True Things

Jenny points to wise words from Roseanne Cash, who’s guest blogging at the NYT this week. I am stealing her excerpt whole cloth and even adding a chunk, because I’m lazy like that and might want to be able to find it again sometime (whole thing behind the cut):

Sometimes songs are postcards from the future. Often I have found that a song reveals something subtle but important about my own life that I was only vaguely aware of while writing, but that became clear as time went on. I wrote "Black Cadillac" six weeks before a rash of deaths began in my family. The day I finished writing it, I played the completed song to myself, as a kind of last run-through to check for rhyme scheme errors and syllable scanning, and a tidal wave of anxiety started rising in my gut. I knew I had given myself a message.

I don’t consider these postcard songs prescient as much as just coming from a source of creativity outside linear time. (I am certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon in creative work. Thornton Wilder, for one, wrote, "It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves."

But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. I’ve found that the melody is already inherent in the language, and if I pay close enough attention to the roundness of the vowels and the cadence of the words, I can tease the melody out of the words it is already woven into. I have found that continual referral back to the original "feeling tone" of the inspiration, the constant re-touching of that hum and cry, more important than the fireworks of its origin. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting, either lyrically or emotionally.

This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Twenty-five years ago, I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the transcendent quality that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid, and sometimes more potent.

And speaking of Truth, and its relative experience, those niggling questions about the specifics of writing — the order of creation, the source of inspiration, the parsing of individual truth and the wrestling of facts and the divergence of the two, are better left alone and in the realm of mystery, where all creative work forms. I am of the same mind about these things as Martha Graham, who told a young dancer who asked if she should be a dancer, "If you have to ask, the answer is no." Perversely, if you have to ask which came first, the lyrics or the music, the answer is… No. Or Yes. Depending on your maturity and how slow the opposites are to reveal themselves.

This all seems very applicable to writing to me (as does the cringey workshop stuff earlier in her entry). And, okay, so perhaps a bit of flakiness on the whole nonlinear creativity tip, but the recognition of such makes that easier to let slide. And the relevant point there seems to be that sometimes we are telling ourselves important things without realizing it at the time, when we write. That I completely agree with.

5 thoughts on “True Things”

  1. The one thing I don’t like about this is the repetition of the idea that “If you have to ask, the answer is no.”
    Asking (about various things) and going to back and looking at the question and answer again at later times is important.

  2. Hmmm… I don’t know, because that’s not how I parse that? I parse it along the same lines as “if you don’t have to do it, lucky you, do something easier,” which is maybe not true universally, but fairly applicable. There is a sort of stick-to-itness (not a word/phrase, I know) that you either have or develop if you’re going to be in the arts (note: not a prerequesite for the creation of art, but probably for doing it professionally). What Graham is saying sounds like it means “if you have to ask no,” but I actually think the meaning is not exactly what she’s saying. I hear it as “you have to ask yourself.” If that makes any sense. I like the stuff about the creative process essentially being a mystery too.
    Typing too fast — must fly, as Gandalf says!

  3. I’m generally really really impressed whenever I read something by Roseanne Cash

  4. I’m generally really really impressed whenever I read something by Roseanne Cash

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