thoughts on love, sex, music and ferocity
tagged: songwriting
Blog Navigation

How to DO Creativity - Part II.

The truth is, friends, I’ve got a top-secret project brewing, and it involves me interviewing some of my favorite creators about how creativity works. It’s been inspiring and informative, and has only thrown fuel on my obsession with the creative process.

I’ll be sharing some of what I learn on this blog - then, one day, I’ll share the top-secret project itself!

1)   Get into an altered state.

Inspiration is impractical, and it is not often drawn to practical-minded individuals. When you are in a practical state - primarily concerned with money, housekeeping, or keeping your job - chances are not good that the muse will pay you a visit.

Inspiration is itself an altered state. Being inspired feels a little like being in love, or sleep-deprived, or high. The creators I’ve been talking to agree that to kick oneself into that altered state, it helps to be in another one first: falling in love is a common catalyst - so is heartbreak, and loneliness, and anger, and lust. Our brains are full of chemicals, and their combinations cause all kinds of interesting responses; creativity is one of the best.

But in case you’re not in love or heartbroken or angry, many creators find ways to alter their mental states using external stimulus. Common methods include travel, sleep deprivation, naps, alcohol and marijuana (just reporting - not recommending… necessarily).

I believe in muses and song-angels, but I also believe in science. If I’m speaking in sciencey terms, I think it’s fair to say that what we call ‘inspiration’ is probably what happens when the innovative, associative, emotional part of our brain is fired up, and the inhibiting, analytical, self-conscious part is temporarily switched off. Inspiration feels like riding a wonderful right-brain wave – the art of it is learning how to keep your nervous nellie of a left-brain from pushing you off (more on that later).

2) Allow your mind to wander.

Creativity requires idle time. I don’t mean staring-at-your-phone time, or watching-Netflix time, but an actual empty expanse of time, when your mind is free of distractions and can alight on whatever is at hand.

It helps to put your mind in a comfortable physical space: creativity especially seems to like beauty and silence. It thrives in quiet rooms, empty houses, and the outdoors. It doesn’t like phones, or anything else that can interrupt it abruptly.

It also helps to give your body something to do while your mind wanders. Some common mind-wandering activities include: moving through space (walking, driving, skateboarding, rocking chairs and hammocks), drawing, washing dishes, sweeping, cooking, gardening, kicking or throwing a ball. For best results: do these things alone, in silence, and without fear of interruption (ie: turn off your phone).

 3) Have a deadline.

I am working on songs all the time. Like, for 100% of my life, since I was thirteen, I have been working on a song. I am not always working actively - sitting in a chair with guitar in hand - but I always have journals and iPhone memos and the back half of my brain full of little scribbled song snippets: lyrics, melodies, chords, titles and themes. Mostly, I scribble these ideas down and then forget them, at least consciously.

When I say “I wrote a new song”, I usually mean “I finished a song I’ve been working on for a while”. Only about 10% of the time do I start with a brand-new idea and complete it in one sitting.

Two things can shove these half-finished songlets into full-fledged songs. One is inspiration (usually brought on by one of the altered states listed above). The other is a deadline.

One of the things I love about making albums is that, without fail, the prospect of being in the studio shakes loose a whole cascade of songs. They wriggle out of my subconscious and wake me up at night, as if to say, “Wait! Don’t forget me! I’m coming too!”

The artists I’m talking to, and interviews I’ve read with songwriters who worked in the Brill Building, or on Tin Pan Alley, say similar things: you might think that a deadline would scare inspiration off – and sometimes it does. But just as often, inspiration shows up at the last-minute and sprinkles a little fairy dust before you turn in your work.

4) Practice.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the point of practice is not just improving at your craft. The point is making your ego so mind-numbingly bored that it wanders off and bothers someone else.

Creativity means doing something new, and your ego hates it when you do new things. Your ego wants you to be successful at things, and nobody is successful at anything new. If you try writing a new song, for example, and ask your ego what he thinks about it, he will say that it is stupid and lame and contrived of six other songs, and that all of your songs are in fact stupid, and that if the world needed more songs it would ask Patty Griffin to write them, and that Patty Griffin by the way would agree that this is a stupid song.

It’s hard to get your ego to shut up. No amount of begging or bribery seems to do it. I recommend boring it into a stupor. Meditation helps with this, so do long drives and plane rides, and so does practice.

You want to start training your mind that when there’s a guitar in your hand, and you’re sitting in a quiet room, your ego might as well go do something else because nothing interesting is about to happen. After the 600th time you sit down to practice, your ego will wander off unbidden, and you can write a song in peace.

5) Be carried away by pleasure.

Songwriting, at it’s core, is about the pleasure of making sounds. Painting is about the pleasure of form and color. Dance is about the pleasure of moving your body. Science, as Richard Feynman famously said, is about the pleasure of finding things out. All creative acts are driven by a single motivator: the deep, personal, sensual pleasure of creating.

If you can connect to the pleasure of the things you make, and stay connected to it – if you can reconnect to that pleasure when your ego comes crashing through your mind – you will have a long and happy relationship with your muse. 

The muse is a hedonist. Everything she does, she does because it feels good; and just like any good lover, the best way to please her is to please yourself.


If you love this post (and my other creations), subscribe to me on Patreon.

How to Do Creativity

I was in the studio for fourteen days in January, and I think it changed my life. I haven’t known quite what to share about my album-making experience, but the short version is that it was extremely fun. The details are harder to explain; it feels as though those two weeks cracked open a deep well of insight and awe and “oh, DUH” feelings within me.

The well of DUH has to do with creativity: what it is, how it works, and what it’s good for. I felt truly creative in the studio for the first time, and I think all five of us (the band who worked on the record) managed to get pretty dang creatively engaged, together. In other words, the spirit was with us in that little basement studio; and when I listen back to what we made, I can hear her.

Which reminds me, again, why it’s a good and important endeavor to invest my every last ounce of grit and gumption into the creative process, for the remaining moments of my little life.

Because when you manage to DO creativity, it’s a kind of healing magic. And when you SHARE it, the magic works on every witness. Any shmuck can hear and feel it, via microphone or printed page, even over long distances of space and time. It gives you the grinning goosebumps, and fills your heart with comfort, and brings you something holy in this weird and wicked world.

That’s why I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ten times as a girl. That’s why I spin Ray Charles when I’m happy and Billie Holiday when I’m sad. It’s why I can stare at a Chagall for hours without getting bored. I’m not looking at paint, I’m looking at the creative spirit, and it fills me up with wonder.


Creativity is a process by which our tiny, confused, self-obsessed shit-talking mean little minds become conduits for unicorns and rainbows and Jesus and Beyonce.

It’s what’s happening when we fall in love and become raw-hearted and open, when we get stoned or otherwise silly and yuk it up at the hilarity of the human endeavor, when we lose ourselves and become one with the music we’re making or the dance we’re doing or the face we’re kissing.


You can’t really force it to happen, because it is a profoundly unserious process, highly allergic to plans and strategies of all kinds. Seriousness and planning are the territory of the ego, and it’s a scientific fact that your ego is the least creative bone in your body.

Creativity happens when we are present and playful.

To be present means to be connected to what’s happening NOW, in the actual world you’re in, and unconcerned with what’s happening in the past, the future, or the imaginary alternate universe in your head.

That means you aren’t, for the moment, tripping on any of the following:

  1. Whether the thing you’re doing is stupid, brilliant, wonderful, terrible, or better or worse than some other thing somebody did or might do.
  2. What you might think about the thing you’re doing later on.
  3. What your mother/father/sister/friend/pope/idol/enemy might think about the thing you’re doing.

To be playful means that you’re invested in the PLAY: that is, the actual moment-to-moment ACT of making the thing you’re making. As opposed to the usual, which is being invested in your ego: your identity as the maker of that thing, how your identity will fare once the thing is made.

Playful and present are really two words for the same way of being. Other words include unserious, lighthearted, curious, twitterpated, soulful, feeling the spirit, in the groove, in the pocket, in the zone, open to surprise.

In other words, we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.


(Yes, that’s the only bible verse I’ve ever quoted in my life)


Although you can’t do it on purpose, there are lots of ways to encourage it to occur. I tend to think in terms of spirits and angels, because they are an elegant metaphor for how creativity feels; which is as though you were walking along minding your business, and suddenly a magic being from another world swooped down and whispered in your ear.

So, to DO creativity, you have to make yourself available to the angels. Here are a few tricks.

1)  Practice.

Practice is not just for getting better at your instrument. If you ask me, it’s for making your self-consciousness about playing/drawing/dancing slowly recede into the background, so that you can become engaged by the actual activity.

When we’re new at something, we are at least 90% self-conscious and only about 10% engaged. As you practice, the ratio gets better. You get less self-conscious, more engaged, and thus more present and playful (and thus more available to angels).

2)  Surround yourself with angel bait.

Your angel bait depends entirely on the preferences of the angels you are courting. Mine prefer: clean spaces; bright colors; images of animals and children; small trinkets from faraway places; beautiful instruments; good books and records; feathers, bones, candles, and yarn. My writing studio (The Watermelon) is chock-full of this stuff, and while making this album, I finally had the presence of mind to import some angel bait into the recording studio.

My theory about why angel bait works is that creativity is the realm of the unconscious, and so if you want to be creative, you’ll need to speak the language of the unconscious (the language of symbols, myths, and dreams), not regular everyday language. 

For example, hanging up a sign that says “BE CREATIVE AT 10AM” probably won’t work, because it’s written in the wrong language. You’ll be better off hanging up a picture of a seahorse, or a poem that you like. 

Know your audience! If your audience is an angel, don’t be talking deadlines and spreadsheets.


(Studio alter: prayer candles, kazoo, motter, Japanese anime figurines) 

3)  No more bullies

In addition to deadlines and spreadsheets, angels seem to have an aversion to bullies and egomaniacs. That has at least two connotations for creativity:

  1. If YOU have a tendency towards bullying or egoizing*, now it the time to start taming it. If you’re bullying yourself or anybody else, or if you’re acting with the intention of stroking your own or anybody else’s ego (even subtly and covertly), the angel will know and she will not deign to inspire you with a ten-foot-pole.
  2. If you have a bully or an egomaniac in your life, ESPECIALLY if they are in your creative space, or collaborating with you on your creative work, you’d better get them out of there PRONTO.

Take a moment to look deep inside your soul, and answer honestly: do you have an ego-crazed bully hanging around? Will you miss them more than you’re missing the angels they’re scaring off?

This was another major and recent revelation for me. It forced me to be very choosy about who was involved in the making of this album, especially considering the close quarters and emotional demands of the studio. The people I hired to play on and produce this record are incredibly thoughtful, sweet, emotionally perceptive goofballs. And also wickedly, outlandishly talented (turns out the two are not mutually exclusive).  

(These people are not assholes)

4)  Take care of your body, house, and heart

AS A GENERAL RULE, to be open-hearted, you have to be well-slept, well-fed, recently showered, and somewhat emotionally intact. 

I know this may come as a shock to those who have been operating the Van Gogh/Bukowski model of creativity. I try to follow some combination of Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s:

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now.
After the feet of beauty fly my own.

I find that the angels visit when I’ve slept and eaten, put my house in order, and followed beauty with ardent and steadfast commitment. Neglect of one’s body, abject poverty, and the tortured drama of dysfunctional relationships are all highly overrated methods of courting inspiration.  

In terms of album-making, this means that I rented a house near the studio, did my best to provide comfy beds and good coffee, food, and liquor, paid the band the absolute maximum I could afford, and kept regular hours most days.


Here’s my last and final knock-down drag-out take-home heart-expanding ass-kicker of a thought:

As far as I can tell, there is no time when creativity is a bad idea. When I am creative, I am smarter, faster, more in tune, sexier, funnier, more perceptive, more compassionate, and a better contributor to those around me.

I used to think that writing was creative, and sometimes performing, but the rest of my life was not. Now I’ve realized that recording is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the studio.

And cooking is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the kitchen.

And doing dishes, and reading, and talking, and walking the dogs, and sitting quietly, and making love, and dreaming, and driving, and waiting in line at the post office, if (and only if) I open my heart to those particular angels. And getting dressed in the morning could be, too, and parenting, and maybe even paying bills (although that is some ninja-level creative magic that I’ve yet to unleash).

When we are creative, we are present and playful. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t improved by those qualities?

And that means, my friends, is that it’s time to put out your angel bait, kick out your bullies, and get your house in order. Because all the world’s a stage, and a canvas, and a guitar. 

And I feel an angel coming on.


- *As far as I know, ”Egoizing” is a word coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in her book The Dispossessed, a fucking excellent book that you should read.

- My new record will be released in summer 2016.

- This post was inspired by at least two books: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Finite & Infinite Games by James P. Carse. 


If you love this post (and my other creations), subscribe to me on Patreon.

Art Is Freedom

A Secular Sunday Sermon

The thing is, art is freedom. It’s freedom from the status quo: from the ridiculous, arbitrary trends and expectations of whatever cultural morass we happen to be sunk in at the moment (our family, our school, our 2000 facebook friends). Art is communion with the divine – the divine spirit of yourself in deepest you-ness, the spirit of laughter and beauty, the spirit who arises in you when you hear or see or feel anything, purely and undistractedly, who looks up for a moment to say (as Anne Lamott would put it), WOW. 

We need art, and all other forms of spiritual communion (dance, sex, chocolate lava cake, and swimming in cold water - to name a few), so that we don’t spiral miserably into the pit of our own minds. Art is a sacred lunch break. It’s an invitation to come out from the hole, and look upon ourselves with compassion, and most importantly a sense of humor. Left to our own devices, we will put on our hard hats, descend into the coal pit of our daily worries, and never return. We will pack our spirits away in tupperware and forget them, so that we might pay the bills, and clean the house, and lose a few pounds. We will toil in that pit until we’re dead, just to make ourselves presentable. 

Art is freedom, so our job as artists is to make ourselves free. That’s it, that’s the whole job description. There are no other bullet points. 

So I seek freedom from the coal pit of my mind, from the dumb demands of the cultural morass, and from the highly contagious madness of the so-called free market. I seek it for my own amusement, and because it is my calling, and so that I can share it with you. 

I only have this privilege because of the alms you give me. All this crowdfunding nonsense – Kickstarter and Patreon and the big red tip bucket – is just that: I’m coming to you with an open hand, looking for alms. I am seeking charity to continue my silly, ephemeral, monkish work, so that we all might be a little freer. And by god and the spirit and chocolate lava cake, I sure do thank you. 

Happy Sunday, my friends.



If you love this post (and my other creations), subscribe to me on Patreon.