There’s a joke I like to tell during Q&As:
People often come up to me and they say, “I feel like I have a book in me!”
And I say, “That sounds painful. You should see a doctor!”
I never feel like I have a book in me. I always feel like there’s a book around me. It’s like I’m a planet and there’s all this space junk orbiting me, and all the junk starts smashing together and forming book chapters. My job is to grab that stuff around me and shape it into something.
Today in The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave had this advice for a “blocked” songwriter:
My advice to you is to change your basic relationship to songwriting. You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in. Songs, in my experience, are attracted to an open, playful and motivated mind. Throw my song away – it isn’t that good anyway – sit down, prepare yourself and write your own damn song. You are a songwriter. You have the entire world to save and very little time to do it. The song will find its way to you. If you don’t write it, someone else will. Is that what you want? If not, get to it.
This reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s terrific 2002 GQ profile of Tom Waits:
“Children make up the best songs, anyway,” he says. “Better than grown-ups. Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don’t care if they lose it; they’ll just make another one.” This openness is what every artist needs. Be ready to receive the inspiration when it comes; be ready to let it go when it vanishes. He believes that if a song “really wants to be written down, it’ll stick in my head. If it wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else’s song.” “Some songs,” he has learned, “don’t want to be recorded.” You can’t wrestle with them or you’ll only scare them off more. Trying to capture them sometimes “is trying to trap birds.” Fortunately, he says, other songs come easy, like “digging potatoes out of the ground.” Others are sticky and weird, like “gum found under an old table.” Clumsy and uncooperative songs may only be useful “to cut up as bait and use ’em to catch other songs.”
Gilbert writes more about Waits’ process in her book, Big Magic:
If a song is serious about being born, he trusts that it will come to him in the right manner, at the right time. If not, he will send it along its way, with no hard feelings.
“Go bother someone else,” he’ll tell the annoying song-that-doesn’t want to be a song. “Go bother Leonard Cohen.”
I love how both Nick Cave and Tom Waits seem to believe that songs are out there for the taking, and if you don’t grab them, somebody else will.
“You don’t understand,” Michael Jackson once said, “if I’m not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.”
What if you stopped thinking about your ideas as things you need to let out of you, but things you need to let in to you? Things you need to be ready to receive?
If you start to think about creative work this way, Gilbert says, “it starts to change everything.” You can stop being afraid and daunted and just “do your job. Continue to show up.”
Thoreau: “A man receives what he’s ready to receive.”