult to do appropriately given that lyrics and sounds are well represented by pixels in boxes.