Thursday, January 12th, 2012

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."- Emerson

"Elegance is making something as simple as possible, but not simpler."-Einstein

The more I learn about songwriting, the more I learn about life. The closer I look into the principles governing craft, the clearer these same principles are regarding a life worth living. It's the old "Life as Art, Art as Life" palindrome.

Lately, I've been stressing the idea that limitations are liberating. In songwriting this refers to the imposed limitations of form: verses, choruses, bridges, rhyme scheme, meter, etc., using perfect rhyme instead of near rhyme, and other modes of refinement. These things have a way of limiting choice while deepening effect. Stephen Dunn has this to say concerning his art form:

"The poet, more than anyone else, is aware of the limitations of language- but for poets they are less limitations than parameters, warning signs that keep his words as examined and true as possible."

What are some parameters that can keep the examined "life" as true as possible?

-Doing fewer things more often. This begins with a process of elimination. Before beginning a new work, writer Marianne Moore suggests:

"..better to get lost for a while in among the colors and smells, the plentitude of the imagination, and name what we see. Soon some things will deserve more importance than others. Inevitably, we will exercise our tastes and prejudices; begin to measure and exclude. How we give emphasis to one thing over another may be the most 'personal' aspect of our writing."

"..measure and exclude": in life this is easier said than done; sacrificing things you love to allow more time, (which is what we're really talking about) for things you love.

"..the most personal aspect of our (lives)"

For me, the question becomes: what things do I love to do that I'm best at, and how would future
opportunities add or take away from these? If you're a young person with this degree of focus, you're disciplining your way towards virtuosity- as musician, marathoner, whatever. The rest of us, after living a good number of decades, and having paid attention to hundreds of thousands of hours, the choices are not easy.

But limitless choice is the luxury of the amateur (think how many notes the young guitar player plays while soloing, or the tendency of the unseasoned writer to over-write). Despite what the current cultural message is, we really can't have it all.

"Reduce your life to a few principles, and the universe will reveal herself unto you."
- H. D. Thoreau

If you're lucky, you'll find these fewer choices of how to spend your time complimenting and amplifying one another; like alliteration- each blending into the next; like walking as exercise while working on the second verse, or while memorizing a poem.

Don't bemoan the fact that you can't do as well what you once did as a younger person- be it running or tennis. These physical limitations inherent in middle age may be Nature's way of protecting this storehouse of accumulated talent and wisdom from undue harm. An acceptance of the limitations of human life is a recipe for producing humility- the proper attitude of the artist.

Uncover those working principles behind your and others' best songs, and apply them to your life. Do fewer things more often and deepen your days. Look behind your life- there's a song in there somewhere.

Too Many Pockets (Steve Leslie & Darryl Worley)

I've got too many pockets on my shirt
Too many choices and it's only getting worse
Too many things that I could do today
Too many stops along the way

I miss the way it used to be
Back when there were just two channels on TV
That way of life was so much easier
I've got too many pockets on my shirt

Somehow it all got out of hand
Too complicated for a simple man
Don't wanna have to pick and choose
Hey, look at all these things I'll never use

I'm gonna find a one-lane road
Where there's only one way I can go
Take a little trip back to the way things were
I've got too many pockets on my shirt

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