Monday, March 2, 2009

Polarity Of Mind

I’ve just returned from a ten day road trip that included a few days in Nashville. I might blog about the trip next time, but for now I’m following up on my last post, Deep Creativity. I came upon a wonderful series of articles by Merlin Mann on the same subject called “Making Time To Make” (note this link is only Part One of the series, see the other two parts at the 43Folders Blog). In it he quotes novelist Neal Stephenson on the subject of Internet (and general) distraction:

“Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless."
The four-hour time block is one that I grew accustomed to in my days of routine songwriting. Even if you have a day job, this is something you can squeeze into a weekend or maybe a quiet evening if you happen to have an easy day at work. You must begin by feeling relaxed about the length of time you’ve set aside to work. Even if you end up discarding an hour’s worth of failed effort, you still have ample time to go deep into the zone for a solid verse or chorus.

Don’t be in a hurry to commit to an idea. Turn off the ringer on the phone, don’t check your email, and if possible, try to get the place to yourself (send your spouse to a movie or pass up a party you won’t hate to miss). Don’t jot down thoughts in a hurry, re-think your concepts, clarify and distill the language. Work your way inward until you pick up the faint trail of a solid idea. This metaphor is appropriate: you are in the wilderness of the imagination. Don’t expect to find the well-worn path. If you do find it, be suspicious.

I emphasize this because it’s often the case that a real breakthrough is only possible in deep concentration. Short bursts of time-effort can sometimes yield a good spontaneous line or on rare occasions a couplet, but a tight lyric cannot be written one phrase at a time while multi-tasking. Your brain must be firing on all cylinders. You must have the complete resource of language, metaphor, rhyme, and imagery focused like a laser on the task, and the focus must last for as long as it takes to finish the job (the verse or chorus you’re working on).

Another way I think of this is as a kind of unified “polarity of mind”. It’s as if all the neurons are pointing in random directions when I begin a writing task, and I must first harness the “magnetic” current to get the thought process flowing in one direction : toward the goal. As long as part of my mind is occupied on a different problem, I’m not unified, not fully focused. I can tell when the focus is there because there’s a physical sensation of tremendous mental power aimed at an invisible target—I know the target is there, yet it eludes direct perception at first. Gradually I begin to see an outline, then as concentration increases I can see the bull’s-eye. There is also a sense of expectation, an “aura” that precedes the discovery of the right line or word—you can feel it emerging just before you pounce on it.

Writing is not free-association, scribbling down the thoughts as fast as they come to you, although this can be useful at the start of a writing session. That’s like drawing the treasure map. But you must still follow the map, and what you discover as you follow is the stuff that makes the song. Great lyric writing isn’t just singable language. Go deep and find out what you can make of an idea, don’t just skim the surface between emails.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


Barry Alfonso said...

This is a post I can relate to, Craig. The discipline of carving out a substantial block of time to inhabit for creative purposes is difficult for many of us – well, for me specifically. I am envious and fascinated by those who do so regularly. Anything that can create a sense that creative labors are a world apart is helpful. I’ve read that the great American cultural critic Van Wyck Brooks used to get up every morning around dawn and go to his study to work – and, as part of this routine, he would put on a coat and tie out of respect for his craft. The formal attire kept him in harness. Many times, I’ve desired to try that. I’d even wear a tie if it helped!

On the other hand, there are those rare individuals who can split their attention and (sorry for the awful word) multitask while they are creative. A musician who worked with Elvis Costello at the start of his career told me that when Elvis had a day job with a cosmetics company in England, he would sit at a desk and switch off between writing a song lyric and doing company business. Admittedly, a lot of Costello’s early stuff has a fragmented quality – but the distinct thrust of a clear idea is rarely absent. I think he was just flat-out inspired in those days. For me, some sort of dedicated work-time – even when fighting off distractions and wayward urges – is needed to get anything semi-artistic done.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your insight Barry, your observations are always appreciated here at Ninety Mile Wind. Like Costello, I used to switch on and off while I managed a music store in the early days. Out of necessity, some things are possible. But for myself, it wasn't my best work, maybe 2-3 decent songs got written that way. The best of my stuff, which includes everything on the new CD, is the product of deep concentration and a minimum of four hour blocks (sometimes six).

Trollope, a prolific novelist, would sit at his writing desk before dawn for a few hours before going off to his job at the bank. Having the benefit of those first waking hours is significant I think. Mornings are usually my best creative time. I'm structuring my schedule accordingly now to see if I can break some bad habits (like answering email first thing in the morning).

Steve Robinson said...

Good stuff Barry and Craig..
Intersting to me because I'm an early riser..Usually up between 4:00-5:00 in the morning..I "do" a cup of coffee and check computer stuff but often just pick up a guitar and see what happens...Often times, I dream and wake up with words and or melodies in my head ...I probably need psychiatric help-HA!
Some of my favorite songs, probably 50 in the past three years were written from scratch between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 am...I find too that if I don't get well into the song or nearly finish it, when the necessities in life are done and I come back to it hours, sometimes days later..The "thrill" is gone...
I guess I'm a morning person...
The suit worked for Brooks, plaid boxers, an old JT T-shirt and white socks with holes in the toes seems to work for me : )