The Music of the Work
“The erotics of composition are essential to the process, some prereflective excitation and orientation, some sense that your own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of language. And this is true for translators as it is for poets attempting original work. It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.” —Seamus Heaney’s “Translator’s Note” in Beowulf (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)
There’s something about trying out a new art form that always sees me wobbling out on colt legs, falling on my face and bleating miserably. In this particular instance, I’m thinking about songwriting and making music. At one point earlier in my life, I was something of a singer with a little bit of talent and absolutely no work ethic. More than a decade after my last voice lesson, I find myself wanting more and more to return to singing, and moreso, to writing songs.
(I’m trying to get more curious about my frustration, and I’m trying to play a little bit more. I genuinely believe that part of having an abundance mindset is a willingness to let go during creative practice, but sometimes beliefs are difficult to actually engage. I’m trying it again in writing this newsletter, a kind of openness that scares me enough to keep me coming back.)
I’ve written a handful of songs at varying points in my life—one of which was my first consciously feminist act, a song detailing the differently-gendered reactions my high-school friends had to James Bond movies—but I never feel so alive as when I’m listening to music. And usually when I listen to music, I’m writing. I racked up more hours on Spotify in 2021 than anyone I know. I listen to music nearly all the time I’m awake.
I need to believe that this music has influenced me, my work, my desires. Music makes me feel like I’m moving somewhere, like I’m carving out a space, even if I’m not really doing much of anything. And while I have a fairly basic musical foundation from singing and a few years of piano lessons, my primary drive in music is intuition rather than theory. It’s interesting to think about because I’m so theoretical in other ways. I love academic theory and I love intellectualizing, but in some ways I only metabolize things through intuition.
Anyway, writing music lately has felt like a total disaster. I have almost no sense of conventional chord progressions or even melodic lines. With non-musical writing, I at least have some confidence in knowing that I can write well. With songwriting, not only can I not write well, I don’t even know enough to have a sense in my mind’s ear of what I want it to sound like.
Though I suppose I don’t even really have this with regular writing. I wrote you last in February, explaining how I don’t really outline so much as write towards a longing. This is because I can try and decide on a scene order as much as I’d like, but if it doesn’t arise organically from the writing itself, it won’t work. Common writing advice states that you may come to a story idea by picturing a scene really clearly in your mind. I have never done this. Instead, I tend to come to story ideas by listening to music and saying to myself, yes. It feels like this chord-change. It feels like this gesture.
Sometimes I think that this is “bad” and I’ll never be the kind of writer I want to be or write the songs I want to sing. And sometimes I wonder if my limitations as an artist are actually my best opportunities for growth, and for self-discovery. But it’s hard, because most of the time I know that I’m falling on my face, and I hate it. I hate how I sound, I hate how I can never measure up to my goals, and I hate that I can’t write songs like one of my experimental songwriting influences, Jenny Hval.
Whenever I feel this way, I remember that I “failed” to complete a dissertation, something that so many of my peers—even those who don’t consider themselves writers!—managed. That failure still sits with some shame in my body. And then I’m like, well, maybe I’m just not the kind of writer who can sustain an academic argument over 250 pages. And maybe I’m not the kind of writer who can sustain conventional narrative fiction over 250 pages, either. What if I’m actually okay with that, because there are other things I can do, things that are totally different and just as worth doing as novels and dissertations?
I need to remember some wonderful advice my wife keeps sharing with me, the many times I have brought up my creative anxieties: when you have created something you feel is truly horrible, revel in it. Cackle like a witch. You have done well.
The “erotics of composition,” as Seamus Heaney phrases it, to me involve this release of control, this celebration of failure. In this manner, one can attune to the music of the work.
I’m returning to the creative guidelines/manifesto I shared with you last year to see what, if anything, stands out now. The first question asks, “have I given the work space and time to move and live in me, through me?” This is an interesting one because I feel like all I do is give my work space to live in me. It’s the emergence that can be difficult, the birthing process.
And so the question, for me, becomes, what will it take to support that birth? What kind of doula do I need? How can the foundations of my practice be both solid ground and endlessly shifting sand as I move and transform through the work?
Until next time, fellow sand-shifters.