How many years have we spent explaining ourselves to our family, lovers, occasionally friends, compelled to justify our financial situation or to apologize for our marginalized life style? In an attempt to reconcile our life-long dreams with our real-life situation, we stumble on excuses and reasons why, after pushing so hard, we still struggle to find our place on the social ladder. What a sticky situation this is: we writers enjoy being marginal while craving validation.
You see - what it really boils down to is money. Wealthy musicians don’t need to justify their life choices, do they? You could be a thousand times more talented than P-Diddy, but you’re the one with a hole in your pocket while he travels the world in a private jet. In our culture, this is the difference between valuable and worthless, venerable and invisible. Sure, we must find strength and self-confidence within ourselves - and we often do - but this will only float us for so long until one day we hang our head in defeat. Let’s be honest, other people’s opinions matter to us. As Erykah Badu once said “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit!”
So how do we live our dream and still manage to get some respect? By looking at our career as a job.
It is an undeniable fact: whether we are plumbers, teachers, doctors, or musicians: we must pay our dues. And I don’t mean by doing time at the office. Writing requires a lot of self-motivation and discipline, as it’s a rather solitary career. Most of us believe that putting ourselves on a schedule would “kill” our spirit. It would ruin our flow of inspiration.
I strongly disagree. We can’t hone our writing skills, or maintain them, without a daily writing routine.
If we wait for the impulse to write, we might wait two months. I know songwriters who don’t manage to come up with more than a couple of songs a year. Surely we can’t expect to establish ourselves in the industry at the pace of twenty songs a decade. I am a true believer in openness and flow, but water won’t fill the tub if we can’t be bothered to turn on the faucet!
If you were a pro tennis player, there is no way you could sit by your pool and sip margaritas six months out of the year, waiting for the US Open to come around. It is the same thing for writers. A writer must write. Everyday. In all styles. If you are mainly focused on your band’s material, then pop out at least a couple of new songs a week. You should have thirty songs to choose from when you pick the tunes for your next CD, otherwise you’ll be forced to record what you have, as opposed to your best material.
My personal daily routine is this: I have the good fortune to share my life with a partner who must get up in the early hours of the morning, six days a week. Shortly after her alarm goes off, I get up, take a shower, make a nice cup of coffee and settle down in my home studio. If I don’t have a specific assignment to write for, I pick a style of music to work with (at the moment I’m rotating electronic, jazz, mainstream pop, and media cues).
Last week, I sharpened my chops in the TV theme genre. It’s like lifting weights between tournaments - not only do we keep our mind alert and productive, we’re also constantly building our catalogue. Having a few extra compositions lying around never hurts.
There’s no need to get writing bulimia either. We’re all entitled (and need) to have days off, in order to regenerate. But if writing is your job, don’t take more than a couple of days off at a time, unless you’re on holiday. Keep with it, stay focused.
So does putting ourselves on a strict writing schedule guarantee success? Unfortunately no. But I’ll tell you what it promises: control over your life. Sitting behind the wheel feels good, waiting an hour for the bus does not.
If you diligently work on your craft and persist in learning, growing, and developing your writing skills, I find it difficult to believe that nothing good will eventually come of it. Be disciplined, be patient, and the return will surprise you.
I'm at a point in my career where it’s time for payback, but in a good way. The journey of learning my craft began with listening to records cut from the backsides of cereal boxes and going to the Renfro Valley in Kentucky with my family to attend festivals. This circular path of learning from others - from weekly classes 35 years ago at a Huntsville, Alabama music shop, to music theory classes taught by my high school band director; the variety of courses from the rules of rhythm to Bel Canto opera at the University of Alabama as a Music Minor, and now with current private sessions with one of my mentors, David Walbert - has been crucial in my attempt to conquer the 6 and 12- string guitar. Today, I have an even more compelling urge to not only pass the torch of the collective knowledge gleaned from others, but to actually streamline some of these teachings by offering as many seminars, GillaCamp guitar workshops, and individual lessons as I can in order to hand over my encyclopedia of information.