It’s been brought to my attention that I haven’t concentrated on writing about my experience as a songwriter on this site at all, so a newcomer will think that all I do is go to improv jams and play in the subways. The truth is, I haven’t been writing up a storm lately, because I’ve been happy, and that takes a while to process when you’re used to writing about your deep-seated emotional issues.
I don’t call it “Writer’s Block.” It’s not like I’m dying to write a new song, and one won’t come out — in fact, I find that when I need to flex the muscle, it’s always right there, because I never leave a co-write without a working hook and a solid first verse — it’s more like a “Writer’s Wait.”
One of my favorite speeches on creativity came from Elizabeth Gilbert, for TED — in it, she speaks at great lengths about the concept of the artist as a medium for their work, rather than as the “font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery,” how the perception of artists as such has created an undue pressure on us to perform. I really take that speech to heart, because once I got over the initial revelation that I could whip an OK song together out of thin air in an hour’s time, I found myself immediately bored with those kinds of songs.
I’m not against writing them occupationally? I just haven’t felt like it this year. So I wait.
Good things happen when you wait around for songs. You stop spending so much time obsessing over the grain of a clover, and learn what rolling in a field of them is like. You learn how to do new stuff, instead of marveling, blank-faced and starry-eyed that it can be done at all. You get to know the person you’re with and find a new kind of love that you didn’t know existed, as you let moments float through the sieve of experience until something meaty catches, sinks itself into the grooves, and won’t come out without a good shake and scrub — that’s when you’ve got something to write about.
I spent maybe a year getting over a bad break, after maybe a year where I got the wrong end of the on-again-off-again stick, and if I had written during either of those annums at the breakneck speed at which I wrote during my eighteenth, you would have heard 50 crappy songs about it. Instead, you got some quality out of the deal: I think we can agree that the yield was as good as any crop I’ve had before, and that came from waiting until I had a novel thought on the subject. That’s not to say that those were the only songs to occur to me — those were the best versions of the thoughts that occurred to me while all that stuff was going down, and if I felt like I was writing my way into retreaded ground, I’d break it off, knowing that if the melody was strong enough, it would re-apply itself to a different situation down the line.
“You’re Mine” happened about four months into my current relationship, and took about a month to write after I had the initial thought about writing it. For a day or two I hummed, then lyrics started coming out. Then it was two weeks of asking myself what bits were worth repeating verse-to-verse, what kind of symmetry I wanted to build, can this song have a narrative feel, did I want a bridge, and how do I keep it interesting for more people than just me and the target of my swoon-ray?
Maybe a full week went into making it look easier than it was.
I’ve participated in one co-write since, with my friend Alexis Babini — from his concept of a “King of Broken Promises,” we got a nicely textured ode to the vanity of men in their 20s, that flippant air they put on of immunity to soft fuzzy feelings that strips away the second they’re alone. I was able to effectively mine ideas I had back when I was that age for this song, and bring them forth in a way that maybe I wasn’t ready to then, that my ego wouldn’t allow for. From putting a month between the first and last session, we ended up with a much sweeter, more soaring bridge melody that cascades back into the final chorus than we had originally planned, because I found a new space to work in when singing the song to myself while walking the hilly streets of Lawrenceville on a visit to Pittsburgh: these are the advantages of waiting.
My next album has been written — I had planned a counterpoint to “Here Goes Nothing” where all the songs would be encapsulations of despair rather than hope, but life suggested a broader narrative, and I’ve leaned into that, because that’s the truth as I see it. That, combined with the fact that not a whole lot is happening in my life right now, leaves me comfortable in a songwriting
lull pause wait.
And I can be patient.