Notes on Songwriting
When I first learned guitar in highschool, it was always my goal to write and perform music. As soon as I had the basic skills down and a few chords programmed into my muscle memory, I was composing.
It’s curious to me now why that stopped. Somewhere along the way I stopped practicing, stopped writing. My skills atrophied. This kind of tracks along a general trend of me not writing in general. I took fiction writing courses throughout undergrad and walked away with a minor in Creative Writing, but I never wrote another story after graduation.
Still, every once in a while I will hear a song and want to cover it. I’ll note it down on my phone in a list I have for the purpose. But generally I don’t revisit that. Even when I’m drastically bored, I never pick up the guitar. Well, not never - I’m starting to, now.
Losing the structure
I think what’s most distressing (or interesting - if I reframe it positively) is that I feel as if I’ve lost my way in the realm of writing. I wonder how much of this has to do with a sense of unmooring in my personal life in the last decade or so - a change in faith, identity, etc. But I think more and more I can point to a deep cycle of shame. Although I envy my younger self’s freedom in creativity (how was I so prolific?) I am also generally embarrassed by the results. God forgive me, I wrote like a highschooler. I was divided between a sad part of me which wanted to put all my depression on display (a cry for help!), and a proud part which desperately wanted to be perceived as competent and impressive. This combination effectively cultivates pretentious, unapproachable angst. And I think the part which wants to be respected won out in the end; now he looks back on all of those songs and stories and sees with horror how my troubled moodiness shines through very clearly. So he shut it down.
Now when I set out to write something, it feels like walking into a fog. I don’t have any reference point to start out with. Sometimes I stumble across a marker and I can find my way. More often I start to despair that nothing which lives up to my standards could emerge from such a mess, and I give up.
I’m reading Bulgakov’s Spiritual Diary at the moment, and one of the sins he speaks against is despair. It’s that exact feeling that I know what I should be - what I want to be - the full sophianic self, the person who God sees in me. But the gulf between him and me is so large, and I don’t see how to cross it. The sin of despair is to give up, to seek distraction and numbing from that failure.
So this is more of a diary post, I suppose, in order to document for myself where I’m making progress against that despair. In some ways I almost have to do it covertly. These songs are just sort of emerging out of my unconscious. I wonder if that sense of discovering something, versus creating it, is subverting my proud self’s defense mechanisms somehow.
I’ve been slowly (as in, over the last two years or so) weaving together a few songs which seem to be relating to the Gospel. John is my favorite biblical author (or, whoever wrote John’s Gospel, I suppose), so I’m rather happy to be exploring that space.
It began with a song from John’s own perspective, receiving his first revelatory glimpse at the mystery behind the man he knew as Jesus in an ordinary moment on the lake. This simple idea really resonated with me. I sat with that song for over a year, nudging at it here and there to see if there was any more of it still to emerge, but I think it’s basically done. Then, while driving silently in the car, I began repeating one particular progression from the first part of that song in my head, and I found another song emerging out of that. This time from the perspective of Bartimaeus, the blind man beside the road. That’s not actually in John (only Mark and Luke). But the song basically appeared fully formed around those chords, gradually evolving toward a new progression which also felt very resonant. The lyrics capture what I increasingly feel is the essence of faith - not a lack of doubt, only a tenacious hope, even a desperation.
It’s this chance to articulate a particular approach to faith which I think is providing a lot of grounding for what is rapidly becoming a project. For the last few years I have struggled only to develop an intuition about what faith could really mean. I can feel the contours of it, but I struggle to explain it. Yet when I go back and read these stories, I can begin to see it present in them, almost invisibly. It’s not in the words, but something behind the words. It’s a sort of mystical experience.
These songs have helped to give substance to this sense of mystery. The third one arrived today, unfolding from the new chord progression developed in Bartimaeus’ song. This time it’s Lazarus speaking, and to my surprise he expresses abandonment. It’s not the choice I probably would have set out to make in telling his story, but my intuition was uncovering something that I now see makes sense. Lazarus died alone. Only the reader is aware of what was happening outside that frame. This story includes the now memeified shortest verse of scripture - Jesus wept - but I think like many verses which entered into the general cultural consciousness in that way, there is far more depth to it than we realize. In particular I find it moving that Jesus may have felt sorrow not because of loss (which he was preparing to undo), but out of the recognition that his friend, who did not know he was even coming, may have died in despair.
What I find interesting about this process is how I can witness myself in the way these songs are progressing. After all, the stories themselves don’t exactly include the themes and ideas I’m extracting from them. My whole song about John is just entirely fabricated. Clearly I’m exploring my own story and ideas through the lense of a Biblically-inspired writing project.
So far I see a thread of wonder and mystery (“Gloria! Infinite!”) entwined with doubt and shame (“What am I to you?”). But I think Bartimaeus’ song combines these into a type of faith: an audacious answer to the shame which says, anyway, I am still going to ask for what I need. And I am going to try to believe I will receive it.
Now that the structure of the project is taking shape, I’m intuiting at least two more pieces: Jesus and Mary. I think there is depth to be found in the moments of Gethsemane - and another chance to present a different perspective on that familiar story. And I think Mary at the foot of the Cross has a deeper story to tell, as well.
There may also be room for a final, triumphant Christ. But I’m not sure. I would probably develop the “Gloria!” refrain into something more expansive, but it feels a bit beyond me at the moment.
This may all take years to uncover. It’s quite interesting like that. I get the sense that the momentum of this will carry on without my encouragement. I suppose I will see.