Bret Alexander

THE REAL GIG: Gumption traps and how to avoid them to complete your project

THE REAL GIG: Gumption traps and how to avoid them to complete your project
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I have a session and two gigs today, so I need to write fast for this one. I’m giving myself one hour starting… now.

Over the past few months, I have been slow with my writing, both blogging and songwriting. I’ve been in the studio nonstop and playing more than I ever have in my life. So, much to my chagrin, new output from me has been down to a trickle, at least by my usual pace.

So today I want to talk about one of the ways that I get out of a rut. Specifically, I impose restrictions on myself.

I give myself an hour and demand that I walk out with a new song (or blog). I open up a book and write a song about whatever page I turn to. Or I’ll write something on an instrument I don’t know how to play. I have a bunch of these practices.

Basically, you are taking away your mind’s options. Your brain can get moving so fast that it inspires you to inaction, so reduce the playing field down to the size of a stamp. Then you will have to get creative with limited resources. You will be surprised by how good the results are.

It’s like the Bear Grylls school of songwriting. Drop yourself in a hostile environment and fight your way out with the tools at hand.

Now, I’m all about putting the time into things and sweating the details. Pink Floyd didn’t make “The Wall” in an evening. But sometimes you have to give your brain a kick in the can.

When I was in my 20s, I read a book several times called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. It’s hard to describe what it is about really. It’s about quality, the Buddha, fixing things, creativity, etc. – lots of ramblings by a guy riding across the country on a motorcycle.

The one thing he talked a lot about was “gumption traps.” Basically, anything that can stop you from completing a project. Here’s a quote:

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in the whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.”

Or, to put it another way, the man is talking about faith. Believe in yourself.

Seems easy enough, right?

Yeah, it should be.

Pirsig breaks gumption traps down into two categories: external circumstances, or “setbacks,” and internal ones, or “hang-ups.” Setbacks could be lack of money, poor tools, or difficult co-workers. Examples of hang-ups would be ego, anxiety, or boredom.

Setbacks are overcome with discipline and extra work.

Hang-ups are more tricky. Ego: you are so confident in your abilities that you aren’t open to new ideas. Anxiety: you are so sure you can’t do it that you don’t. Boredom: you have lost your “beginner’s mind.”

Meditation is a way to combat hang-ups. Take your brain out of the equation by giving it something else to focus on. Then you can see things more clearly.

One of my favorite albums I ever did was The Cellarbirds’ “Perfect Smile.” I wrote the songs in my car on the drive to the studio each day. What I didn’t finish I completed while we set up the drums (to record the song that wasn’t written).

Bob Dylan wrote “Blonde on Blonde” in the studio while the musicians waited in the next room to record it. The engineers said that they would take a second take of a tune and the lyrics were all different. That record is one of his early masterpieces.

Charlie Parker used to write songs with the same changes as standards, so when the band showed up in the studio, they would already know the song. He did this to save money and time in the studio. In the process, he created classic recordings (with a little research, I have learned this was called a “contrafact”… a little trivia).

So, in many cases, all these wonderful things are not as they seem. Much more ordinary in their genesis. Just a few guys with an open mind, a job to do, a deadline, and the gumption to not take no for an answer.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters,” “Humans have a nasty habit of becoming what they believe themselves to be.”

So believe something good… and get to work.

Time’s up.

The Real Gig is a weekly column collecting the stories, observations, opinions, and advice of NEPA songwriter, engineer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Bret Alexander. Look for it every Friday on NEPA Scene.