Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Blissful Surrender

Do you want to write songs, or do you need to write them?

If writing great songs were only as simple as wanting to do it, we'd all have dozens of them. It requires more commitment than that. If you're blown away by a song you hear or a book you read, rest assured someone needed to create it (even if it came quickly, the intense need to write was probably sustained for years). Great writers aren't really so gifted, they just have an impossible compulsion. They're "all in". The need keeps them awake when they want to sleep; it keeps them hungry when they want to be fed; it demands their attention when they want to daydream.

There are times when I catch myself looking for some point of entry like a junkie tapping on his veins. Yesterday's song is just yesterday's song-- a high that didn't last. If I had to go to dangerous alleys and midnight borders of the imagination for my fix, I probably would. There are those who see a work of art and feel a gentle glow inside. There are others who see a work of art and feel a fire in the blood to create one of their own. There's no escaping it, no letting it pass, no procrastination. It's an allurement as intoxicating as any substance known to man. When it isn't there, we ache for it. But where the need is deep, so can be the result and reward.

Whenever I'm "engaged to a song" I know there will be many drafts of the lyric. There will be moments when I want to rip out my hair because part of the melody isn't holding up. Bring it on. I fall sleep on the sofa in the den and wake up at the first light of dawn excited to begin again. Bring it on. When the song is finished there's a feeling of temporary wholeness I can't find in any other pursuit. Yes, only to begin again...but joyously in spite of it all.

You'll recognize your need if you have one. Let your creative hours be sacrosanct and uncompromised. Put life on hold. Throw caution to the wind (insert any more cliches you can think of here).

As I lay awake last night lamenting another day in which I worked for ten hours and produced not a single creative thing, I thought of all the contented folk who didn't create anything either, and who slept soundly with a pleasant dream. I wanted to feel contentment, rest, peace. I told myself that most words are written on sand. Most melodies die with the singer. Most paintings darken with the patina of the world's grit and grime. Why make anything at all?

I believe we make things because we are the pressure valve of the ultimate making of things. Through us escapes the blow-off of creative forces no one can imagine. That is our role in the big picture. There's really no self-importance in a creative act when you understand the mysterious and uncontrollable nature of it. It's all for the sake of an elemental energy in the pipeline that chooses your particular point of exit. Creative needs are like geysers in Yellowstone; warm salty mud being blown out of the way so the earth can keep its crust intact for another day. The earth doesn't respect geysers, it simply uses them. I am used, you are used; we're The Need incarnate and we'll never fully understand the unseen forces below the surface. There's no remedy for it but a blissful surrender.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Tim McMullen said...

Now, that's a mouthful. You have so many wonderful metaphors and similes employed in this description of the creative impulse, yet you are able to maintain that mystical sense of reverential wonder. Nice balance.

You have done songwriting as a job for most of your life; but, as you imply, the distinction between wanting to and having to does not fit many, including many professionals, who write songs. It would seem that many approach performing and writing as a glamorous road to the bigtime, like sports or acting. Most of what they turn out, in part because of the machine that homogenizes their sounds into a genre of interchangeable voices and faces and instruments, has an endless sameness to it.

Fortunately, for the inspired writer, like yourself (and hundreds of other great, dedicated, driven writers) enough of the good stuff does get through, does get heard, does get sold, to keep the dream alive.

I have chronicled in many places the decline in my own output—from 20 to 30 a year when playing regularly down to five or six a year down to one or two a year. When I went back to teaching full time (1978), I knew that I was giving up a part of the dream. You can't stop inspiration, but you can ignore it or give it short shrift. In 1980, I wrote this song, "I Don't Write Much Anymore."

I don’t write much anymore;
Sorry, I don’t know what to say.
It’s too painful to ignore
’Cause I felt it slip away.

And you know it makes me cry—
Like a lover that’s been lost—
When the feeling’s passed you by,
And you know just what it’s cost—

It’s like you’re stumbling in the dark,
And you don’t know where to turn.
You’re looking for a spark
Just to feel it burn...
Let it burn...

Knowing that it’s gone
Is not enough to bring it back;
It’s like staring at a train
Moving miles down the track.
You can laugh or you can cry,
But that’s all that you can do,
And lying to yourself
Is never gonna’ make it less true—

It’s like you’re stumbling in the dark,
And you don’t know where to turn.
You’re looking for a spark
Just to feel it burn...
Aw, let it burn...

I don’t write much anymore.
Sorry, I don’t know what to say.
But I don’t write much anymore,
So I guess I’ll slip away.

©1980 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved

I was going to quote a few lines, but I decided to throw in the whole thing. I don't mean to be presumptuous—including one of my own pieces on your blog—and I hope you don't mind—but it addresses what happens when we diversify our talents. What I am suggesting is that if we have the creative impulse, it really can't die, but if we don't keep it focused (as a painter or a sculptor or a photographer or a writer), it will easily spread out to other creative impulses. For years I would get ideas that I thought would make good short stories, but I always stopped myself by saying, "I can't waste my energy on that. I'm a song writer." Who knows, maybe I'm really a short story writer in songwriter's clothing...Ha!

Two of my favorite female singer/songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Marti Jones, gave up performing and writing for years in favor of painting. Actors become writers and writers become directors, etc. Many great writer/performers like Nanci Griffith and Billy Joel get to a point where they say, "I just don't feel like doing it anymore." Fortunately for us, though, they often can't help themselves, and soon they are back at it.

Those of us who don't make a career of it, for whatever reason, can choose to be envious or inspired by the success of those we admire.

Let me just say that your fire inspires! (and yeah, this probably will become one for my blog).

Steve Robinson said...

Hi Craig,
what you have to say always hits home..I'm in a terrible place right now and nothing is clicking..I've lost my spark and imagination..There are many reasons for this and I know it will come back when life gets better.. : )
You are an amazing musician and counselor : ) And oh, the words you write."Like a junkie tapping his veins" - You always paint a clear picture..
Blessings to you my friend,

**Tim, thanks for sharing this amazing lyric! I'd like to hear the finish product, assuming you wrote music and recorded it?

Tim McMullen said...

Thanks, Steve. You can check the song out at

It's from a presentation that I gave to my creative writing students called "All's Not Fair...".

Steve Robinson said...

Just watched and listened Tim...What a beautiful song..Thought provoking, relatable and poignant..Well done..And at first glance..I thought you were David Crosby!! : )
That's a good thing..I played his part in a CSNY tribute band many years ago..
Cheers brother,

Unknown said...

I heard once that Liza Minnelli was asked on stage to sing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. She politely declined saying ‘That song has already been sung’. If anyone ever asks me to try to describe the creative condition I’ll simply say ‘It’s already been said’ and hand them ‘A Blissful Surrender’. What a wonderful piece Mr. Bickhardt.