Thursday, August 16, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part Three

Writers of any genre often talk about the discipline it takes to be a successful writer. And I believe it. As I’ve said before, once you realize you’ve got the God-given (or natural) talent, it’s up to you to hone and nurture it. Once you’ve learned the rules, you can’t just stop there. And you’re never really done learning the rules anyway.

Think about a professional athlete. It’s one thing to be able to throw the ball at 90 mph, but it’s quite another to pinpoint the spot where you want it to go and then get it there. Some people have spent a lifetime studying and understanding the rules and plays and nuances of a sport, but you wouldn’t want to see them on the field. The professional athlete realizes that he or she was born with some sort of ability and then works very hard to master that ability. It takes practice.

I’ve read and heard writers in interviews describe their daily rituals. Some get up at 5:00 A.M. and write for 3 hours, about anything. Maybe they get something usable, maybe not. For them, it’s about the discipline, the practice. Some need to treat it as if it were a regular job – set times to write and take breaks. Some write when they can, where they can. Everybody has a different routine. Writing is usually a very isolated task. People develop their own techniques, whatever works for them. But, they always do it. They always adhere to the routine, as much as possible, and they always write and work to hone their craft, to perfect their style, to get better with every book, story, song, page or phrase. At least, that should be a goal, to always improve.

The discipline, the just doing it, I think, is important. Indeed, professional songwriters, that is people who actually make their living writing songs (think of the old Brill Building, or Hollywood writers, or Nashville songwriters) often have to sit down on a daily basis, possibly in an office-like environment, and create. Even if they’re not feeling particularly creative that day. So, how does one reconcile inspiration and discipline, creativity and a work ethic? It’s not always easy.

When I was in college, I met a famous singer/songwriter. I didn’t much care for this singer/songwriter’s work, but he was wildly popular and had sold many records. A friend dragged me to the concert, countering my protests with the old “you’ve got to see him live and in person” promise. I still didn’t like him. Actually, I had nothing against him. It was his songs I couldn’t stand. But, he was a famous, working singer/songwriter, and I was an aspiring, not-famous singer/songwriter, all of 19 years old. So, when I found that this famous persona was completely accessible after his concert, I stood in line with everybody else, shook his hand with everybody else, and waited until everybody else had left the building, and then I stalked him. My friend and I slipped backstage and followed him into his dressing room, and when he turned around and saw us I stammered, “I’m a songwriter, too!” I’m not sure what I was hoping to get out of this – maybe a “well, here’s my guitar, let’s hear what you got. That’s fantastic! I’ll put you in touch with my label!” That didn’t happen. What I got from this famous, working songwriter with many albums under his belt and a world-wide following was, “Well, I hope you’re not one of those songwriters who need to be inspired.”

Of course I was! I was flabbergasted. I don’t remember if I said anything after that or not. All I remember was being confused and speechless. And knowing that my record contract was not materializing that day. And, I used this encounter for many years to “prove my point” about how bad this guy’s songs were. But I was wrong to do that. I still don’t like his songs, but, whether I admitted it or not (and I didn’t for many, many years), I learned a valuable lesson that day. Working songwriters work.

As songwriters, we need to find ways to be inspired and sit down with a workman-like approach. Some writers carry note cards with them where ever they go so they can jot down ideas when the muse visits. Sometimes they just write down observations about the world around them. That’s a way of being, and being prepared to be, open to receive. I would be better served if I wrote down more things. I tend to rely on my memory which, I always forget, is practically nonexistent. I know a songwriter who wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas and sings them into his answering machine, the nearest and most accessible device at his disposal, for later retrieval. His family has gotten used to hearing weird little snippets of unwritten songs being sung by a very tired man when they listen to messages. They’ve also learned not to erase them. Every writer needs inspiration. But, every writer needs to practice their craft. Forever.

(I think it might have been Pablo Casals who said he never says he learned how to play the cello because “learned” implies that he’s done learning everything he possibly can about the instrument. He says one must never stop learning one’s craft.)

So, where do you get ideas? Teach yourself to be sensitive to sounds and rhythms. Let words create images in your mind. Expose yourself to all kinds of stimuli. Learn how to open yourself up to the divine and spiritual powers in the universe. Be open to receive. And think of them in your head.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thankyou :)