This afternoon I was watching an episode Spectacle, Elvis Costello’s excellent interview/music program. Costello was interviewing one of my old R&R heroes, Lou Reed. Reed is a rather literary guy. He explained in his interview that he wanted to bring the subject matter and sensibilities of the Beat Poets to popular music, and I suppose he did.
He doesn’t rewrite, however. Lyrics come to him in one shot and if he tries to go back and improve on what came initially, he feels he will only ruin it. What’s more, he writes in bursts. There will be long stretches where nothing is coming, and, as he eloquently explained, during those fallow periods he could no more build a car than write a song – he doesn’t know how.
Costello asked if he was ever troubled during such stretches, and Reed confessed that yes, it wasn’t always easy. At this point in the interview, Reed looked heavenward and said, “You know, it’s like—is that it? Is that all I’m getting?”
Costello asked. “Is that where you think it comes from?”
“I don’t know,” said Reed. “But it certainly doesn’t come from me. I just have to get out of the way. You know, I don’t want to sound too new age or woo-woo, but that’s how it is.”
And I thought, “Too late. And by the way, so what?”
At some point, like it or not, every artist of every stripe—if he’s honest—winds up sounding like a mystic when discussing his work. This can be unsettling for some, as many artists – particularly writers, for some reason – want to be taken seriously, and it is very easy to disregard mystical-sounding talk as so much mumbo-jumbo. And yet there we are, talking about letting something through that is not us, coming from somewhere beyond us.
It’s all right. Let it be mystical. There isn’t one writer I’ve interviewed – from literary to romance – who hasn’t admitted that the real joy of writing are the surprises, the characters who did what they wanted to do, the phrase that arrived fully formed in the imagination as if discovered under a rock. How is it we’re surprised if we’re the ones in charge? Why, if humans can’t tickle themselves, can they make themselves laugh or cry by what they write?
No—don’t answer that question. Let the answer remain as open as your heart must stay to hear the answer the question you ask every time you sit down to write.
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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com