Like Coming Home: Writing a Song
Hunger. Birth. Deep rumblings from the depths of the earth. These are some of the metaphors artists use when trying to describe the desire to create something and the creative process itself. Dancer and choreographer Nai-Ni Chen talked about her thirst for self-expression.
My hunger and thirst to create songs woke up very recently after a long Rip van Winkle-like sleep. I don't know how songwriting goes for anyone else but I'll try to describe what it's like for me.
On occasion (on very rare occasion) a song or poem has come to me almost whole, flowing out like water from a spring, needing only a little refinement. But more often it's like doing a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece.
A yearning rises up, or a feeling, some words, or a tiny musical phrase. "Oh! Oh!" I say. "Could that be a song?" I get out the guitar, and because I don't have a good background in music theory, I mess around with various chords, to see if they match the music I think is there but can't quite hear.
Or I hear, in my inner ear, a fragment from someone else's tune, not to copy but as inspiration--because it's beautiful, or haunting, or humorous. Maybe I know or try to figure out the chords for that song to see if another tune might come, though I have to be careful about listening to someone else's song too much while I am trying to find mine. Theirs--already born and established--may drive mine back under cover. Sometimes a piece of one of my own songs will slide in, and I might end up using that chord progression in the new one.
The song I'm working on right now is arriving in small pieces--a few chords from a previous song...a tentative raw tune for the chorus...then the words for the whole chorus flowing in, unexpectedly...a revision of the tune to better fit the words...then a few notes of what seems to be a bridge, then after countless runs through what I already have (and some sore fingers since it's been so long since I played)--zap! some words for the bridge. And finally a tune for the verses, but no words yet as of this blog post. When the words aren't flowing I often consult a thesaurus for ideas. And when words do come, they may change the tune. It's a mysterious process, like trying to fit together invisible puzzle pieces, which only gradually become visible, into a picture that I can barely envision.
It is a strange duet of working hard and allowing, of controlling and letting go of control.
How do I know when I've "got it right"? If it's not right, I feel an undercurrent of restlessness, a wordless feeling that things are not quite nestled in yet, like a shirt with a crooked side seam, or socks that aren't quite settled on the heel.
Sometimes this can go and on and on, through many attempts. I really have to listen to myself, my little tiny inclinations and desires. That can be frustrating, but finally getting it right feels...aaaaaaaaaaahh...like coming home. Perhaps the best songwriters are those who not only have great musical and creative ability but are most obsessed, most persistent in the search, this seeking after their Muse.
I'm guessing you've had similar experiences, if not with a song or poem then with cooking, or gardening, or putting an outfit together, or even writing an email where you're trying to tell someone how you feel or about a meaningful event. There's that "no...no...no...yes!" experience. As Dorothy Sayers said, when you get to that yes, "you feel like God on the seventh day, at least for a bit."
As a song is being born, I have to care for it. I write down the words and the chords--though they may change. I sing the tune over and over and over so I don't forget it, because I neither read music nor know how to notate it. In my experience the Muse speaks, or sings, but if I ignore the gift, it may be withdrawn. Which has happened before--it's sad.
And yes, I do believe there are Muses, in some form or another. As Jim Henson (of Muppet fame) said, "I don't know exactly where ideas come from, but when I'm working well ideas just appear. I've heard other people say similar things - so it's one of the ways I know there's help and guidance out there."
And when it's all done, it feels like such a miracle, like birthing a child. It's so hard to believe I had a major part in creating it.
There is an art to songwriting--the Muses are part of that, as is innate ability. There's a craft as well, which includes music theory (which may be rather boring at times), honing one's voice and prowess on an instrument, which generally means practice, practice, practice, practice. And often a teacher. All of which I have tried to bypass too often in the past. But I can only write to the level of ability I have, which, with work, can certainly be improved. I feel ready now, though scared, to launch into these various craft-related opportunities. I'm hungry for it now.
I mentioned inspiration from other artists. I'll close with my recent favorite, Billy Boyd's transcendent song, The Last Goodbye, from the end of the final Hobbit movie. I'd like this played at my funeral (by Mr. Boyd, if possible!). This is a simple rendition, beautiful in it's simplicity, though the sound quality is better on the "official music video." And here are the lyrics.
Wishing you hope and creation and a sense of coming home to yourself.
Until next time,
Guitar, Jefferson Santos, unSplash
Newborn, Samitive Hospitals