More than Mirroring

As I was working in office today, Spotify popped up an ad for a new Alabama tribute album. I listened to the bits of the songs, but all they really did was make me want to listen to Alabama (which I did). For me, Alabama reminds of me of riding with my older sister. She took me to my first concert: Alabama at UA Barnhill Arena. Listening to the songs not many hold up to me. You can hear that slick 80s Nashville production, but one song still holds great sway over me, “My Home’s in Alabama.” Jamey Johnson’s version puts gritter take on a song that was already more subdued than other songs on Alabama’s albums. 

Yet why is it so hard to cover a song? Is it that the original artist  has such a hold on the song? 

I then listened to High Cotton, another tribute album of Alabama coming out next week. The artist are less mainstream but seem to embody what a cover needs to be: more inspiration than mirroring. Jason Isbell and Lucero, like Johnson, tend their own tendencies to the song. The artist on the other album seems to mirroring the tone of the originals than being inspired to make their own version. Austin Kleon wrote that it is impossible to perfecting copy another’s work. But it is possible to be too close in range that it feels flat.


Grab a Shovel and Start Digging

If you were ask someone how they were doing, you would probably get the response of “busy”. Everyone is busy these days. “Busy” has become the new “fine”. Laura Vanderkam in her piece in Fast Company says that “our sense of self-worth [comes] from being in high demand.” We want to feel wanted. so much so, that we fill up our schedule or keep busy “doing things.” Vanderkam points out that power is “not about having a million things to do. Everyone has a million things to do. The ultimate sign of success is having a million things to do but only doing a few of them.”

One of many effects of this “busyness” is the value of completing tasks, or what Cal Newton calls task productivity. What is left behind is value productivity, “the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output”.  Newton points to Woody Allen in his article, but it made me think of my own life. I work in education, particularly writing. We as educators want to cover so much as possible because our students know so little and need to be caught up. (Oh how we love this battle cry). In fact today in class, I flew through a lesson telling them that we would hit it deeper later. What if I promised them that we would only learn four things this whole semester, and in that promise, they would masters of those skills? Or as Newton noted, to be able to reproduce consistently at a high level.

Now we get to the “how?” which is the really hard part. We have been trained to go fast and shallow. Motion keeps the bored look off their faces. We think that we must choose between deep and wide, but this is a lie.  Mike Rose, an educator once said, “If you go deep enough, you go wide.” If I teach my students four skills at master level, then I have taught them how to be writers more than fifty essays could do.

If you want to change the world, don’t grab a megaphone and shout. Grab five people who believe in you and go deep. Invest in them. Teach them what you know.

I am as guilty as anyone. I want to stop and grab a shovel and start digging.

Right the First Time

On a recent All Songs Considered podcast, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, members of the band Nirvana, discussed the making of their final studio album In Utero. One thing that stuck out was how producer Steve Albini would usually use only one take of the song. This is not to say that the album was a jam session. Nirvana was practicing extensively, and some of the songs dated back five years. Albini himself had a method of recording that included precise microphone placements and glass enclosures to capture sound effectively. Grohl and Novoselic mentioned how emotional it was listening to the tracks in preparation of the remastered album for the 20th anniversary. Drummer Grohl said that it sounded like a real band making real mistakes. In a sense, the album was not technically perfect, but achieved a perfection of the moment. 

In a separate podcast, Bob Boilen mentioned that Radiohead’s first song in recording OK Computer was “No Surprises.” In fact, it was the first take of the song that they used. Thom Yorke said that all subsequent recordings sounded like they were a cover band of themselves. 

Both these stories show that we need trust our practice and our guts. There is a need for revision and restructuring, but there is also room for greatness to sit along side imperfection. 

Where can you find an instance where your first try had “magic” in it?

The Key to Change

Imagine if you woke this morning, and one of your biggest wishes came true. The weight is gone. The money is there. The relationship is fixed. There is one catch: you can’t replicate it. You are still out of shape. You don’t know how to save or earn more. You still have behaviors and emotions that are damaging. In short, you didn’t go through the process.

We all want the prize, the end goal, but we fail to see how necessary the process. This is why shortcuts are so prevalent in our society. We often just want to be done with it and move on to the next project.

I teach writing at a community college. Most of my students are beginning writers. They either struggled in high school or are returning to school after entering the workplace. Each semester I receive over 500 essays. A small portion, let’s 1 percent are plagiarized. A greater portion like 10 percent have been heavily edited by friend who has better writing skills, and about 15 percent are just shiny first drafts where there is little sign of revision or thought beyond just typing it. In each case, they avoided the process. 

When I asked them why they did one of these three things? The answer is simple: time and effort. “I didn’t have the time.” or “I was too hard.” Writing is not easy. In a recent tweet, writer Ben Greenman wrote, “Writing is a form of translation where you’re not allowed to see the original text.” So often we can hear or see in our head, but it seems impossible to get on the page or screen. 

My admonition is not to just love the process and not the product or end. The project is what drives the process, but we need what we learned in the process when we begin again.

The Posture of Interruption

Yesterday between coming in from errands and starting supper, I pulled out my phone to check email or Twitter. I clicked on a video of a favorite artist of mine doing an acoustic performance. My two boys were playing in the sun room, and the door was open to keep an eye on them. My oldest, who is five, said that he wished that we could play catch. I asked why we couldn’t. He told me that he didn’t want to interrupt me. I told him that nothing was more important than him and that he could always come to me.

The truth is that it is not the words that he could “interrupt” me that mattered: it is the habit. I was not looking for a pressing email from work. I was not doing much of anything except the passing the time. Our habits not only form our daily lives; they also form the image that we portray to the world. It relates to how our loved ones see us, how our co-workers see us, and how our muses see us.

I am strong believer in muses, not the actual Greek type that floated around granting creative wishes. I believe in the genius in all of us, but they often will not bother us if we seem busy filling the time. I have seen the quote that the muse needs to find you at work to come visit you. I wholeheartedly believe that we need just begin tasks for inspiration to often kick in, but our work is not always directly on a project. Blaine Hogan says it this way, “An artist’s job is to see well and to do that you must have slow and steady eyes to see.” Seeds of the things that we do are often found in observation or “to see well.”

I need to be still and present to do my work each day. I don’t mean to denigrate the pleasures of down time filled games or social media. I just want for me to recognize the posture and message that I send when I, not the world, busies myself. I need to remind myself that almost everything can be beneficial and restorative if I approach it in that manner and to remind myself of my posture to the world, so that it remains open to interruptions. 

Limit to Grow

“The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest, and therefore, when most was required of imagination in order to build at all.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Limitations are everywhere. We often see them as negative. The word can something substituted by disability or a problem. In truth, limitations are the thing that make things work and even make things better. 

Many of us wish for a day that is completely ours. In truth, we are saying that we want a day that we set the limitations. What time we get. How we spend our time. What level interaction we have with the world. And as much as this dream day appeals to us and is needed once in awhile. We don’t grow from days like this.

I once read a book about Psalm 23, which the chapter of the Bible that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want…” In this book, the author looks at the piece through the eyes of a shepherd. One thing that he mentions is that the shepherd leads his sheep in the lush valley to feed. Vegetation does not grow well on the top of mountains, so the sheep will need the strength and food from the valley to climb. We often have a negative view the term valley. It is seen as low point: the farthest distance from the mountain top. 

Limitations, be it from a boss, client, or even just lack of time, can feel like valleys. We want the time and work that make us feel like be on top of the mountain, but we must feed on the limitations and get stronger. 

A few weeks ago, I told my wife that I wish that take the discipline that I had to learn by going to graduate school while having a job and raising two boys and go back in time to reclaim those days, months, and years that I misused. Obviously I could not. All that time suffered from little limitation on my time, and growth only came from limitations. 

Limitations come in many forms, but they are not what should stop us. They are there to help us grow. Remember the shepherd didn’t just happened upon the valley or was forced to go the valley by circumstances. He led his sheep through the valley in order to be successful.

Question: Where can I limit myself in order to grow?