Saturday, February 23, 2019

If I Could Turn Back Time (+ a new song)

Dear Internauts,

Been away for a while, with most of my writing energy going toward the novel. Like most things, the longer I go without posting a blog, the harder it feels to get back into it. It’s all about Newton’s law of objects in motion really—whether it be going to sleep, waking up, writing, working out, performing music, being social, or whatever else in life, a change of state requires far more energy than just continuing on with the way things have been going. Okay, so I’m no physicist, but the metaphor makes sense for me. It helps me remember that as hard as getting up or leaving the house or doing much of anything new may feel in the moment, it will feel so much easier in the moments after I finally start.

It’s far easier to keep looking back than it is to move forward. The past, no matter its messy contents, is at very least familiar. Human memory being what it is, our recollections are more of previous recollections than of the actual events as they objectively unfolded. Assuming there is such a thing as objective reality outside our sensory perceptions, our sense of experiential identity is a cascade of emotional overreactions and misunderstandings. We base our whole sense of self on such flimsy, clouded data. At a certain point, the story we’ve told ourselves the longest becomes the definitive edition, regardless of its many inaccuracies.

Last year I read two books with the same general plot basis: a man dies and comes back to life at some point in their past, retaining the knowledge of their previous life. These two books, The First Fifteen Live of Harry August by Claire North and Replay by Ken Grimwood, are both magnificent, and I’d recommend them. I’ve yet to read another popular one with what I think is a somewhat similar concept, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, but I’ve heard good things. The two I read both handle the logistics of their protagonists’ death and rebirth in different ways, such as in one where the death occurs at the same point with a floating time of rebirth and the other where the birth is always the same with a differing time and means of death. One explores the subject matter from a more investigative, sci-fi/philosophical sense, while the other is a more personal memoir type story. I won’t spoil anything beyond those details.

Besides these books, the idea of going back to some point in my past and being able to relive experiences with my current knowledge has been on my mind because of a long running dream plot wherein I find myself back in high school or college. After hundreds of these types of dreams, the basics tend to only serve as a jumping off point for more twisted, often nightmarish shenanigans.

It’s a strong undercurrent of common existential angst for the so-called human condition that pits our conscious drives against the oppressive weight of hindsight. If only...

Of course there is no going back.

Even if we could, besides the immediate shock and possible dread of the time travel, our inaccurate recollections could leave us almost as unprepared as we were the first time around, maybe even worse because of assuming our preparedness. After all, if I’ve spent all these long nights wondering what might have been, if I ever actually get the change to try it out, the stage fright could be crippling.

What does a conscious mind wound back on itself even look like? If I retain the memories and sense of built up identity of my present self but in the body and universe of the past, what are the consequences for the idea of the soul or the mind or the self? If my physical present brain traded places with my past brain, assuming it wasn’t rejected by my immune system or caused massive shock due to however many years of neural reshaping, the amount of physical issues with the transition expand far beyond my minimal base knowledge of brain physiology. How would a brain work in another body anyway, even if it was a body the brain previously knew?  Ten years ago, for instance, I played drums far more often and far better than I have in years. Would I lose those skills or would they exist in my body as some kind of muscle memory I’d have to adapt back into? 

My current brain chemistry is shaped not only from a lifetime of regular experiences but also traumatic experiences and the psychiatric tools used to help me cope with those. If I went back into the past as a consciousness somehow apart from my physical brain, would I no longer have PTSD or my current levels of related depression and anxiety. Surely, going back itself would be a form of trauma, the shock of which could spiral into something far worse. If I went all the way back to the beginning, the shock of being an infant (or worse, a fetus) with the consciousness of a 28 year old could potentially cripple my psychological development beyond repair. If I went all the way back but only remembered my previous life in stages or it took till a certain age to set in, that might be easier, though this could still lead to a level and kind of overwhelming neurosis. 

If it could be controlled and tested, it would probably be best to only go back a short time, at least at first. Being like time travel though, this would mean one of a few general outcomes. 

1) I can’t change anything and just sorta go along for the ride. Either I’m still an active participant just with an extremely overwhelming sense of deja vu or I just kinda sit in the movie theatre of my mind and watch it all happen. I’d watch myself make the same choices and the world would spin on as it always did. Maybe I’d wonder if I was actually dying, and this was simply my life flashing before my eyes in its very last moments. Maybe my inability to change anything would be like a karmic lesson for why I shouldn’t have gone back in the first place. You can’t fight fate or whatever. This could be the worst of all possibilities.
1b) I try to change things but the timeline corrects itself. Minor changes here and there are either completely ignored by the sequence of causality around me or something else happens instead that leads to the same conclusion. It’s like going back in time to save Archduke Ferdinand, but the international tensions were such that WW1 starts up anyway based on some other spark. While I’m not a big fan of the hand of fate as a concept in fiction, destiny often seeming like a lazy motivator, I do believe that we don’t have as much control over the beliefs and actions of other people as we often think. If someone is set to dislike you, they’re gonna find a way no matter how hard you try not to make one particular mistake. Maybe they already didn’t like you. Maybe their dislike is based on rumor. Maybe getting one person to see you in a slightly more positive light doesn’t bring about the level of satisfaction you had hoped. 

2) I change things so much that I never would have gone back in the first place, and, now living in this new reality, I lose all memory of my previous “life that never was”. This could be optimal if the change I make really does improve something about the past based on my foreknowledge. However, this does bring up the possibility that this is not the first time I’ve gone back in time and forgotten about it. Maybe I’ve spent years or even centuries rewinding and trying to fix or shift the one thing I thought would make everything “right”. If I never learn to accept my past and learn from it in the present, though, I’m doomed to repeat this cycle forever, never moving past the moment I leave to go back in time. Perhaps, wishing things had been different is a necessary aspect of existing as a conscious being caught in a time-stream that only moves one way. 

3) Any changes I make create a brand new reality, branching off at the point of the change as a “parallel/alternate universe”. Multiverse theory ensues, etc. If I’m able to retain my memory of my previous life, then I can compare and contrast my new one, but like the protagonists of North’s and Grimwood’s stories, having to go through the drudgery of certain life experiences all over again can go from boring to frustrating to even severely traumatizing. Sure, maybe this time around I won’t care so much what my peers in high school think of me, but I’d also have a very hard time caring about my schoolwork, especially algebra 2. Of course retaining memories of experiences from a previous life would likely include retaining the changes in mental health and personality. Trying to explain to a therapist that I’m dealing with PTSD based on experiences that haven’t happened yet or open up about being from the future could lead to being diagnosed with something serious enough to hinder my plans to change anything. On the other hand, without a confidant of some sort, the emotional weight of time travel could be prohibitive as well. At least in this version, I might be able to succeed at making a change and living in the universe of its consequences. I’d be able to hold onto my reasons for making a change, and whether I am cognizant of it or not, a split timeline means I don’t end up destroying the universe in the timeline I left. I’d just disappear, die, or maybe go into a coma. However, if my traveling consciousness isn’t the original but actually a copy, then there would be no change to the original timeline. In that case, maybe this has happened plenty of times before—perhaps to all of us—and we’re all just left as the version of ourselves left behind wishing and wondering. 

Family and friends would likely be able to see past even my best attempts at acting like everything is normal. While it’s unlikely anyone would jump to the conclusion that I’ve time traveled, it would be difficult to hide that something has changed. Besides trying to justify my odd behavior in simply coming to terms with the leap back, making different choices on my own would likely be insufficient to accomplish real change. At some point, I’d have to convince others to act differently as well, beyond simply accepting my new odd behavior and attitude. 

I’ve yet to consider the kinds and amounts of energy required to send a consciousness back in time. Even if it’s as simple as reforming my past brain into the shape of my current brain, that would still require a certain level of energy plus however much it takes to send anything back into the past. That energy would need to come from somewhere. Perhaps it would require the energy of destroying the entire timeline from which I’m escaping. At that point, whatever choices I’ve made and am trying to unmake could never really balance out with the guilt of killing the entire universe. Plus, what if simply going back affects other people. 

As with many kinds of sci-fi or fantasy ideas, the negative consequences can end up far exceeding any positive ones upon closer inspection. Trying to count and make up for all of those could easily get in the way of my original mission, whatever that may be. 

I could keep going on for a long time, but that’s all I’ve got for the moment. 

In any case, all this served as an introduction to my recently released new song, Dead End Drive. It doesn’t really have anything to do with time travel, but it does emerge from the same sort of pained regrets from thinking too long and too hard about the past. Caught up in that shady bog, it’s all too easy to drown. 

Ultimately, I hope to come to the conclusion that my past doesn’t define me. Nor do my nightmares about the past or my worries about what folks thought or think about me. I hope that you too can find some encouragement to keep pressing on and pushing forward, even when those tendrils of time try to drag you back and hold you down. 

Listen to and download DEAD END DRIVE right here. 

This track counts as the fourth and final of those I recorded with Joe Casey from a few years ago, funded by some really great folks who didn’t want me to give up after my crowdfunding efforts fell through. I couldn’t have done it without the family and friends who’ve believed in and supported me. I certainly couldn’t have done it without Joe Casey’s brilliance and hard work as well as the incredible drumming skill and artistry of Joe Tounge. Thanks to them and thanks to you for sticking with me. 

This is hardly the beginning, but it is in no way the end. I’ll keep learning and growing and trying new things and making art from the heart. Stick around, and I promise to let you know as soon as whatever’s next comes around. 

Thanks for reading and listening, 


Monday, December 10, 2018

Failure and First Drafts

Dear Internauts,
I spent most of November trying to "win" NaNoWriMo. Like so many other years, I didn't reach the word count goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month. Not even close. However, in striving toward that far off ambition, I did manage to write far more and far more often than I have in years. I'd finally pushed this one novel idea to the point where I know the story and its characters more clearly than I ever have before. Most importantly, though, beyond any arbitrary goal, the practice of regularly sitting down to write has improved my ability to push words out of my head and onto the page no matter how I may be feeling at the time.

Yes, my mood can still often feel colossal in size and strength, far out of my control. Now, though, even in the worst of times, I know it's possible to create anyway. Not only that, but I feel more free to create than before, and I even enjoy writing more than I used to.

Before I could do any of this though, I had to face up to the biggest block in my way.

I've written to you before about trying to overcome the daunting sense that every word or note or moment must be perfect or at least exceptional from the start. I'll sit down at my computer or with my guitar and whatever whiff of inspiration or fervor I'd previously felt vanishes in the face of a vast sea of empty silence or the barren cold of the blank page.

So long as I wrapped my brain up in the chains of the notion that good writing for any medium only comes out of some genius, or some miraculous, muse-inspired transcendent reception, I'd be bound in a state of useless, strangling despair.

Truth is, first drafts are about raw honesty, as messy, unbalanced, and nonsensical as it may at first appear.

First drafts should be imperfect.

This fear of imperfection, of not meeting impossible expectations on the first try, is like a cop car hiding off the side of the road at the end of the month. It's a speed trap. It does not have my best interests in mind. The fear renders me unable to see myself as a whole, complex individual under a mountain of mitigating circumstances.

The expectations are impossible not just because they’re hard, but also because they are vague and, possibly because of that, they are intangible and threatening. Their threat grows the more I try to think about what reaching and beating them must necessarily look like. I’m imposing restrictions on a state which doesn’t exist yet, and I’m fighting for and against a possible future with tools I don’t even have yet. 

It feels like what I’m afraid of is an actual, rational, comprehensible failure to reach my goals, but that’s only because I’m reaching into my past experiences of failure and pulling out only the negative.

See, I like to carry my failures in a burlap sack. Slung over my shoulder, it weighs me down, trips me up, and wears me out. Every time I fail or think I’ve failed at something, I add more anecdotal evidence to this smelly old bag of pain.  Since I so rarely take stock and try to clean out the bag, everything is jumbled and covered in the sour, fetid grease of the most self-deprecating bias. All the solid wisdom trinkets picked up along the way tend to get lost like a handful of marbles in a sandbox.

Whatever I pull out of my bag of past failures, I use it to sculpt an impression of the unknowable future. Instead of searching out the bits of lessons learned and applying them to the creation of something new, I tend to cover my view with the daunting veil of everything that’s ever gone wrong and how utterly miserable it made me. I can’t even begin to imagine what might be possible, because from my point of view, there’s no possibility except for heartbreaking catastrophe.

While a fear may be irrational, that doesn’t mean it’s effects any less real.

Between the nightmares and the hyper-aware sense of being crushed I feel in crowds, there are plenty of unhealthy and unhelpful ways my mind and body respond to outside stimuli because of an unnecessary sense of danger. Medication, therapy, mindfulness, and time—as well as the support of loving, patient family and friends—have all helped me be able to relax some, or at least know how to breathe and navigate life a little more each day.

As far as writing and music go, if I wait for only the good days, full of inspiration and the joyful appreciation of flowing creativity, I will never write another story or another song again in my life. If I can only mark that blank page with the most perfect words, the page will stay blank.

Instead of trying to start out with something amazing, maybe I should start out with something. Just tell the story, just get the idea or the themes down in some form. Only then do I really have anything to work with. Only then can I take what I have and turn it into something better. Spiraling in self-doubt is only a hindrance. 

Despite the fact that so many creative people in history have struggled with depression, it doesn't actually help with the creative process. Sure, maybe emotional pain can offer a kind of insight into the human condition, make a few words in verse 2 a shade more relatable, but during the worst swings and crushing moods, depression is far more debilitating than it is useful.

Fear of imperfection is the same. Being stuck with nothing until I think of the perfect phrase or chord or whatever just means that I've got nothing. This fear won't inspire actual perfection any more than stabbing myself in the foot would make me run faster. Spend my life waiting for the perfect traveling weather, and if it ever comes along, I'll simply have delayed my trip and be no closer to my destination for all that lost time. 

After returning to Pennsylvania from Nashville, I was here a few months when my best friend told me she thought I surely would have gotten better by now.

Believe me when I tell you I've spent every day since then unsure of what in the world this "better" thing is even supposed to look like. Though, I have wasted plenty of time beating myself up for not having reached it yet.

Back to my old self? Well, that's probably not ever gonna happen.

Completely emotionally stable, mentally proficient, and fully self-sufficient? Maybe someday, but doubtfully anything that looks like however close to that I might have been at some point in the past.

For now, this is what better means:

Better is not perfection.
Better won’t solve me.
Better won’t fix the past.
Better won’t sand down all the edges of life.
Better won’t offer sufficient apology or satisfactory explanation.
Better is a process in which I daily choose to take a chance on myself—

A chance to be brave enough to try.
A chance to fall.
A chance to fail.
A chance to learn.
A chance to improve.
A chance to acknowledge both the irrationality of some of my fears and the reality of their effects.

And finally, a chance to make a habit of creating without the limitations of expecting perfection.

I write the words in my head.

I sing the tune as it comes.

I take each day for itself.

I give myself and others the benefit of the doubt.

And I practice making mistakes—which is to say living a genuine life—and applying the lessons I learn from them, chipping away at the bounds of my fear.

I can't see a way forward if my view is cluttered with self-hate based on past failure, but I can be legitimately inspired when I realize how far I've come and how much I can take each failure and learn from it.

Well, that's where I'm at anyway.

Thank you for reading,

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

28 Years Old

Dear Internauts,

A few weeks back I turned 28. Like most birthdays—especially those after my 18th—the occasion felt mostly anticlimactic. Still, some part of me felt like Samwise Gamgee standing in the field in The Fellowship of the Ring; if I grow up one more day, it'll be the furthest from young I've ever been. Most of the legendary figures of pop-culture I've looked up to had already made and shared at least one masterpiece by this point in their lives. Many of them I've already outlived with nary a quarter-masterpiece to my name (although if I'm being fair, one or two of my lyrics have shown promise).

Sure, many of you reading this may roll your eyes at the idea of anyone my age feeling old, though my back at the moment could plead a good case for at least aged. Whenever I'm out and hear teenagers talking with the kind of frantic, almost chaotic verve which seems to transcend generations for a specific age range, I can't help but remember how old and mature I used to feel. I was so sure of what I believed and believed in. Stupidly, this kind of reminiscence is often twisted to speak to or treat adolescents with condescension and derision. Please don't do that. As we get older, we so easily forget how intensely we once felt, how passionately we once ran from moment to moment, swept up in the uncertain wonder and panic of becoming.

And then we became...what?

Or perhaps we never stop riding the current of time. And it's never the same river twice.

Finally got around to meeting with a new therapist. If there was a punch card for seeing different psychiatric professionals, I'd soon be due for a free fro-yo. The first meeting is often the weirdest, but the odd twist is that meeting with this detached stranger I've no reason to trust can sometimes make it easier to open up. Sharing the reasons and tales behind my trauma has always been exhausting, but after a certain number of tellings, it sands down to this sanitized, mechanical madlib of psychological buzzwords. I strain to recall the timeline while finding it all too easy to recall the key images of pain, terror, and abuse. Still, they seem nice. At least there are no glaring, immediate signs of troubled water ahead.

Once again, I've been attempting to participate in National Novel Writing Month. If you happen to be keeping track, this is—I think—the sixth year in which I've thought to give NaNoWriMo a go. I only ever reached the 50,000 word goal once, on my first time through. Every other try since has found me writing an evolving variation on the same story and usually giving up less than halfway through. Throughout the following year, I'll occasionally get the urge to pick up that old manuscript and rework into a plot full of characters and situations inspiring enough to keep me motivated. By the time the next November cycles back around, I've second-guessed/reworked everything but a few of the proper nouns and the genre. Thanks to the online writing course I took over the summer, I finally had the beginnings of a workable outline and have started in on something that could perhaps hold merit. Trying to remind myself that the goal of a first draft is simply to get the idea out of my head and into a document, it's not only lack of motivation or self-doubt but a scarcity of energy in general.

Heading into the dark of winter, I languish.

I wish I could say I've still been playing music. Though I have been writing bits and pieces of new material, there's a strength quite lacking in my desire to finish any one song or practice any finished piece to performance level. My favorite open mic has shut down. There are others, but it's just one more excuse to keep my feeble mind from reconnecting with one of the few activities that ever made me truly happy.

I will push through. I must.

Further on the topic of feeling old is that my younger cousin got married last month, the first wedding of a younger family member and only the second wedding of anyone younger than me I've attended. My older sister's wedding is coming up at the end of this year.

Know that old music video or film cliche of the subject/singer standing still while a crowd rushes past in fast-forward around them? It's the egotism of anyone who creates art that our most abundant emotional resource is our own neuroses. A bit of solipsism is bound to leak through the cracks in the ceiling of a cell whose walls are all plastered with self-portraits.

Speaking of, there's only one more track left of the four I recorded with Joe Casey two years back. I'm wicked grateful to him for the opportunity of working with someone so talented and receptive to my style and ideas while also bringing a passionate, skilled, creative force that makes every note, every beat, every concept all the clearer and fuller. The best music is collaborative at least on some level. Even if I write, record, and mix everything on my own, I can't create without channeling something of those who've inspired me. Thus, why not embrace that and bring a mix of influences to the fore? Why not work with others whose tastes jive with but also differ from your own, creating a blend out of both the tension and the unexpected cohesion?

I'll let you know when that new stuff comes out. For now, I've got more writing to do.

Thanks for reading,

p.s. - check out my latest track and lyric video:

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Why Are You A Pacifist?

Dear Internauts,

I promise I won't make all my blog posts from here on out just my responses to questions, but if I continue to ramble on long enough over there, I figure I might as well share such pretentious insights with you for content-sake. Hope ya don't mind.


Mostly, it’s because wars are largely unnecessary, driven by dehumanization, overwhelmingly tragic in the unjust scope of their consequences, and usually lead to more wars.

In studying history in school, whenever we’d learn about the context in which a war took place, it seemed to me that steps toward diplomacy could have taken place earlier on in the timeline to avoid violent conflict. This isn’t some unique revelation. If non-violent resolutions pass before escalation into armed conflict, then there’s less of an excuse to escalate. After certain steps are taken toward violence, the balance can become so tilted it’s nearly impossible to convince military and government leaders to consider non-violent alternatives. This is why the best—or at least most popular—arguments against pacifism tend to employ points in history after most powers had already declared the other side to be irreconcilably opposed to their goals. If you believe that the time for negotiation, compromise, dialogue, or even hope for nonviolence has passed, anyone arguing against violence may seem to be naive, uninformed, unpatriotic, or traitorous.

I wish I knew more about history to offer an huge list of blatant examples where negotiations could have stopped wars before they began, but I’m a pacifist because I believe this is the case with every single war that has ever happened. (I do remember thinking when I first learned about the Treaty of Versailles how the way World War I ended really screwed Germany up in just the right way to make eventual room for the Third Reich.)

If you argue for pacifism during an armed conflict—such as arguing that the conflict ends entirely via 280 characters or a phrase short enough to fit on a picket sign—you end up pushing against a boulder that’s been hurtling downhill for a while, usually longer than the regular citizenry, the news, or history books could tell you. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t push the ends of wars once they’ve started, but rather it helps to understand that a war isn’t just a war but rather a complex stack of circumstances. Someone who believes the violent conflict is worthwhile may have reasons completely separate from the official talking points of government/military leaders. Similarly, plenty of people join the military for personal reasons having little to do with a grand, international, sociopolitical agenda. There are those who will broadly support any conflict their country is a part of due to their brand of nationalism, but I like to think most folks are more complex and thinking than that.

In fact, I think most people would say they are anti-war in a general sense. They can look at wars in the past or even present conflicts and find something justifiable in them. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the “just war” ideology, especially because of my religious upbringing. This later conflicted with the whole “love thy neighbor” thing, but that’s a different, long-winded story.

 The key is that once bombs start dropping, it becomes easy to perpetuate the mind-set that anything your side does is justified because of something the other side did. At least in the US, we learn so little about the history of the Middle East in school that all armed conflict is seen by most of the population over here through a lens of extrapolating the tiniest shreds of new information through anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and pro-Military sectarianism. Now, as I do my own research into all the places tax-payer funded bombs are falling, I keep finding all these ways that earlier meddling by the US actually ties heavily into if not directly causes so many factors leading into further violence and conflict. I don’t mean that people can’t make peace for themselves in the face of US intervention, but historically we’ve made it very hard all across the globe in the name of economic interests dressed up like ideological agendas.

Education is key to building peace. Building understanding increases empathy whether it’s between two people or two billion.

Of course, there hasn’t been a time in my life when my country has not had a violent, armed presence in regular conflict somewhere in the world. I haven’t been around that long, but already I’ve seen more leaders act unilaterally to command acts of war against civilian population than my history books tell me happened in the previous century. That’s probably wrong, but not in the way you might hope it’s wrong.

If you don’t already believe it, I don’t think I can convince you that seeing another human being as a human being is a good thing. I don’t believe that killing a large group of people or even a single person solves the kinds of problems that usually lead to those sorts of tragedies.

We can’t un-bomb those hospitals or un-coup those democratically elected governments. We can’t get those lost lives back. However, we can start with peace in mind right now.

 Yes, that means electing leaders who plan to bring troops home and put more money into helping lives than taking them (or the machines that do so). Yes, plenty of leaders have promised this then gone back on their word once in office, but it’s worth considering for your vote nonetheless. I imagine learning about all the scary stuff going on in the world, being handed the nuclear launch codes, and having regular meetings with the highest in the mass-murder echelon on the daily may have some strong effect on a politicians sense of morality.

More importantly, it means remembering that a country, a tribe, a religion, an ethnic or racial group, or any other human collective is far more than their leaders. Rarely is it that your average person starts a war with another country. We talk about fighting some vague “them” while also talking about the individuals on our side doing the fighting. On the other hand, we do plenty to support the troops via some bland, meaningless slogan or by burning Nike stuff, but little to help high school kids learn about, participate in, and afford opportunities for their future other than military life. (On a side note: how about donating that Nike stuff to homeless vets instead.)

Finally, I’ve been called nearly every insult in the books for being anti-war. My current thoughts on pacifism do extend into interpersonal conflicts as well. Conflict resolution education can do a lot to help solve problems before they become violent in the first place. It may not seem like it sometimes in our current internet culture, but many people do really prefer not fighting over every difference.

The more we learn about one another, the more we can build peaceful lives, neighborhoods, and eventually nations.

I understand when people say I’m too naive or uninformed or cowardly to get what the military is and does and why. I’ve got a lot to learn, sure. We all do. However, I must insist that pacifism is not inherently cowardly. Complacent inaction in the face of injustice is both cowardly and dangerously corrupting, but so is resorting to violence because of tradition, availability, ease, or popular support.

It’s easy to see people far away as less than human. It’s easy to see the person standing in front of us in line as less than human or the person across the counter or the person in another car or posting something we don’t like online.

I would never say that risking your life for what you believe in is easy. What’s hard is caring enough about humanity to work through the complex mire of differences in order to risk everything for the chance at making peace before we’re too caught up in war to find a way out.

And yes, I do believe that there is always a way out.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, August 24, 2018

Is Poetry a Good Way to Practice Lyric Writing?

Dear Internauts,

How ya doin?

The following is a response I posted on to the question:

Is poetry a good way to practice lyric writing? (Specifically, writing poems without the construct of a song.)


How helpful writing poetry is toward songwriting depends on how willing you are to be purposeful with your practice. Though writing poems for their own sake is great and the more you write the better you may get, it will be even more helpful if you start to deconstruct the poetic aspects of your writing so as to grow your skills, not just your page count.

Simply writing poems—no matter the structural form or even rhyme scheme—can allow you to work on developing your wordplay skills, descriptive imagery, symbolic/metaphorical language, and perhaps most importantly, working on the economy of words and syllables.

Ultimately, writing poetry is a great way to practice lyric writing. Still, if you’d like to be more mindful in that direction.

Here are a few things to consider.

Wordplay - More than just finding rhymes you like or working in a few clever puns (though those can both be great tools to carry over into songwriting), examine the way a phrase sounds by conveying the same idea using different word variations. Don’t worry about melodies at this stage, but still pay attention to how the length of a total phrase, the amount of syllables per word in that phrase, and the comparative lengths of the phrases nearby shape the rhythm of a verse/stanza. Assonance and alliteration are only some of many great poetic tools that can help here as well. The key is how a line flows from one sound to the next. Don’t even worry about a beat so much here, but let your words tell you the rhythm. Whether within a line or at its break or from segment to segment (stanza, verse, whatever…), something should give the reader or listener a sense of a cut or a pause. It can’t be just where a break appears on the page either, because though that works for a lot of written poetry, you should start to get a feel for what breaks feel most natural when the words are audible. Rhymes will stand out like bolded letters no matter how loud or soft or where they fit in the line. Witty and/or poignant hooks either draw too much or too little attention to themselves if their overly emphasized or hidden away, respectively.

Descriptive Imagery: While a lot of the mood in a song is purely in the realm of the musical arrangement, the words can conform to or contrast that mood in ways which can be either helpful or detrimental to your song. Hot take: all the best songs are stories, even if the lyrics don’t tell a story. Whether you’re fighting the man, nursing a broken heart, hitting the dance floor, falling in love, walking along the beach at night, doing the monster mash, or just pacing through a day in your life, there is a world and situation in which you as the writer exist and must in some form embody in order to draw your audience along for the length of the song. In songwriting as well as poetry it can be as blatant as a short story told poetically or a picture painted in emotions, sensations, and ideas. Always, though, you must find a way to connect one idea to the other. If you cannot do that, you cannot connect to the listener. That’s the journey of a story from one verse to the next, with the theme in the chorus, and the twist or exultation in the bridge. Or forget that format entirely and just do what feels right. At this stage, just writing the poetry down, the key is finding a way to connect what you mean with what you’re actually saying. Sometimes that means be as literal as “I hate this town!”, but more often it’s about the way you show us the grit of the street or the glare of the lights or the way the scent of sweat and manure sticks to your clothes even after you leave like regret you can’t shake. It’s rarely about finding the prettiest words or even the best words from a poetic standpoint (because in lyrics the rhythm and sound will matter more), but it is about finding as clear and simple a way as you can to translate what’s in your head and heart into the brainwaves of a stranger. Tough, but with practice you’ll find your own style.

Symbolic language: Honestly, most pop hits are pretty straightforward. Yeah, there’s plenty of gimmicky double entendres, but base an entire song on that and you’ll either have to be very smart or have a great beat to get much mileage out of it. There are always exceptions, but as with imagery, if you want your lyrics to stick with folks beyond simply being catchy, there has to be something they can mentally grab a hold of (though being catchy can get you pretty far). Sometimes the best answer is to just say what you mean as clearly and succinctly as possible. You can use this to great affect in a refrain or chorus, so finding the best way to be the most clear is good practice for that. Again, just like with imagery, going more symbolic can be a great way to paint a picture for the listener. Work on simile’s first, not just telling us why one thing is like the other but really thinking about how and why that’s the case. The more you understand the reasoning behind your comparisons, the more clearly you can convey it to us. When in the course of a song you make such comparisons is key as well. If it’s quick or just for a line, the less obvious (or weirder) the analogy, the more it can affect your rhythm. That’s why the wittiest hooks or rhymes are often saved for the end of a verse or before a pause. Give the listener a second to be affected by what you just dropped on them. If it’s something obvious or more immediate, you can go from saying you’re free like a bird in one line to light like a feather in the next with little pause. If the association asks only a little of us, we’ll be right there with you, but if it is more absurd or obscure (say, free like an armchair to light like a monogram), we may still be trying to process it and miss the next line or two. On the other end of things, there’s the big metaphor, either for the whole piece or a big section of it. This is a style choice, but remember to think about connecting what you mean to you and what it may mean to someone hearing the actual words. And as with everything else, no matter how much you practice your descriptions and analogies, we as listeners will still interpret however we feel like.

Economy of Syllables: You don’t have to wait until you’re trying to match up lyrics to a melody or vice versa to start mastering rhythm. No matter the form or kind of your poetry, consider the pronunciation of words and which syllables are stressed. Yes, singing can allow for some very creative variations on pronunciation that you might get away with. However, whether or not you’re writing for your own voice or someone else’s, it can be extremely helpful to consider clarity from the start. Not only does the line rhyme, but does the syllable count fit with its rhyming pair line in a way that doesn’t make you have to strain to fit everything in your meter. Study Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, or other poetic children’s authors as well as much good rap as you can get your hands on. The giants of hip-hop lyricism are able to get a bit tricky with meter and form because they have a deeply ingrained sense of the most basic syllabic rhythm before they even start a metronome or begin shaping a beat in the studio. Go through your poetry, line by line, as an exercise, and mark the stressed and unstressed syllables. Find the simplest way you can get each thought across per line. Make it sound as tight to the meter and robotic as you can while still saying what you mean to say. Get ruthless with cutting out extraneous words and syllables. Change tenses if you have to. Forget about complete sentences or grammar. As long as it makes your meaning and your rhythm blatantly clear, cut it up. Say it with a metronome like you’re reading shakespeare in fifth grade in front of the class on the day the teacher introduced iambic pentameter. And when you are sick and tired of all this nonsense, set it aside. Go back to working on the more fun, more abstract stuff. Just remember that if it has some kind of clear rhythm when it’s just words, you’ll have at least a foundation for arranging it with the music later on. Melodies don’t need to follow normal syllable accents and can hold out or shorten words in whatever way fits the song, but practicing something more concrete at this stage can mean you have the option to be creative melodically later. You’ll be able to do what you want, knowing you have a basic rhythm behind it all, instead of being stuck having to work melodic gymnastics because of your uncooperative lyrical form.

AND FINALLY: Do whatever you want. Have fun. Be real. Be as form-fitting or free-style as you want. Use your poetry to practice the most important bit of lyricism—genuine expression.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, August 3, 2018

Digging Out the Wagon Wheel (A Song of Slush and Humidity)

Dear Internauts,

I don't drink coffee. It's not any kind of moral stand or anything. Just never got the taste for it. Sometimes I like the smell. I also kinda like the smell of wood smoke from a bonfire, though I also find it unlikely I'd drink anything that flavor.

Thus, my usual cafe drink is some form of iced tea, often mixed with lemonade. More calories than coffee and less caffeine (apparently, tea has more caffeine before brewing but loses much of it by the time it reaches maximum drinkability). In the winter, I will sometimes get a chai tea latte, but it's usually too thick to feel refreshing. Thanks, probably, to my dad, I'll have iced drinks throughout the year, no matter the weather. One of the strange minor adjustments the few times I've been to europe is that restaurants tended to use less ice in their drinks, many thinking Americans quite odd for our abundance of cubes. Most of the time, ice is used to make sure you get less actual drink with your cup, but such habits are tough to crack.

All this to say, I don't really go to cafes for the liquid refreshment so much as for the destination. Sure, being around a bunch of strangers in a sometimes noisy, sometimes crowded, sometimes hectic environment (though never as bad as, say, the mall or supermarket) can play the fiddle with my nerves, the point is really to be out at all. Leaving my bedroom helps me wake up, but leaving the house entirely is sometimes necessary for forcing my creativity into gear. This too may be a matter of habit formed from practice. Sometimes, thankfully, it can be as simple as taking a walk around the block or a short drive for some thoughts to rearrange inside my mind. Other times, I could travel to the moon and back and still be stuck on a single line.

Sometimes I wonder if my mental illness is truly a symptom of sickness or simply another habit. The further time flies from the inciting trauma, the more it seems like my inability to function at my preferred level is no longer a direct reaction to said trauma but rather a learned pattern of behavior based around the shape in which my brain settled via an evolving set of maladaptive coping mechanisms.

It's like a wagon with one slightly off-balance wheel. Sometimes bumped it the wrong way, busting it too much to run as well but not enough to break it down entirely. Every day the wagon goes up and down the same dirt road, digging in a gradual trench along the wheels' usual tracks. Before too long, the trench begins to direct the path of the wagon more than the wagon shapes the trench. The trench pulls the slightly off-balance wheel deeper into its learned pattern, a little more off each day. Eventually, the trench forces the wheel too far away from the rest. Maybe the wagon gets stuck or maybe the wheel breaks off entirely. Either way, the current damage, while set in motion by an original bump, has been so exacerbated by this trench of repetition, that it could be said the dirt road did far more damage than the bump.

Then again, maybe it wasn't the most solidly built wagon to begin with.

I decided to spend August diving back into songwriting at a more steady pace than I have been so far this summer. It's frustrating how easily I've fallen out of practice with some simple things, needing to rebuild the callouses on my fingers and the old wordsmithing patterns in my head.

On the topic of inspiration, I find myself agreeing with some words I've heard from comedians. The overwhelming glut of socio-political mayhem of the day, which itself was so utterly unexpected in its extent, was to some extent expected to be an outpouring source of material. Instead of being a drinking fountain, though, its like being caught in the garbage disposal. Circling the drain as furious tides pull all sense of straightforward thinking toward an uproarious demise.

Since many of my songs' subject matter is gleaned from social consciousness, from my reactions as an observer of the world and its shifting tides, the large majority of lyrical material I've crafter (or simply expelled) has the delicacy of a scene from South Park, but without any of the wit, humor, or creative experience. The songs with which most folks seem to connect—and often those with which I still feel most connected and eager to continue performing—are those which emphasize more my position as a human in this world versus my position as some distant watcher picking topics off a list.

In his songwriting class, Rick Elias told us many times that the best songs were far more personal, that trying to write a song encompassing the entirety of some archetypal Ur-concept like "man's inhumanity to man" in three and a half minutes was a futile gesture in mediocrity. He didn't say it exactly like that. The idea is essentially that a song isn't meant to be a wikipedia entry. Granted, I took this for me as not writing a song titled "Racism" and trying to capture every side and aspect and historical context with two versus, a chorus, and a bridge, but for many it could also mean that writing a love song about how it feels to be in love has simply been DONE. TO. DEATH. Whether it be Shakespeare or Swift, it's pretty easy to make a worse imitation of something popular than it is to make something unique.

But it doesn't have to be.

Creative folks often have this weird habit of forgetting that originality and a unique perspective are already things we possess. No one else can live your life for you. No one else has walked in your shoes or seen the world through your eyes. Even attempting to walk in someone else's shoes or see the world through their eyes will fail to capture their true human experience while succeeding in revealing something new about yours. Opening ourselves up to new experiences and to other points of view can broaden our compassion and connection with others, as well as our sense of complex selfhood.

This is what great art can do. If it comes from an honest place within the creator, then those who experience it will not only experience something of that place as visitors but a news lens through which to visit the depths of themselves. Thus why collaborative creation can be so astoundingly powerful. A performer can bring their own hopes, fears, doubts, and desires into a piece of music or theatre or poetry or dance which originally came from someone else's experiences of hope, fear, doubt, and desire.

Or, if you're a solo act like myself, each new performance is filtered through the shades and hues of every bit of life I've lived since first writing the song. And it's always great to see what producers or instrumentalists can make with their great talent out of original songs when it comes time to record. There is, of course, more of that on the way. ;)

Thank you for reading,

P.S. - some suggested great art I've gotten to experience in the past month or so:


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Death (collection) by Neil Gaiman

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

Fullmetal Alchemist (series) by Hiromu Arakawa

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (series) by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos


Three Identical Strangers dir. Tim Wardle

Won't You Be My Neighbor dir. Morgan Neville

On Chesil Beach dir. Dominic Cooke

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot dir. Gus Van Sant

Blindspotting dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada

Sorry to Bother You dir. Boots Riley

Mission Impossible: Fallout dir. Christopher McQuarrie

Eighth Grade dir. Bo Burnham

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Project Pressure - 50 Simple Steps to Creative Genius

Dear Internauts,

Outside, the sky cracks open, my heart continues to pound out my chest. The rain makes my vision-impairing dry eyes feel all the more dispassionate. The absurd, worse-than-winter chill of AC on summer sweat only heightens the sense of dreadful anxiety playing skrillex with my nerves.

Folks, I'm not doing great.

A week of exhaustion following a week of sleeplessness tends to have that effect, true. Still, I find comfort in the lightning. It gets me.

I'm by no means bipolar. I think the manic-esque productivity spikes surrounded by a fluffy down of downward spiral fit more of a pattern indicating that my soul-crushing depression can be temporarily blockaded by the rupturous nature of "project pressure".

Now, what is project pressure you, doubtlessly, wonder?

Well, you glorious phalanx of haloed chickadees, here's what I mean...I guess, in list form.

  1. Behold: A NEW IDEA. 
  2. So I take that poor hatchling of an idea and I throw it against the wall with increasing severity until I'm no long able to catch a hold of its return momentum. 
  3. At which point it slams into my person so hard that one of us starts bleeding. 
  4. And likely crying. 
  5. The blood and tears, as they're apt to do, initiate SWEAT LEVEL MIDNIGHT. 
  6. All the planning I should do is instead taken up with procrastination and reworking of the most tangential aspects of the process until...
  7. I take a blindfolded, backwards, over-the-shoulder, half court shot at a mental calendar toward what I hope is a realistic schedule and deadline for completion. 
  8. I miss that shot, not entirely because I still have no real hold on what the project itself actually entails. 
  9. Enter: Random burst of responsible and well-thought out, albeit far too detailed laying out of everything I could possibly hope and dream for the perfect, best case scenario result of the tireless hard work I'm definitely going to put into this, for sure, oh yeah, of course...right...
  10. A week of being too scared of every possible worst case scenario to even start (this can sometimes last for several weeks/years). 
  11. Several false starts later...
  12. Drown in a deluge of creative energy and inspiration while I'm trying to focus on something else entirely (such as driving or reading or talking/listening to other people or cleaning...often cleaning)
  13. Enter a mad panic mode of slamming down as much of that spark as I can snatch from the aether before it disappears forever like that brilliant dream I just woke from or that pasta sauce I made five years ago and still haven't matched...
  14. Lose track of all of that while I follow the "meep-meeps" of some quirky, shiny, and temporarily fascinating random intrusive figment 
  15. Capture genius in a bottle 
  16. Drop the bottle
  17. Scoop up what little I can of the genius before it gets too diluted by my salty, salty tears
  18. Realize the previously set deadline came and went two weeks ago
  19. Fall into a creative energy pain coma funk for a few days/weeks/lifetimes
  20. JUST DO IT!
  21. Realize I can't JUST DO all of IT in one night
  22. Get done enough of it that I have something to work off of
  23. Keep going
  24. Keep....going
  26. Ah, I'm almost done
  27. New deadline set!
  28. All this progress has completely changed my perspective on the project's direction, so I'm gonna close my eyes, hang a sharp left, and just drive till the laws of motion become a bit less abstract
  29. I should probably eat something...or sleep...or shower....NAH!
  30. This new direction has brought up several issues with previous work
  31. Go back and change things
  32. But now I realize how discordant and uneven this mess has become
  33. Blood sugar reaches critical low
  34. Gotta keep micro-editing
  35. Too exhausted/hungry/bleary-eyed
  36. Finally eat/sleep/shower/take medication/move
  37. In the morning/whenever I next get around to it
  38. Everything that was once bright, shiny, and genius is now AWFUL!
  39. This is the worst thing I or anyone in the history of ever has ever made
  40. EVER
  41. But Maybe NOT!?!!?!!!???!!!
  42. Marathon Maker: ACTIVATE!
  43. Slide into home. 
  44. Face full of dirt. So much so I can't really tell what good art even is anymore.
  45. Give up on perfection. 
  46. FINISH!!!
  47. Share and enjoy for, at most, a few hours.
  48. Fall into the deepest, darkest, dankest, deadliest divot of all time. 
  49. I will never get another good idea again. 
  50. Behold: A NEW IDEA.
And that's how it's done. 

By the by, here's a lyric video for a song of mine. Hope ya like it (especially since you now know exactly how it was made).

Thanks for reading,