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

New Year’s Pep Talk for Writers

It’s January 3–a month since I last posted. Too much time has gone by, and as the days moved along on the calendar, it seemed harder and harder to get back to this blog. I am all about the daily, as you know, and when I lose my regular momentum, I struggle mightily to get it back. Plus, I have to admit, I’ve felt guilty about even having a blog lately. I am trying to finish my novel The Big Idea (a book I have been writing on and off for 13 years now, albeit with a long hiatus), and every novelist I know says to kill your blog.

But I like my blog. In my head, anyway, I am always writing to you, whoever you are.

I started to write a post in mid-December that went nowhere. (But you can find its remnants here.) December was full to the brim of red Christmas lights staying “Stop everything and just make sure your Santa list is complete.” We played a bunch of shows, jumped onstage with Dar on the solstice, celebrated my mother’s 70th birthday in Florida, missed flights, cursed Winter Storm Hercules, got the stomach flu, and now my early January retreat which was supposed to start this evening at 5:30 has been cancelled.

A wise friend once said, “When something goes awry, ask yourself, ‘Why is this the best possible thing to happen right now?'” And so I am doing just that. I lost my writing retreat, but I am giving myself this time, right now, to write about my writing intentions for 2014.

I woke up on January 1 with this extremely familiar question:
If you are a writer, what are you writing? Isn’t it time to concentrate on one medium, or at least one novel? Can you really write/re-write two novels, maintain two blogs, AND write songs (both kids songs and adult songs), all while running five classes/workshops, and coaching individuals and mothering two children (who need to practice violin every day)? Are you a novelist or a songwriter?

I sat on my meditation cushion and stared at the dry, suffering Christmas tree. I had no answer. But a few hours later, I got one. Tom and I went to Yoga Sanctuary for an energizing and restorative date. Sara Rose, my dear friend and teacher, led a wonderful class. During the “sermon” part at the beginning she spoke about why we begin the year in January instead of the more obvious March or April. She said something similar to what our minister Steve Philbrick says: the seed can only grow in the dark. We need darkness, even burial, to manifest anything. These are the natural conditions of life, aren’t they? No one can really develop in broad daylight. We all came from the windowless womb.

We finished the class by setting an intention for the year. We wrote down our themes and intentions on little pieces of paper and hung them on branches that form an arc around the entrance of the studio. Mine was about being open-hearted and truthful, especially in the words I write and speak.

My theme for 2013 was “seeds,” and my intention was “go slow,” and as frustrating as this theme proved to be, I recognize the sprouting, even in these hardening, frosty mornings where the sun graces us with her appearance a few minutes earlier each day. (She is coming back.)

Along with my more concrete 2013 intentions (read more, get stronger, practice an instrument daily), I set some other intentions––which is to say, planted seeds (or at least that is what I hoped I was doing)–– many years ago now; so long ago, I can’t even tell you when. The kinds of intentions you whisper to your best friend, or scratch into a journal, or pin to a vision board, fold into a God jar. “I want to be a writer,” was the gist of it. “But you are a writer,” God said back. “Not just songs. I want to write other things too. Books. And I want to make my living from my words as much as from my showing up. I want my projects to have legs. I want them to run, and fetch me some income.”

This wish for works that worked (as opposed to me doing all the work in real time) was practical as well as mystical. I wanted to have a family. I didn’t want to be traveling the continent for 320 days a year anymore, promoting my work. So I did what any good life coach would tell me to do. First, I made my broad strokes; then I made a long list of baby steps for the broad strokes. The broad strokes were easy: an album every year and a half. A first novel. An active blog. Well, make that two. How to Be an Adult finally written. And then make it an ebook and an audiobook. A second novel: The Big Idea, write the soundtrack, publish the whole thing as an interactive web page.

And the baby steps: Write. Develop a daily practice. Learn how to self-publish so you won’t be beholden to anyone, so you can call the shots and design your own book covers. Make a bunch of mistakes. Learn from them. And then the part comes where you market the darn things.

I am a Quick Start, which means I love to jump in and learn from my mistakes. I’d rather get the thing out there, warts and all, while my sister and partner Katryna would rather polish and perfect. But part of my “seeds” intention was to focus on the daily practice: slow growth. And so I am trying to notice the slow growth. I am veering away from the hit I get from posting a blog (or a soundbite on Facebook or Twitter) and even the song, which can be written in a day and performed that evening. It’s a heady hit. Not so with the novel I’ve been working on (on and off) for 13 years. It will have to formulate in the cold darkness.

This fall I started taking piano lessons. I studied classical piano as a child, and I was awful. I still am. But every day, I get a teensy weensy bit better. I also started lifting weights to build strength. I was pretty weak, but when I upped the weight by five pounds every few weeks, I got a teensy bit stronger. I read a little every day, and I might remember one percent of what I read a year from now. But my reading muscles are working. And I see incremental progress. I am trying to polish and perfect. My novel is slowly progressing. I am able to play the piano in church. My Bach Minuets are now fairly smooth, and I am on to the Prelude in C from the Well Tempered Clavier. The ebook finally got published. It took way longer than I ever imagined, but it has happened.

So here I am, January 3, reaffirming that yes, I am a spread-too-thin writer of a bunch of different genres. I have written three books that have been published. I have written 16 CDs full of songs that I (mostly) wrote. I am a novelist and a songwriter. Oh, yeah, also I have two blogs. This spread-too-thinness, so far anyway, is what I am. It’s who I am.

I wrote a lot of stuff in 2013, some of which you know about (many songs, many posts, How to Be an Adult), and some of which you might never see (the novel chapters). A lot is in the ground right now, turning around, trying to find which way is up, reaching tendrils deep into the earth and up toward the nascent sun. I am learning to accept that I need to work incrementally these days. I do other things besides write, and because I am balancing being the best mother I can be with being the best writer I can be, that means that things go slowly. No matter–my success and/or speed is none of my business. I say yes to the process, to the reality. I am in.