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Writing, My Agony and Ecstasy April 10, 2012

Posted by craftlass in music, writing.
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Oh, us writers just love to talk about writing, don’t we? There are so many books, websites, forums, blogs, and more about the topic that you could spend your whole life learning how to write more effectively without ever producing a line.

Then there’s the dreaded writer’s block. It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never dealt with it no matter how good your communication skills might be when not blocked. I’m learning that I have distinct phases of production that include times of terrible blockage, which has been the past year for me. In 2009-2010 I wrote at least a few songs a week and a lot of blog posts. In 2011 I found myself struggling to write any music even I wanted to hear, although a lot of my experiences did make it onto this blog, so at least I had an outlet for the first 3 quarters. Coming out of six months of full failure to write just now, I’m figuring out a lot of why creation of art is a cyclical endeavor.

I’ve written songs off and on since I was 20. An avid music fan all through childhood and adolescence who worshipped great songsmiths, I never thought I would write a song, let alone even one anybody would want to listen to or record. A songwriter I met at 19 told me, “You’re a songwriter, you just don’t know it yet,” and I laughed so hard I spilled my drink. Then one song just popped into my head and started this cycle that has affected not only my writing but every aspect of my life since. Many overdue apologies for laughing, John.

The past 2 years of my life have been so inspiring that at first I couldn’t get the words and music out fast enough to capture it. I love the songs from that time, all of them. A few of them turned into Above the Sky, a few are partially-recorded, and a few are still in the maturing stage, but I’m proud of each and every one. As my travel increased the inspiration became overwhelming but my alone time was shrinking just as rapidly. Too many ideas with no time to mull them over was wearing me out. Unfortunately, this was discovered only through hindsight.

I’ve collaborated with a couple of writers but generally I write alone. Completely alone. I don’t even like having my windows open when I’m writing music because it takes an awful lot of ugly ideas to find the right construction. Since I generally write words, music, and melody together there are many ways that ideas won’t work at first. First drafts often barely resemble the final product and can be downright embarrassing.

When I write, I go a little crazy. I lose track of the mundane details of life, like eating, drinking, or thinking anything besides my songs. Luckily, these days my partner makes sure I take care of the basics, but I still feel a little ill when I’m in the throes of a really good spree and find the whole process both exhilarating and exhausting. I spend hours combing over every detail, trying to find ways to get complex notions into something under 5-6 minutes, checking any facts that I used as inspiration, and find words to describe the indescribable.

When I can’t write for more than a few weeks, I go a little crazy. Ideas push their way around in my brain, screaming at me to let them out, find them a home. My dreams become exhausting, negating any amount of sleep I get, if I can sleep at all. I get short with the people around me, try as I might to fight that behavior. If allowed to go on too long I hit the point where all I want is to be utterly alone and perfectly still, preferably somewhere quiet and pretty, just for a little while. Unfortunately, I don’t generally have the ability to find that oasis. The piles of ideas clog up and I find myself thoroughly blocked even when I do get the chance to be alone again. That’s the hardest part of all, and often leads to depression.

Perhaps the greatest struggle in the first world is finding balance, no matter what you do. My question is, in the realm of creativity, is this naturally unbalanced flow just a necessary part of life, or is there a way to find just the right balance to keep one’s edge? Is being aware of my best productive cycle a strong enough tool to help me find a way be both creative and able to maintain the other parts of my life?

Here’s the cycle, in case you are curious:

  • Gathering – Exploring places, meeting people, having long talks with people I’ll never see again, reading endless books and articles about things that interest me, and just taking in experiences alone and in groups. Since I started releasing music, this is also a promotion phase.
  • Writing – The intense release of new ideas.
  • Production – When the flow of original ideas slows down, it’s time to hunker down and polish songs up, play them live and see how they evolve, and then record the ones that feel appropriately mature. This is the one phase where I can have any semblance of a “normal” life.

When I look at this on paper it seems like the right way to do things, logically. When I look at the past few years of my life it seems fraught with complications.

I didn’t ask to be a writer, although I’ve always admired writers of all kinds. I’m still surprised when I read something I wrote or listen to one of my songs and think, “I like that.” I’m even more surprised when someone agrees, let alone pays for even one of my songs or comments on anything I write. I don’t understand where my ideas come from exactly, my best guess is that it’s a natural progression from my knack for seeing and hearing patterns in the world around me.

For once, though, I can say with certainty what broke down my writer’s block. I read this quote from an interview with The Clancys and Tommy Makem (the first musical act I can remember hearing as a child), “Someone said while talking about folk music as history. They said that written history was never any more than the propaganda of the victor, whereas folk songs were the true history of the people that were living through it.” I thought I was a folk singer/writer because I played an acoustic guitar, mostly solo, and I write some songs about current issues. This quote reminded me that folk music is something so much deeper than entertainment, it’s how we tell future generations what it is like to be alive around the turn of the second millennium. I have learned more history due to listening to and learning to play folk music of the past than I ever learned in a class. History books and classes teach us about the great events that shaped civilization while folk music tells us what it is to be human and often powerless. Without both we can never truly understand what brought us to where we are or how the actions of those in power affect everyday lives, not just statistics.

Whether or not my music or random musings here and there last through the ages I will keep telling the stories I’ve lived through and collected as thoughtfully and beautifully as I can. I don’t have a choice about writing, but I do have a choice to use that drive to simply entertain or to do my best to preserve the memories of some amazing events and people. I no longer question my genre or place in music, I am a folk singer and always will be, no matter how many genres I flirt with onstage or in the studio or how much success I do or don’t find.

Now, please excuse me while I go a little crazy.

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