It keeps coming up…
You songwriters keep telling me you’re not sure what it takes to be a successful writer.
You write and write and write…and CRICKETS.
One of my mentorees said to me last week that she didn’t feel like a “real” songwriter because she doesn’t feel successful.
What is your definition of success?
When you’re shooting your arrow for the air, it’s easy to hit, but impossible to land.
Be honest, how many of you have no idea why you’re writing beyond “I just write?”
Newsflash: you cannot be a successful writer if you don’t even know what that means to you.
So finish this sentence:
I am a successful songwriter when ___________.
(…when I write consistently? …when I have 32 Grammy’s? …when my songs matter to me? …when my songs matter to anyone but my Mom?
Belinda, you absolutely cannot define your own success as a writer by someone else’s.
There will never be another YOU, and your experience as a writer has to be uniquely yours.
Take a little time to mull over what success means to you. Otherwise, you won’t know it when you have it.
A few weeks ago, my publisher tasked me and my co-writer to write a specific type of song. He wanted the song for an artist that was cutting in just a few days.
We wrote the song and a few days later were forwarded an email from the artist saying that they “LOVE” the song.
Hooray! We did it!
The night before the artist was going into record, we were told, again, that the song was going to be on the record.
The next morning, however, we found out the artist had changed their mind overnight. A friend of ours had beat us out in the late hours of the previous night for the cut.
In the time it takes to get a short night of sleep, we lost our place on the upcoming record.
What did I do when I found out?
Here’s my transparency for you…
I took myself out to lunch…and then I wrote another song for someone else.
Because that’s what songwriters do.
You move on.
You write another song.
…and you NEVER skip lunch.
Get over it already. 🙂
Straight out of college I was dating a really nice guy who seemed to have lots of problems with the attention I got from performing music. Believe me, I say that humbly.
Again, I was straight out of college working for the State of West Virginia in a miserable internship with inept (understatement) managers.
I sang locally and that was it. NOTHING glamorous.
But this guy’s need for my attention over the music was problematic.
One early evening I was sitting in the backyard with my Mom and my lifetime neighbor, Joyce, talking about it, when Joyce said this:
But if you take the music away from Belinda, then there’s no Belinda.
I can still hear her saying it right now.
If you take away the music from me, I’m not me anymore.
And in all the years since, through the loves and losses, I’ve always held those words.
I sing because I like to sing.
I play piano because I can.
Songwriting is what I do whether anyone else sees a word or hears a note I put down.
I don’t know how to be anyone else.
This is how God made me.
When it all comes down, it matters because it does. Frankly, that’s enough.
One of my first ever super-cool ideas for a song was butchered by a co-writer. I don’t mean he stunk it up a little, I mean what was once a cool idea became an unsightly boil on the hind end of my little catalogue of creations for all of eternity.
I still shudder when I think about how it all went down and what a WASTED opportunity it was.
The truth is I was new to Nashville. I didn’t know anything about co-writing, but people told me to do it. So, I figured it was as good a way as any to meet people. In my naiveté, it never occurred to me that just because someone SAID they were a songwriter, it didn’t mean they knew how to write a song.
I’d packed up my life in WV and moved to the ‘big city.’ I assumed that anyone who did that had to be good. Otherwise, why would you move here?
Poor Sweet Ignorant Soul
Before I knew it, I’d given a really cool idea to guy who had no idea what to do with it and no respect for me as a writer. We got together once—long enough for me to realize that I’d made a huge mistake. Not long after that, I got a note that he’d finished it with another writer (without bothering to include me) along with a bill for my 1/3 of the demo.
…I nearly pulled back my hair and took out my earrings!!!
Today, Gang, such a thing wouldn’t go down that way. I’m much, much more experienced, and I can handle a rogue if need be. (That means I can unleash my inner hillbilly, in case you didn’t catch it.)
However, the truth is there are growing pains to be had along the way. We all have them.
Since I’ve been there on a few occasions, let me give you a little advice just in case, God forbid, it happens to you as you’re wandering merrily along your way.
1. Open communication with your co-writer is not an option.
When you tell your co-writer about your super-amazing-brilliant idea, your job is communicate EVERYTHING about the idea. If you hear the song a certain way, tell them. Do not assume your brand new acquaintance can hear what’s in your head. NEVER assume that.
For example, it never occurred to me during that awful co-write experience I told you about that he wouldn’t hear the song like I did. It was just so obvious to me. …yeah, he did NOT hear the obvious.
2. Be open to hearing your idea a different way.
Before you fall off the deep end, take a step back and breathe. Consider, for a moment, that you’re wrong. What if they really did nail it and you’re the one missing it. You owe it to the song to listen with an open mind.
3. You work in service of the song.
At the end of the day, it’s not about your ego and it’s not about your co-writer’s ego. The dialogue is about the song and what serves it.
If it was your idea, and you and your co-writer can’t get on the same page, then politely ask for it back. It’s not a big deal. Just say, “Hey, this isn’t going where I wanted it to, so I’d like to take it back off the table. Let’s look for something that fits our collective styles a little better.” NO BIG DEAL. I’ve done it, and I’ve had it done to me. Absolutely no hard feelings.
Have you had an experience similar to mine? I’d love to hear about how you handled it.
I was home on a Friday night many years ago, and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” was on the television. I wasn’t watching it, mind you, but I just hadn’t flipped the channel.
In a moment of complete and utter writer BRILLIANCE, this scene happened!
If you’ve been in one of my songwriting classes, you may have heard me reference the Closet of Gratuitous Praise. It’s such a guilty admission, but it honestly comes from,” Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” Who knew I’d have a life changing moment?!?!
CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE HAVING A CLOSET LIKE THIS???
Every time you feel ‘less than’ or ‘loser,’ you could open the closet and be affirmed.
This week I got some feedback that I’m too encouraging. It was some terrific food for thought: I’d never want someone to rely on pleasing me instead of pleasing themselves. After all, who am I? If you can’t please yourself you can’t please anyone.
Still, it hit me in a really thoughtful way so you can imagine my joy when the amazing Romi Kamburg posted the video on my web page.
So HERE ARE 3 THINGS TO REMEMBER:
1.DO NOT mistake positive feedback from someone for positive feedback from yourself. You have your own answers.
2. NEVER wait for permission. Permission isn’t found outside of you.
3. NO ONE knows what works for you better than you.
…and with that, should you ever need some big, fat gratuitous praise, here is the perfect closet!!! You’re totally covered.
Here’s the scene:
You’ve put every ounce of creative juice into this one masterpiece. You’ve counted your syllables, you’ve leaned on hard rhymes, and your hook is killer. Every line of the lyric brilliantly supports the hook. (How will you stay humble?!)
If all that isn’t enough, then there’s the melody. Holy cow, the MELODY! You LOVE singing it. It just ‘feel’s right. It fits in that perfect pocket. Genius.
Let’s just be honest. If you had to choose between THIS song and your first born, you would actually have to have a quick internal dialogue about which one you love more.
THAT is how stinking amazing this song is.
…and then the unfathomable happens.
You play it for that publisher you’ve been trying so hard to impress and, well, they just don’t “get” it.
“I mean, it’s technically correct, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.”
SAY THAT AGAIN A LITTLE CLOSER TO MY FACE, HOT SHOT!
You start growing your horns. You’re ready for battle. Who does this joker think they are?
You breathe in. Breathe out.
You remember that burning bridges is a bad idea at this point in your career.
You thank them for their time and leave with your tail tucked.
By the time you get to the car, you’re fighting back tears.
Why do I even mess with this? Why bother?
The music industry stinks.
Everybody hates you.
…it’s all just a…
I’ve been there. Shoot, I’ve been on both sides of that. I’ve gotten that reaction and I’ve given that feedback.
Here’s what I suggest, Gang.
As writers, and especially as new writers, we pour so much of our precious time and thought in our songs that it can be hard to distinguish the line between where we, the person, ends and where the song begins. You have to remember that the person listening is only seeing what’s on the page and hearing what’s in the room. They are having a reaction to the SONG, not to you. When a listener doesn’t like your song, it is not a commentary on your worth as a human being.
If you really need to know, then ask. “Is there a particular part that’s not working for you?” “Do you see anyway I could improve it?” But remember, the answer could just be ‘no.’ And trust me, whatever you do, don’t start defending the song. It’s over. It’s done. You’re not going to convince someone to love a song by being defensive. Thank them for their time and move along. (Note** If you handle this step right, you could actually get a future meeting with a new song! Again, trust me.)
Based on the feedback you got, now you have to decide. Do you want to play the song for someone else? Do you want to shelve it for a while and see how you feel about it in a few months? Do you want to rework it? Regardless, DECIDE. Do NOT let the experience roll around in your head and defeat you. Make a decision, do what you need to do, and get back to work.
Remember, at the end of the day, you’re the writer and you get to decide what to do with your feedback, but navigating this field can be tough. Write the best song you can write today, and then tomorrow, write the best song you can write tomorrow. Always, ALWAYS take the good with the not-so-good and use it to get better.
I knew the past 6 weeks were going to be busy. I thought I was ready for it. I had mapped out my schedule, penned in slots for everything I needed to do, prioritized and pep-talked myself all the way to the beginning of the start. I was psyched. I was ready.
And for the past six weeks, I was on airplanes every week, I was in an intense Life Coach certification school, I was finishing up my very first ever Christmas musical (insert shameless plug here for, “Once You’ve Seen the Star,” coming soon), and I had a heavy disability advocacy case load (which meant lots more studying.)
Well, you’ve heard what is said about the best laid plans…
Gang, at about week 3, I looked around and thought, “Holy Mother of the Cows! What have I gotten myself into?!”
Calls started going unanswered, emails unreturned, I was missing Facebook messages, and my friends were thinking I’d left town for good.
At the point panic was about to take over, and under the heading of being kind to myself, I took an afternoon off. I happened to be in New Bern, NC, and it was a gorgeous day. So, I locked up my computer, my cell phone, my files, my manuals and my worries, and I just walked around. I wandered in and out of galleries and tiny specialty shops. I ate toast with butter (a HEAVENLY accident) at a little diner. I perused the Pepsi shop—the place where Pepsi was invented, and I took a long walk around the bay.
In other words, I took some time to participate in the world outside of ‘me.’ I stopped focusing on Princess Belinda (gasp!).
During that afternoon, I appreciated all kinds of beautiful and fun things. And to be honest, it was course-changing.
On the plane flying home to Nashville that night, I decided that for the next few weeks, there were some emails and calls that were going to have to go unanswered. I was going to postpone the launch of Dashboard Poets AND my 1-on-1 Mentoring course. My newsletter wasn’t going to go out, and I was going to miss a few social gatherings. And that was ok.
Sometimes you have to be where you are.
Sometimes you get your answers when you’re not actively looking for them.
And, like my Dad always says:
All you can do is ALL you can do.
And it’s ok.
…because when you get back from your personal hiatus, you’re going to be ready to get some serious stuff done!!! BAM!
I’m a huge believer in pen-to-paper writing, or as my cousin, Darnell Arnoult calls it, the power of the pen on the page. As a songwriter, I’ve always found it interesting that the songs I start writing on paper get recorded at higher percentages than the ones I start on a laptop. I have no idea if it’s true for anyone else, but it has been for me.
I recently started taking a new class (y’all know I’m always up into something), and for this class I decided to only use a notebook and pen. No laptop. No voice recorder. I’ve gone completely retro!
Here’s Why I Think I Made a Great Call
1. I can only write down the really important concepts. Since I’m not typing, I don’t have the luxury of taking down lots of words. I can only pick the big ideas and what I think about them. This has given me a surprising amount of focus.
2. I get to doodle. I recall more of what people say if I can doodle while they’re talking. I’m not the only one, it seems. Jackie Andrade, a psychologist at the University of Plymouth in England, published a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology finding, among other things, that doodlers aren’t daydreaming. In other words, your mind doesn’t wander like it does when you just have to sit and listen and concentrate.
3. I have archives. I’m a sucker for written pages. I love looking back through old handwritten lyrics and notes. There’s ALWAYS ‘character’ on the pages. Just from looking at the penmanship I can tell how I was feeling that day. I write big and sloppy, small and perfect, and every way in between depending on how I’m feeling. And while I don’t know that anyone would ever care to see the pages, I get a kick out them, and that’s enough for me.
What’s your take on pen-to-paper vs. laptop? Leave a comment below. I’m curious!
P.S. YES! Pencils are fine, too.(Like I didn’t know you would ask?!?!?!)
I’ve had a little time to catch up on some reading the past few weeks, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my processes. One habit I’m really interested in dealing with is my, er, “ability” to put things off till the last minute. Let’s just say that I would be a gold medalist if that were a sport.
The cruddy part about this, though, is that I don’t like it. I don’t like how it feels, and I don’t like that I do it. So, it’s time to face this Enemy head-on. …I mean, in a minute, after I write this.
PROCRASTINATION = RESISTANCE
I would wager that I’m one of the best ‘resisters’ ever. I’ve always chalked up my ability to procrastinate as just one of my eccentricities. However, I’m starting to look at it a little differently these days.
Steven Pressfield says the following in his book, “The War of Art”:
And I’m really starting to see that in my own life. I’m also noticing a HUGE amount of procrastinating with the things I’m most excited about doing.
“Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.” –Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Here are the Top#5 Tool that Resistance Uses on Me:
- Worry. If I’m not careful, Resistance will plant something in my mind to worry about, and then if I don’t worry about said thing, Resistance will tell me I should worry that I’m not worried. And then I worry. But I may not worry about the original thing because, even though I worry, I’m still stubborn.
- Facebook. Yep.
- Shoes. I’m convinced that I don’t get nearly as much accomplished if I don’t have my shoes on. Of course, the right shoes are never where I think they are, and so search must ensue. Before you know it, I’m 15 minutes behind again.
- Email. Did I reply to that? Wait, where did that email go? Am I too late to reply? Should I email anyway? …you know the drill.
- Bernice. Bernice is my pug. I have three dogs, but Bernice is the only one that doesn’t know she’s a dog. Bernice is a little, wrinkled, loaf-shaped stinker who will do ANYTHING to keep me from working. She wins a lot. (I’m such a softie.)
You should know that just in writing this little note to you, I’ve worried about my next electric bill (it’s 7 degrees out right now), I’ve had to fight the urge to check my Facebook messages, I’m wearing big warm socks and I’m PROFOUNDLY aware that my sneakers are in my closet and NOT on my feet, I have 2 new email messages in my inbox (that I haven’t checked!), and Bernice has climbed in my lap. (Hey, I didn’t say I’ve got it figured out yet!)
So, going forward I’m paying attention to these five things, and I’m going to be more conscious of managing Resistance. I have exciting things on the books, and I want to be present for them.
Do you notice any Resistance in your life? Am I the lone weirdo here? (Wouldn’t be the first time. ha)