We’ve all heard the old question and answer adage, “why is the sky blue – because it reflects the ocean, why is they ocean blue – because it reflects the sky.” As an answer, it happens to be both unfulfilling and scientifically wrong. Nevertheless, it is endlessly uttered every time someone tries to cast the inspired or the creative as being something without explanation or incapable of being understood.
Along with most songwriters, I have faced similar perspectives about creating a song. “How do you write songs?” It’s tempting to answer that question with some pie in the sky (reflected sky of course) philosophical statement like, “the song writes itself, I’m just the vessel” or any derivative statement about one’s muse. I have on many occasions answered with those slack statements, mainly as a diversion from having to reveal the less lofty truth behind the creative art of songwriting. Let’s face it, muse sounds fancier than discipline and being the “songwriting vessel” sounds grander than hard work and repetition. Maybe a better term to use than “creative art” would be “creative skill.” In the end writing is a skill set that comes like most skill sets, from learning the basics. In songwriting, the basics are the building blocks of rhyme and meter (not to mention grammar and spelling), studying the work of others, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe the art part comes in as natural aptitude, but even aptitude seems to be an explainable measure of passion and interest. I can build rudimentary objects out of wood when needed, but the finish carpentry skill of measure twice and cut once still alludes me. Maybe if I had a burning passion for carpentry, instead of my half-hearted utilitarian interest, the aptitude would develop and the finer skill set would come naturally.
Alas, my passion is for words. I love words and stringing them together to move my heart and hopefully at times, the hearts of others. Inspiration is directly connected to discipline. The only reason that my songs may occasionally resemble art is that I am steeped in the long troubadour tradition of endless yellow legal pads, spiral notebooks, trashcans and lighters. In order for me to write one song that is moving to someone else, I must first write ten songs that lay lifeless on the page and burdensome on the ears. In order for me to write one song that is unique to the masses, I must first write twenty songs that countless others have written just as poorly. It would be simpler, lazier and safer for me to say, “My songs come from the heart” or “my songs are divinely propagated.” I could also just secretively say, “I’d tell ya’ but I have to kill ya.” The reality is my songs come from a passionate work ethic of constant struggle and disappointment, with too few oxygen-rich moments of clarity and satisfaction. Ironically, in those moments, a song reflects life and life reflects the song. Maybe there’s a reason for that first stupid (and scientifically wrong) statement about the sky and the ocean.
In the end though, my mentor Tom Paxton, had it right. Tom passed on the true secret of songwriting to me in the green room of the famous Virginia club called the Birchmere. He wrote it on a piece of cardboard and handed it to me on the night before I moved to Nashville, some 24 years ago. He told me to stick it on my fridge for guidance. Except for a few frustrated verses, which caused me to throw it in the trashcan and then immediately dig it out again, it has been on my fridge the all these years. The cardboard is faded and hard to see, but it’s tight there on my fridge tonight. It reads, “Disappointment makes you bitter or better.” After the great songs of the 1990’s gave way to the next decade and a half of incestuous drivel, I added the statement, “Less hook more song.” My friends, I think those two sentiments sum up the art behind the skill of being creative. It also strikes me as equally succinct as and more accurate than “the sky reflects the ocean.”
Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s the Music That Makes Us Smile”