A gypsy read my palm today in Sag Harbor, New York (where you can neither get a Screen Actors Guild card nor can you eat a tasty Indian spinach dish—in case you were wondering.). She was reading my fate line when she said, "Your purpose is your home." Then she looked up into my eyes and said, as if she just realized it herself, "You're always going home."
Which, I guess, is a nice way of saying that I'm homeless.
When I say "gypsy" I mean my friend Xan, who is a high school teacher in Bushwick. She and I went to the Hamptons for the day to meet her poet friend Pam. Over lunch we talked about writing and I mentioned that I was working on a ballet. Pam looked at me and asked, "So you're a dancer?" and I looked down at my frail and imperfect body and thought to myself, "Uh…" and then said, "Uh… No, I'm composing the music." Which led to a discussion of writing. She told us how she had several friends who had worked hard their whole lives and had finally gotten a publishing deal or a grant to write. And once they finally had nothing but wide open unfettered days in which to write, they could produce nothing. When they had been working a day job and they spent all their time wishing for a free moment, they could produce poems in bales and bales. But as soon as they had nothing to do but write, they froze up. The freedom and lack of structure were just debilitating.
A year ago I was trying to write a novel and I asked my friend David, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, for his advice. "Writing, when you're doing it well," he said, "is not much unlike reading. Everything you're going to put on that page is already done somewhere in your mind."
I like the idea that writing and reading are the same process. It takes the ego out of it, that horrible responsibility of being a god creating new worlds.
David continued, "Telling a story is way too complicated to do with your conscious mind. It would be like trying to think about circulating and breathing and metabolizing and excreting. Impossible. The key is to get out of your own way and let it happen, and that takes practice. You once told me that good songwriting is all a matter of confidence. You can do it not when you've mastered the guitar, or when you know every possible chord there is, but simply when you've done it enough to allow yourself to be good."
I guess I said that once, though I was probably just joking. But I like the comparison to bodily functions, because whenever someone asks me for advice about songwriting it feels like trying to tell someone how to urinate. I mean, you know the basic pose, but how do you actually, you know, get the urine to start flowing?
Or it's like when I had food poisoning a few months ago. I ate a bad burger in Seattle and spent the next twelve hours thinking that I should probably throw up, but it had been about five years since I had thrown up and I wasn't sure I could do it anymore. Even if I'm leaning over, ready to throw up, how does my body know how to actually do it?
Paul Simon talked recently in The Atlantic magazine (about songwriting, not throwing up): "I haven't spoken to any of the other guys of my generation about how they do it. I've known Bob Dylan for a long time and I've known Paul McCartney for a long time, but we've never talked about songwriting."
They've never talked about it?!? It has literally never come up?? What is it, like talking about having a crush on your sister? What exactly is the problem? Why would three of the greatest songwriters of the last fifty years, who are actually friends, never talk about the craft of songwriting with each other? Are they afraid that they'd jinx each other? Is every songwriter just living in mortal terror that the last song he wrote will be the last song he will ever write?
I've never thought of songs as something that comes from inside of a person. When someone says that maybe they've written all the songs they can, or they've run out of ideas, I think they're just looking at it the wrong way. Maybe instead of songs being a product that is generated by our heart or our brain, they are like a rare natural resource that is out there in the ground and which we have to mine. And the people who are good at songwriting are more like masters at the craft of mining: digging down deep, risking getting buried in the rubble. Sometimes one of them gets stuck down there and we have to drill down to get him out, and when he comes up he kisses his wife and says that of course he'll go down there again even though he almost died, because that's his job.
Maybe songs aren't as personal as we think they are. They are just out in the world somewhere and someone has to go out and get them.
In a 2002 interview in GQ, Tom Waits said, "If a song really wants to be written down, it'll stick in my head. If it wasn't interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else's song."
Every politician can agree that oil is a finite resource. At some point we won't be able to pump it out of the ground. Could songs also be a resource that we'll run out of one day? Is there a point when we'll reach the peak of our supplies after which we'll have an ever-dwindling number of songs left? It is amazing how many songs have already been wrung out of the twelve notes of the Western scale. Surely there will be a point where there aren't any more combinations of melodies, rhythms, and harmonies that we can combine to form a new song? Even though they flow freely now, spilling out of our car radios as we meander down the highways, there could be a day in the future, maybe in our grandchildren's lifetime (when everything is going to suck anyway) when we'll start to go whole days without songs. Then weeks and months will pass, and someone in Iceland will report a new song finding. But it will be a false alarm, and we'll realize that it's just a rewriting of a long-ago song by Pink. And people will wonder why they didn't save songs when they could have. They'll say, "Why didn't our grandparents realize that all these songs were going to run out eventually? Why didn't they try to ration them? They just let them gush out of their instruments until they were all gone. Now we just have the random slow drip of the faucet. God dammit, why did Pink have to use up that melody?"
Think about that, songwriters, next time you are faced with a blank page. Instead of thinking of your process as wringing the last drops of creativity out of the sponge of your brain, think of yourself as plucking songs out of the air in an era when they are still bountiful. Think of it as Manifest Destiny. The resources are here for you to use and abuse as much as you want. Because really the well of songs will never run out. The tide of human existence and the little struggles and miracles that occur all the time serve as though a million new dinosaurs were dying every day and their bones were petrifying and turning into oil for us to tap over and over again.
Nick Jaina dot com (where you can see a preview of Nick's balet!)