New Year's Resolutions for Serious Songwriters

by Mary Dawson

On January 1, 2006, I will begin my thirtieth year as a jogger. I run almost every day of my life -- in rain, snow, heat and humidity. The only days you will not find me doing my 3-4 miles in the neighborhood are the two days a week that I lift weights -- or if I have the flu or am on the road traveling.

This January First -- as every January First -- I will expect to see a whole host of new joggers blazing past me in their Christmas workout finery. I shoot them a friendly smile and wave at them, but in my heart I know that by January 15th, I will probably be trudging alone once more. Why? Because the saying is so true: A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.

I first started the jogging routine back in 1976, first of all, because I wanted to do something beneficial for my long-term health, but also because I am absolutely lousy at any kind of sports. I had tried jumping rope, but I found that I spent more time untangling my feet from the rope than in scoring any aerobic points. I could never hit any kind of forget tennis and racquet ball. I finally concluded that at least I could put one foot in front of the other -- most of the time without tripping over them -- so I decided to try jogging. I hated every rotten step. All I could think about was how many more mailboxes I had to go before I reached my house. I was in pain!

But little by little, one step at a time, jogging has become such a part of my life that I have learned to actually enjoy it. It's a time when I can meditate or listen to CDs -- or even write songs. There are no phones ringing and I can actually hear the quiet. I can breathe fresh air as I check out the latest happenings in the neighborhood -- and I have definitely reaped many long-term health benefits.

One thing I have learned is that change is not so much about resolution as it is about perseverance. A little bit every day all year is much better than an out-of-the-rocket start followed by nothing!

Now, let's segue all this philosophy about jogging into something about songwriting. It's really not all that different, after all. Whatever you want to begin or to improve requires a decision first -- and then, the all-important follow-through. Aspiring musicians and songwriters, however, tend to be even more likely than most to remain in the status quo -- dreaming about international success while continuing to dabble at songwriting "when the spirit moves them"...staying comfortably within the limited skills they have used for years…and eventually becoming bitter when they fail to get better and achieve the success they long for.

Here is my three-step challenge to you for 2006!

Step One: Make a Searching and Fearless Reality Check of Yourself

As they say, "Denial ain't no river in Egypt," but it's amazing how we artist/songwriter types can fool ourselves into actually believing we are getting somewhere when we are really just treading water in the River of Denial. We call ourselves songwriters when, in fact, it has been months or even years since we actually finished writing a real song. We con ourselves into thinking that we are professional musicians, even when we fail to practice regularly and have little command of our instrument.

In order to make any progress, it is imperative that we honestly take stock of who we are...where we are... and what we have to work with. Take time as the old year ends to sit down and think clearly. It helps to write as you think. Here are some questions to get you started in your songwriting inventory:
  • When exactly did I finish my last song?
  • How many songs did I complete last year?
  • Have I played my songs or performed them for listeners (other than family) -- and what has been the response?
  • If I have recorded a CD, how many have I distributed or sold?
  • What new skills did I acquire last year that have made me a better writer? Musician? Artist?
  • What new contacts have I made in the music industry over the last year? Publishers? Producers? Co-writers?
  • Have I located the Music Community in my own hometown?
  • Do I have a good voice? A great voice? No voice at all?
This inventory is not meant to put you on a guilt trip. Good inventories are not about guilt -- they're about reality. If you were taking inventory in a grocery store, you would simply look to see what you had on the shelves and what you needed to order. That's exactly what you're doing here. Your music inventory may reveal that you have made a lot of progress over the year, or it may show some unpleasant "gaps." Whatever you discover, it will give you a starting point for the new year.

Step Two: Create a Plan that Works

When we have finally faced reality, the temptation is to either become completely overwhelmed and do nothing...or to try to correct everything at once. Either option is doomed to failure. My suggestion is to make a priority list based upon your inventory -- beginning with the most obvious areas of need -- and organized in order of importance. For instance, if your inventory reveals that your last five songs have been written on the same three chords, you may want to concentrate on developing your grasp of music theory. Or, if the last song you completed was in 1998, you may decide that you need to develop a disciplined writing schedule.

Now, pick up that pen and paper again and write out an achievable, realistic goal for each of the top three challenges in your inventory. As you write your objectives, be sure that they are:
  • Clear -- Clearly state your intent.
  • Concise - Good objectives are not verbose or ambiguous but specifically identify the behaviors you will change or add to your life.
  • Measurable -- It will be easy to tell whether or not you have completed a well-written objective because it will contain a basis for evaluation.
  • For example, contrast the following:
  • Poorly Written Objective -- "I want to write more songs in 2006."
  • Well-Written Objective -- "I will complete the writing of three songs and have demos for each song by Mar 31, 2006. I will do this by scheduling every Saturday afternoon from noon to 5:00 PM to accomplish this goal."

    The first objective is vague and impossible to measure. The second is clear - states the intent (to write three songs); the required behavior (to complete the writing and the demos); the plan (every Saturday afternoon) and the basis for evaluation (whether or not there are three demos of new original songs on March 31).
  • If you are not too sure about what you need to do, or you're not the epitome of self-motivation, take heart -- there is still hope. Thanks to the worldwide access of the internet, any songwriter...anywhere…can connect with instructors and other aspiring songwriters who are committed to the same goals. One resource that I highly recommend is Your First Cut, a workbook and website designed to help songwriters take the necessary steps -- and stay on course --- to achieve their goals. Gracie Hollombe and Jerry Vandiver have created a program that is extremely practical and goal oriented -- and they have also provided interactive support for writers through the "Forum" section of their site. If you simply make it your goal to work your way through their book in 2006, you will find yourself well on the road to your musical goals -- and perhaps will find that you have accomplished some goals you never even planned on or dreamed of.

    Another great resource is Sheila Davis' course called Successful Lyric Writing (Writers Digest). Some time ago I made it my goal to finish this workbook of lyric instruction by the end of the year. It inspired me and pushed me out of my comfort zones in lyric writing to try new approaches and acquire new skills. I highly recommend it for your consideration.

    Of course, if I may be shamelessly self-promotional for a moment, I would also invite you to regularly tune into my internet radio show for songwriters, I Write the Songs. In addition to the Current Show, you will find many inspirational and helpful suggestions on both the craft and business of songwriting -- as well as interviews and insights from some of the greatest songwriters of our generation -- in the Radio Show Archives.

    Step Three: Just Do It

    Whatever you decide to do, put on your Nikes and "just do it." Start today…and don't stop. Even if the steps you take are "baby steps," keep toddling forward. Learn to evaluate your progress realistically and often -- every week is best. If you need to make corrections in either the goal or the plan of activities, make them. This is called being "pro-active" -- taking responsibility for your own progress and success. You will find that you are no longer dependent on the "winds of fate and destiny," but you are now chiseling out your own path to your own goals.

    Hope to see you out there jogging toward the Grammys in December, 2006.

    **From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®.

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