Accidentally Writing Songs

Writing songs is a very easy process if you don’t know what songs should sound like, which is where I feel I am at in my musical journey. I listen to songs, and I like them, but do I really know what a chord is? A key? I wrote a song a few weekends ago for a songwriting workshop I casually took, no big deal, and they asked me what artist I pictured would sing that song. I still don’t know. I can’t figure it out because the song doesn’t actually seem like a real song.

Wondering if a song I wrote is really a song is the same issue I ran into when I started writing short stories: does what I just did count? It wasn’t until a few stories in that I noticed that it did, not because I read a book about the short story structure or because I analyzed anything, but because I knew innately from reading them what a short story feels like. What I’d written felt like a story, and whether it stood up or not in terms of language and structure and characters didn’t matter. Having gone through the process of writing and enjoying writing a story was enough to let me sleep at night. Even if the feeling wasn’t there, I would probably still have slept at night, though.

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Isn’t that the first step, really, to writing a song? Making sure the song is a song? I don’t mean it needs to have a bridge, or rhyme, but just that it is musical in some way that is familiar, just that it has some sort of art to it. And I can’t expect it to be any good, but if it feels creative and expressive and I had fun and surprise doing it, then that is enough for me right now in my writing. I love writing a sentence in a story that I don’t recognize. And when I sing something and play on my ukulele a series of chords that goes with that thing I just sang, that feels insanely creative and out of the limits of what I thought I could do. So that is a song. That is creativity expressed in music.

When the songwriting class asked who it was that I pictured singing the song I’d written, I really wanted to say Taylor Swift. Or I kind of wanted to have written an indie ballad or one of those build-up songs that gets louder as it goes. But I hadn’t written anything like that. I’d written a hokey song about crabs. Then I wanted to tell the group that I pictured myself singing the song, but not in public, because this is the first song I’ve ever written, so no one – not any artist alive, even myself – should be forced to sing this song, not even in the recesses of my mind. Then I sang it to them, in public, and I realized that answer was okay. I couldn’t picture a musical artist singing it because it was very much my song, a song I needed to write and sing. And I wondered how that could possibly be, that I could have just written a song that felt like me. And though I don’t really know the answer, I’m going to keep asking it, and by doing so, I’m going to keep sleeping at night.

Accidentally Writing Poems

Never did I mean to write a poem. I didn’t like reading them for school and though I once wrote one based on a dream, I never thought I could really evaluate how good it was. It seemed perfect. I sent it off to The New Yorker. What makes a poem good is a question I never asked myself. Then I accidentally started writing them, and now the question hangs there, unanswerable.

Poems seem derived from their structure. A sonnet or a haiku only is one because of how many syllables and lines it has. That makes no sense to me. Isn’t poetry an art? How can it possibly be so different from other things, so boxy, so rigid? I took a whole poetry survey course at UBC where I (unadvisedly) read poems really fast, at my normal reading pace, then showed up to class expecting to participate in discussions. I never could and I never tried reading them differently. I never saw the point.

When I started having to teach poetry to my elementary school students, I asked them to start with free verse, because this was where you could play with words. I executively decided this to be the heart of poetry. We never moved on from that. Any other forms of poetry didn’t make sense enough for me to teach. Why on earth would one write a limerick? Is a child really expressing himself by writing an acrostic poem using adjectives that start with the letters of his name?

I know that stories and novels have structures. They have beginnings, middles and ends, characters and certain other tropes one usually has to adhere to or at least understand, but these seem so much more intuitive to me. I have actually been afraid to write a poem because it seems like an exercise in solving a puzzle, some precise and well-planned thing I would not be good at, like planning an event or buying the right items for a recipe.

The poems I started writing were, as I said, by accident. I was writing the first line of a story, and then I suddenly became looser (drunker?), more willing to follow the flow of my thoughts. I payed closer attention to the pattern in the language and the ideas I was playing with, and from there I built a structure within which I wrote a poem. It was not a structure I knew, but one I made up on the spot, to fit my ideas. A self-serving structure. And then I thought, oh! Oh! Maybe that’s poetry.

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Upon rereading the poem I wrote, though I still can’t judge it for what it is, I can see the ability to make it better. There is a possibility of digging deeper into the idea, because now I can identify it. There is a way of being more faithful to the structure, because it exists. There is the question of specificity, and rhythm, and feeling, and all that can be dealt with now that there is a poem in front of me, a life form waiting to be better moulded and presented to the world, though maybe not The New Yorker.

It occurs to me now that this is the only way I could have ever written poetry, by discovering what poetry is for myself. I find myself wanting to read poetry now (at least the first few lines of one), thinking of a person sitting there and sculpting a thing out of nothing. And I wonder, as I often do, why no one ever told me this. Why did no one ever run up to me and tell me to read Walden, to listen to Destroyer, to watch Noah Baumbach movies? Don’t people actively follow my interests, seeking to give me guidance? Actually, they don’t! So the discovery of Lorrie Moore, of e.e. cummings, of ukulele and trail running become all the greater when done independently. Hey! I like this. Now let me find out why.

Is It Because

When I’m not writing, is it because I have nothing to say? But I speak at all hours of the day, to whoever will listen. I speak in full phrases in my head. I interrupt myself and continue the conversation you are having over there with someone who isn’t answering fast enough. I’m not writing because I have nothing to say.

When I’m not writing, is it because I’ve lost my nerve? But I step out of the door every day, sometimes to terrifying places. I try new things, I cook food, I carry heavy boxes over very tiny toes. I’m not writing because I’ve lost my nerve.

When I’m not writing, is it because I’ve become bored with my work, with my mind? Maybe I’m just letting my work go off and do its own thing, go on vacation, because I honestly haven’t thought about it for weeks. Maybe it’s bored with me.

When I’m not writing, I’m rearranging bookshelves and getting tingly excited by literary things in a way that I don’t when I’m trying to accomplish them. When I’m not writing, maybe I’m becoming reinvigorated and reseduced by writing.

When I’m not writing, is it because I’ve decided writing isn’t important anymore? I don’t think so, because I’m always so frustrated that I’m not writing and saying things to myself like What does my life even mean anymore?

But I don’t have that edge when I’m not writing, that edge like I’m going to fall off the edge of the world at any moment to go write down the world. I love that nervous energy at dinner parties after even half a glass of wine when I think of all the characters I know and can’t wait to get back to.

When I was little, I would be out for forest walks and just want to go home and draw a picture of people lined up in rows. That is a very vivid memory for me, of every time I was out on a forest walk, returning home and drawing an image that was maybe at first supposed to be the beauty of the forest or something but would just end up being cartoon people standing in rows, each with different hair, a different facial expression, funny looking feet.

Is it because I’m not writing that I’m not writing? Yes! That’s it!

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Because I Told Someone I had a Blog

Because I told someone I had a blog, and gave them the URL, (which is that really a thing anymore?) I think I should write a post today. Because also I read a few previous posts and laughed at them, so can recognize that at least this blog pleases me. Because I have been writing a lot lately but maybe not thinking a lot about my writing. Because I have NOT been writing a lot lately, and where did that sentence come from?

Here is what writing has become to me lately: sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep but can’t I think about my novel, then I fall asleep.

I opened another blog to be more professional. It has my name in the URL (which has to still be a thing) and it has pictures of me and it is meant to promote me as a serious writer. Unfortunately, I am not one, so the blog didn’t work! I am a writer who also got lost into being a teacher and being a person who buys a house and being a person who cooks and does dishes. I am being a person, and writing is hard to fit into that framework!

This is not my professional blog. This is my tree fort of complaints. This is my childhood room of insecurities. This is my diary of questions, left open on the corner of my expertly-cluttered desk, begging you to read me with few expectations and a little embarrassment (on your account, to be reading it).

B-log it is not. This is not a book, or a log. It is not a thing! It is a place I go to when I want to think about writing but feel that the empty page, the blinking cursor, is too much right now. It is the place I go to for 3 likes on Facebook, for a boost in robot stats, for a sense of accomplishment from releasing something into the world that isn’t a sneeze, that isn’t a piece of my hair blowing out behind me.

Because writing is this thing I do and I need to do it, and stop just not doing it all the time.

A Sense of Urgency

Do ants carry dead ants around to bury them? I just saw that happen! I don’t think I killed the first ant, but I very well might have.

I am feeling a newfound sense of urgency to “complete” my novel. (Studio audience laughter). I recently finished a draft that got the story out cleanly. I am now working on a draft that should be easy – fill in the bits I missed and start to make it look nice! But there is a lot more rewriting involved in that than I thought. My spirits (just the ones inside of me) are waning.

Right now the wind is blowing so warmly that I am tempted to stay outside, even though a few minutes ago I set a schedule for myself saying I would go in and see the new fan and look at the cat at 4:00. It’s nice to make a schedule on an off-day and then defy it.

There is a sense of urgency, a sense that I told someone (my imaginary editor) that I would be done soon, but alas, I am nowhere near! This sense of urgency leads me to constantly feel guilty. I just want to sit and read this very hard Virginia Woolf book for a bit and then I think no – get back to your writing!

I just looked up “how to row a dinghy” as I have to do that tomorrow. The Internet has its limitations when it comes to street or boat smarts, which is often what I need it for!

Along with the sense of urgency to complete this draft comes a sense of negativity, of self-loathing as I reread the previous one. I was so rosy-coloured glasses about it. It almost doesn’t even seem like a novel. Don’t novels have characters that seem real? Don’t they have moments that are poetic, that make you stop and think, yes, someone really knows something about life. Well, mine doesn’t have that yet. I hope that’s okay.

Sometimes senses of urgency aren’t good, like when I’m trying to sleep, or when I’m trying to “take time off”. But it is a very good thing when I am driving at night or when I need to learn things quickly, like the ukulele (today or tomorrow) and how to row a dinghy. I know I need to chill out sometimes, but it’s hard when a story is so badly wanting to be written and I am writing it so poorly! What is driving me is having it done, but I also can’t imagine how much I’m going to hate the feeling of having nothing to do but continue to read, forever it seems, that really hard Virginia Woolf novel.

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(from wallpaper.org)

 

When Is Anything Done?

People ask me if I am almost done the novel I am writing, like it’s a novel I’m reading and I’m about to move on to another. I could give writerly excuses, such as I am creating a world, and a world cannot be finished. Or I could claim to be a perfectionist who will never feel finished but will be forced to stop writing at some point. But the truth is I’m really not in any way almost done. I’ve been working on the same story for over three years now (which might make you think I’m almost done) but the truth is the novel itself as I imagine it doesn’t exist yet. It hasn’t been written.

I’ve written parts of it. I’ve written drafts that look like novels and I’m done those. But I am not done the thing itself that I am making. Say you are painting a tree. You’ve painted a tree, but you meant to paint the tree you were looking at. Wouldn’t you have to restart, to get the tree you see and not the simple, other one you painted? Wouldn’t you have to add the branches just the way you see them, have the light hit right where the light actually hits? Yes, I’ve done paintings of trees, but I haven’t painted my tree yet.

I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I can read a page and be done it, but have I really read it? I’m trying this thing I used to do when I was young (a mental challenge) where I don’t use bookmarks. I open the book up again hours later and I try to remember the page number I had put to memory, or the last event I read about. It used to be easier than finding a bookmark, and gave me a lasting ability to skim through pages. But Virgina Woolf isn’t very skimmable. It’s hard to find an event I was last at. It’s made me realize I read books a lot less closely than I should. It’s made me think about the power of rereading, of never actually finishing a page.

Because if I read To the Lighhouse and put it down, did I really read the book? Did I finish it, as it was intended to be finished? I probably won’t have spent a lot of time thinking of the ideas in the book, contemplating the characters’ motives, their relationships, the importance of the setting of the book or the intention of the author in bringing them all together. I would have read the words, yes, but I might not have read the book.

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(from boardgamegeek.com)

If the intention of writing a novel is to have it published, then one should keep working on the book until it is publishable. If the intention of writing a novel is to write the novel one intends to write, then shouldn’t one keep working on the book until the book feels like the book it was intended to be? Publishing, I think, will never be my goal when writing a novel. It will be a way to give the novel life, to let others read it and to let it be the form of art that it is. Is a painting really a painting if no one looks at it? If the tree you painted (the complete art form of the actual tree you saw and then transcribed, somehow, with your paintbrush, until you felt it represented the tree you knew) were never shown to anyone, would it really matter that you had painted it? You would have seen it, but you saw the tree too. What about the person across the world who has never seen that form of life, who has his or her whole life imagined a tree of such beauty, but never taken the trip to visit it? I think you’re painting that tree for them, so you should try your best not to lie about it.

The Perching Penman

I’ve discovered a new way of writing: writing by perching precariously on the edge of the couch, as though one has so many better places to be but has decided to stay a minute or two. The temporary nature of the pose offers an easy way out if writing isn’t going well and easy congratulations if one stays longer than the seating position suggests. It also adds a certain energy to the process, and makes one look very alert were someone to come in and “catch” you writing. I overall think it is improving my craft.

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