Wormholes, Best Trick in Beating Resistance, and Perfectionism

And here’s where the concept of Wormholes comes in. Wormholes, as I define them, are these little breaks of opportunity in my great wall of resistance. They’re the moments when I feel like maybe, if the circumstances were just right, I might possibly be talked into:
• Giving up bananas (they are SO not local)
• Organizing my office
• Writing a new song
• Doing more than just my one sun salutation in the morning
• Doing more than just 2 miles in my morning run
• Doing whatever totally heinous chore has been on my To Do list since two years ago Christmas (Today it’s finding a new stylus for our aged turntable; last week it was filling out copyright forms to register the songs on our new CD)

Now, if I take advantage of these miraculous wormholes, the impossible not only can happen, but usually does with remarkable ease, especially if I have a little grace and humility about it. I resist playing the guitar until I stop telling myself I’m supposed to be playing the guitar. Then, usually, I want to play it. I go through phases with it, and today I know that about myself. Some years I practice diligently, with love and great enthusiasm and creativity. Other years, I coast along. Even though I have made my living as a singer-songwriter who plays the guitar, I know I will never be a virtuoso. What I have done is evolved my own style, and today it’s good enough for me. And I got that style from a certain amount of “just doing it,” as a certain shoe company would say. Just showing up and gritting my teeth and pushing that Sloth to play scales and figure out songs. On the most wonderful days, actual enthusiasm would appear in the middle of a practice session, and I know there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than just joyfully banging away at my guitar.

Best Trick Beating Resistance
“Play till you feel like resting. Then rest till you feel like playing.”––Martha Beck

When I have a lot to do and I don’t feel like doing anything, I make a deal with myself. I say, “Okay, then: do nothing. But really do nothing.”
Doing nothing involves reclining on my couch and staring into space. I do not get to talk on the phone, read, check my email, or sleep. On the other hand, I do not have to meditate, count my breaths or practice any kind of spiritual discipline whatever. All I do is space out. Somehow, this always relaxes and refreshes me, and before too long, my spinning mind has a million things it wants my body to do. I jump up and start accomplishing all the tasks I was fixing to resist.

Perfectionism is the Enemy
So when I look back on my “goals” list, my IAP sees all the things I haven’t done and won’t ever do. (Not going to be the next Beatles. I am clear on that. Don’t think Harvard Div’s in my future either, but that’s another story.) My IAP can sometimes be quite disappointed. But the truth is, I played the guitar well enough to make a career that has sustained me emotionally and financially and artistically for the past 22 years. Instead of becoming the next Beatles, I have this fantastic patchwork life: a manageable, wonderful music career, and a life as a freelance teacher of writing, music and life. I get to write books, go to my kids’ assemblies, and have date night with my husband once a week.
Like the person who really wanted to be a gardener in Ogunquit, the Real Me chooses the life I have made over the life I thought I should have when I was 22. This life, as they say, is right-sized. But I am also glad I gave it my all and “went for it.”

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties, by Nerissa Nields, Mercy House 2013

Setting Goals and Resistence, part 1

Today, Katryna and I rehearsed (and even kind of wrote!) songs for our new CD. So my post is from my book How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties. Makes an excellent graduation gift. Just saying.

Setting Goals
Goal-setting is probably not new to you. Who hasn’t at some point tried to achieve something just beyond one’s reach? How does one do such a thing? By working a little harder, a little longer, a little more often, in a focused way. We can set goals for ourselves around almost anything: making it through school, training for a race, mastering an instrument, achieving a social status, winning a chess ranking, winning first prize at a Rubik’s Cube tournament. When I was 22, my goals were: to never have to feel lonely again; to start a band that would be the next Beatles; to write a hit song; to look great in a Betsey Johnson dress; to have a daily yoga practice; to run every day; to keep a daily journal; to (eventually—many years in the future) have a family; to go to Harvard Divinity School and be a minister living in western Massachusetts.

Dealing With Resistance
The problem with setting goals is that as soon as we do, 95% of us come up against the source of all evil: Resistance. [For more on Resistance, you must MUST read the excellent Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art.] Resistance, as I am defining it here, means not doing something you know you want to do, ought to do, love to do, and won’t do––yet have no logical reason for not doing. There is something about the nature of resistance that speaks to the very heart of this question of maturity. We all know resistance in some aspect of our lives; we all know that huge creature slouching toward the mall, if not Bethlehem, this three-toed sloth who sleeps all day in the cool of the trees and rouses itself only to eat and excrete. We all know the frustration of setting a goal—to keep our living room tidier, to jog three miles in the morning, to practice the guitar, to send out that resumé, to straighten out our finances––only to watch as the weeks go by and helplessly observe that sickening refusal in some deep part of ourselves to participate. What is it? Where does it come from?

I have no idea. All I know is that I recognize this sloth in myself, and it baffles me that I have accomplished as much as I have, given its hegemony over me. But I do have some observations.

Of course, if we never set goals, we’d never have to deal with resistance. I tend to see the whole issue of resistance to goals in myself as a conversation between a very willful, creative child and a very ambitious parent with the “Real You” stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sigmund Freud uses the terms “id,” “superego” and “ego” here, but some of us have problems with old Siggy, so I’ve provided some alternative jargon for you. Perhaps your resistance is actually healthy and self-protective. What if the goals you are setting for yourself are the wrong goals anyway? What if these particular goals do not support your true dreams and desires? What if the Real You––your true self before socialization, the unique person you were meant to be during your brief sojourn on this planet—what if this You does not care about glamour and fame and money? The Real You might think your perfect manifestation to be a gardener in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. The Real You might fall in love with an overweight, illiterate cab driver with eyes like Tom Hanks’ and a heart as big as Canada. The Real You might just want what it is meant to want.

Your Inner Ambitious Parent (IAP), on the other hand, is who and what our peers, People magazine, The New York Times and perhaps our actual ambitious parents tell us we should be––what we should look like, how much money we should make and what we should accomplish in our lifetime. Your IAP has been told to follow in the family business, or to be a doctor or a lawyer or something (please, God) that will provide our parents with some security upon retirement. Your IAP might want you to be straight, though sometimes, in some communities, gay. Your IAP wants you to contain your feelings (unless it’s Italian, which means it wants you to be extremely emotive, operatic, and a good cook and lover to boot. Pardon the “boot” pun). In short, the Real You and your IAP might be worlds apart.

Maybe the reason you keep procrastinating on your screenplay or sleeping through your morning workout is that you don’t really want to be an award winning documentary filmmaker or a triathlete. Maybe your house continues to be a disaster area, even though you subscribe religiously to FlyLady , because you don’t really want your house to look like it sprung from the pages of House Beautiful. Maybe this resistance is some kind of divine protection, a cry from the dark saying, “This is not me!”

The Willful Child on the other hand is not that helpful either, though some of us in our teens and twenties champion our WC and follow her on a long goose chase to degradation (see The Prodigal Son and a bazillion other characters in literature). The Willful Child is not that keen on making money, friends, or attending to personal hygiene. She’s fun for awhile, but not for a lifetime. You really don’t want her running the show, or you’ll end up like one of my actual willful children who, on occasion, refuses TV and candy simply because their actual IAP (me) is offering it to him or her. Or in my case, the WC is that same sloth spoken of earlier who doesn’t so much stamp her foot but rather curls up on the couch for an entire season if left undisturbed. Life, of course, is a process of finding that balance between chaos and rigidity. The balance point changes over time, which is why we need to practice balancing a lot.

(For tomorrow: The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals)

New CD, New Van, New Commitment

What have we been doing lately? Glad you asked. In addition to the usual, Nerissa has been writing a huge number (like 20) of songs; we drove our new van, Bessie Van Gogh, down to Virginia where we played at our church Immanuel Presbyterian, and also at the Ethical Community Charter School where we did our Pete Seeger Wasn’t That a Time? show. Meanwhile, as we drove up and down the Jersey Turnpike, our kids made a chart of all the states represented on the license plates of the cars we passed on the way.

We visited the Mall in DC and tried to go to the East Wing of the National Gallery, but it was closed. So we visited the West Wing and gave the kids a scavenger hunt: “Find a painting with fruit in it.” “Find a painting with two women,” etc.

We also went to the American History museum and looked at a display on the Civil Rights era. We watched footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and also saw Joan Baez’s guitar, which she played at the Lincoln Memorial.

We sang Pete Seeger songs and some of our new ones. We used our brand new sound system. We were grateful for every single extra inch Bessie Van Gogh afforded us. We hung around the playground while our kids gamboled, and we talked about the new CD we are going to make this summer. We talked about a CD release tour in 2015; about going to Florida for a gig, about our dream of performing in all 50 states in our lifetime (we’ve played all but Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Hawaii.) We showed our kids the neighborhood we’d lived in in the 70s. We saw our parents. We saw spring in Virginia, which gave us hope that spring would eventually come to Massachusetts.

Last weekend, we celebrated Elle’s 8th birthday. Katryna’s kids gave her the soundtrack to Frozen, a movie she’d watched with her friends at least twice before we got to see it as a family. Jay had also seen it without us. Katryna’s kids know every word of the soundtrack, and after dinner Saturday night, the four kids closed the French doors, which separate the dining room from the music room and proceeded to sing and dance along to practically the entire movie, emoting majestically with their arms, shooshing their hair back dramatically along with “Let It Go.” We grown-ups snuck over to the backstage area to spy on them. They were in perfect bliss; and I realized that this was their music as much as anything has ever been my music, and for that reason, I decided to love it, even though it is the kind of aggressive pop music I have historically eschewed.

I was 8 when I discovered my first LP–the LP that I would wear out, play over and over, knew every note to: The Captain and Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together. Katryna and I used to do the same kind of interpretive dance, belt-it-out reveries to that LP.

The joy and vulnerability is so delicious to watch, but we felt almost guilty spying on them. In fact, five year old Jay eventually spotted us, and when he did, immediately said, “Go away. This is pwivate.”

We are about to record our 17th CD. We have almost all the songs. I should have been working on a song tonight, but instead I wrote this. I feel the need to connect back to the readership of this blog during the next few months. My creative entrepreneurial group (CREMA—Creative Entrepreneur Mastermind) met last week and talked about how important it is for writers to be disciplined, to write when they say they will write. To write for at least an hour a day. I want to commit to that for the next two months leading up to our time in the studio. When I am not writing and performing regularly, I forget who I am. (Which might not be a bad thing, but for the sake of argument…) It’s almost impossible for me to remember that my music matters unless I am onstage, or it’s the day after a show, or I’m singing a new song in church. By day two, post-show, I have forgotten that anyone likes my music or remembers who I am (if I have forgotten who The Nields are, which I usually do, why should anyone else remember?) We are not gigging very much this summer because this time around, we’re doing the “hole up in the studio” version of recording a record (whereas with The Full Catastrophe we did the “let’s try to live our whole lives while recording for an hour a week” version. Result? A record that took three years to make.) Now is a good time to remember that I am a musician and a writer and not get distracted by my child’s guinea pigs (more on that later) or get consumed by a clutter-clearing initiative.

I need, once again, to commit to an hour of creative time per day. Not so much in the hopes that I will write something Outstanding That Outlives Me (OTOM=my perpetual goal), but to remind ME that I am an artist, first and foremost. Remember when I spent a whole month blogging every day? That was March 2009, after having that formative tour/vacation in Florida where I couldn’t appreciate the view of the Gulf of Mexico because I was too tired. On that trip, we played a couple of shows at the Craftsman House, and while resting between, I found a book called The Mud Pie Dilemma about an artist named Tom Coleman who had struggled to raise a child and make a living while remaining an artist. It gave me a kick in the pants at the time––I was newly postpartum after my second child, Jay––and I committed to a daily blogging practice. I don’t think I can do that right now, though I hope to in July and August while we’re recording the new CD. But for now, I can commit to hitting the piano, guitar or laptop for some daily open-ended creative time. I want to feel some of that exuberance my kids feel when they sing along to “Let It Go.”

“If you had started doing anything two weeks ago, by today you would have been two weeks better at it.”
― John Mayer

Why An Artist Needs to Write Fiction, Even When There Are No Marshmallows

Do you remember the marshmallow experiment of the 60s? Briefly, some researchers nabbed a bunch of 4-year-olds and put them in a room together. Each child was given a marshmallow and told, “This is yours to eat. But if you wait to eat it until I come back, you will not only get to eat this marshmallow, but you will also get a second one! All for just waiting a few minutes!”

The results (filmed) were hilarious. Kids sidled around their marshmallows, eye-ing them, fingering them, mouthing them. Some kids just grabbed theirs as soon as the adult left the premises. Others waited a few minutes. Some resisted temptation and got their second fluffer as a reward–and purportedly scored better on SATs, got into better colleges, contributed more to the GNP, etc. These kids were followed all their lives. They are in their late forties now, maybe hitting fifty. And the experiment has been widely touted as proof that the ability to delay gratification is linked to higher performance elsewhere.

As you know, if you have been reading this blog, I participated in 30 Poems in November (I wrote a mere 5.) In January, I am about to start a blog writing class in the hopes of delving into my two blogs more fully, making them richer, more satisfying avenues of expression. Katryna, Dave and I are almost finished recording our new CD The Full Catastrophe, and Katryna has listed five new ideas for future CD projects (a Rock n Roll “Peter and the Wolf”; a tweener CD, a Christmas/Holiday CD; a project called Songs for Churches without Walls; a collection of folk artists covering Gilbert & Sullivan–and that’s not even counting our CD aimed at school age children about Greek mythology, which we can’t do now since Dar is releasing a record on the same topic. By the way, speaking of freak folk synchronicity, guess what Ani diFranco’s new CD is named?)

All this is to say, I am at the stage of my life and career when I have more work than I can handle. I have writing that has to get done. Recently, for instance, I had to edit the edits of our web copy for our new HooteNanny website. Over the winter holiday, I have to re-read How To Be an Adult so I can facilitate a workshop on it for Smith College at the end of March. I have songs to write. I was supposed to write a solstice song. I have a verse and a chorus. Life is full and rich right now: I am producing a Solstice show at my son’s preschool; I came in to sing holiday songs to my daughter’s kindergarten; and Friday we are Caroling to the Animals at Smith Vocational/Agricultural School at 3:30pm (be there if you like Christmas Carols!) Isn’t this real life more interesting than anything I could dream up?

But once upon a time, I did dream stuff up. I used to write novels: two novels and half of a third. Novels are the hardest of all literary forms in that one has to constantly re-read one’s work in order to be effective, and that means it can take weeks just for a re-read. When I was writing, I would go for a few months with rough draft material, then read everything from beginning to end, then re-write, slashing the print-outs with a red pen. Then I’d edit, write new scenes, print out again, and try to re-read the whole thing as fast as I could–to keep all the story lines straight, to make sure that the characters were consistent. I wanted to write a book that the reader couldn’t put down, so I had to make sure that my writing was strong enough for that kind of voracious reader.

My first novel Plastic Angel was published, but my agent couldn’t sell my second novel, The Big Idea. I have a print out of it from 2008 in a gigantic three ring binder. I know why it didn’t sell–I had plenty of encouraging and friendly rejection letters telling me why. In the end, one of the main characters didn’t quite come through the way he needed to. Another character has an ending that doesn’t make sense to me today. And finally, most importantly, the big idea wasn’t big enough.

I know what I need to do. I need to pick up that big red three ring binder and re-read, with my red pen. But man, that binder weighs a million pounds. And I have SO MANY OTHER THINGS TO DO! Things that might actually earn me money. The marshmallows are all lined up for those other projects (granted, not that many marshmallows for a new CD these days, but still.)

I took the bag of marshmallows up to Jay’s room this afternoon, where he and Elle were playing. Jay was stark naked, as is his 3-year-old wont, and Elle was on top of his bureau, about to leap to his bed. I said, “Hey, do you want to play a game?” and shook the bag of marshmallows in front of their eyes. I explained the rules and lay a tiny marshmallow in front of each of them on the bed. Then I left the room and closed the door. From the other side, I heard, “Jay, don’t eat that. Don’t. Eat. That. You will get another one if you don’t eat that!”

I heard the bed springs bounce up and down as I checked the second hand on my watch. “I know,” said Jay. I smiled. Perhaps trampoline-as-bed trumps marshmallow. When I came back in, both marshmallows were still sitting on the bed.

“That’s great!” I said. “Now we don’t have to worry about paying the Princeton Review.” The kids shrugged and grinned and downed their treats.

There really is no good reason to try to re-write The Big Idea. In this market, it probably won’t sell. Novelists other than the regular crowd from the New York Times Book Review don’t make much from their advances anymore, and with the dawn of the e-reader, royalties are getting slimmer and slimmer. My family needs my attention on them. I have precious little time to read anything at all; should I really spend the next few years only reading myself?

But. The red 3 ring binder was up in the attic two weeks ago. Last week I brought it to my office on the second floor. Sometime over the weekend when I was too sick to do anything else, I dragged it to my bed. And opened it. And picked up my red pen. And marked up the first few pages. And scrawled myself a bunch of notes in the margins. And as I went for my run yesterday, I figured out a solution to one of the nagging plot points.

Why write?

Why tell a story?

Isn’t this why we are here? Isn’t this what we are for?

I don’t know if 2012 will be the year I tackle The Novel again. I do hope 2012 will be the year that I start to read again. I hope to read and re-read and let the stories of others filter and play through my mind. I hope to read to my kids—maybe even Harry Potter!—and to Tom. I hope to play the marshmallow game and win– resisting the temptation to gobble up that which is in front of me, in favor of putting a little time in to unpaid, unplanned, unpaved ways that will lead me (I hope) closer and closer to my missions.

Day 2 in the Studio

First snowfall of the year, en route to Conway.

Day two in the studio. In between sessions, Massachusetts had its first snow of the season. Katryna and her kids went to the circus in NYC, the Nields-Duffys had the distinction of coming in dead last in Northampton’s Hot Chocolate Run, and also bought a Christmas tree.

We also went to church. “There is only one story,” said Steve Philbrick. “The story of the year. It begins as a tender young thing; then becomes fruitful. It dies, is buried, goes underground. But Life does not die. It comes back to life in the spring again.”

I can’t decide whom to vote for in the election tomorrow. I initially loved Alan Khazei; then Mike Capuano because of his view on the health care bill. But it’s awfully tempting to go with Coakley and have another woman in the Senate. We in MA are so lucky to have such great candidates. I will vote tomorrow. That much I know. And it won’t be for the Boston Celtics owner.

I love the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss CD Raising Sand so much it hurts. Also, I have decided I like Journey. I know readers of How to Be an Adult will be shocked to hear this. I just realized life is too short to hold grudges. And “Don’t Stop Believing” is just plain fun.

Elle and Jay have broken many of our Christmas tree ornaments already, and we haven’t even started decorating the tree. Oh, dear.

Thank you for your music recommendations! One more question: Should I get Pandora or Rhapsody?

Here is a video of my attempt to record the guitar to the song “I Choose This Era.” Though we ended up using a subsequent take, this officially documents the beginning of the recording of our new CD which we are tentatively calling “The Full Catastrophe,” at the risk of getting some smug and mean reviews a la “Shark Sandwich/ Sh*t Sandwich.”