Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In Search of...a new song

There's been some speculation in recent months as to whether I am still a songwriter. Largely that speculation has come from me. Every writer goes through cycles of productivity and cycles of, well, despair. And I have been going through the latter for quite some time now.

This got me thinking about the process of creating and how miraculous it truly is that out of nothing, something ever takes shape. I've looked at paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wondered what the first stroke on the blank canvas looked like. Was the finished image already in the artist's head when he lifted his brush? Did Beethoven already know what his symphonies would sound like? Didn't he have to know because he was deaf and could never actually hear them?

I saw Baryshnikov dance once many years ago in Chicago, and he simply defied gravity, and in doing so he left me breathless, gasping with delight, and excitement, and hopefulness that maybe I too could defy gravity in some way. (Obviously I'm speaking metaphorically. In no way could I actually leap through the air like Baryshnikov.)

For years I dismissed my ability to write songs, taking for granted that it would always be there. After all, it always had. But time and life can take their toll on the purity of the vision we start out with for ourselves. The music business is not for the faint of heart, and what is of the most beauty and significance is rarely what is commercially successful. That's not only true of the songs, but of the artists who sing them as well. Business of any kind is about the bottom line, the product, the package, what sells. Art is about self expression.

And so it is I wound up in a dry spell, having spent the last few years trying to transform myself into a writer that could sell. I told myself I could write anything, as long as it would make me money. And I did. I spent all of my energy writing what I thought sounded like commercial radio hits. And being business-minded got me my first major cut and #1 song, so I thought I must be on the right track. What it did not get me was the kind of success that could sustain me for any length of time, and how could it? It had very little to do with me. And so, little by little, I found myself less able to continue writing until one day I had no songs to write. Nor did I have any the day after that...or the day after that.

I wondered how I could reach a point where I couldn't create something. How cut off do you have to be from your own soul to not be able to express yourself? Some suggested that this blog was a deterrent, wasting my time and energy and taking me away from music, or that my efforts to get my book published were. And maybe they were right, but at least I was going toward where I felt the most joy and renewed sense of excitement about life...which got me thinking. What song would I write if I weren't concerned with what anyone thought of it? I no longer knew. And it wasn't like it was a self-indulgent question either. The way I looked at it, I had to either figure out how to write songs again or find a new profession.

There's a great line in the movie Music & Lyrics where Hugh Grant says to Drew Barrymore, "Inspiration is for amateurs." That always made me laugh, largely because I thought it was true. But now I know better. Inspiration is for professionals too because without it, we're just staring at a blank page.

So I'm determined to find my way back to the place where I care more about what I write and less about what anyone thinks of what I write. I want to remember what it feels like to be overjoyed and grateful that I get to create songs out of thin air. I want to go back to that place of knowing that no one can do exactly what I do exactly the way I do it, or say what I think needs saying the way I'd say it. I want to remember what brought me to songwriting in the first place - before the necessities of living got in the way of the reason for doing it. I want to know with certainty that what I create has intrinsic value simply because I created it. I wrote a song today. That's a start.

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