Many people believe that words flow effortlessly from the pens of great writers. These writers, people think, can just sit down and churn out page after page of prose, poetry, or whatever it is they are writing. But this is fantasy. Good writing is hard. Heck, if it were easy, the world would be filled with great writers.
For most of us, writing can be a struggle. Dallas Green, who writes and records under the name City and Colour, told me that since his last album If I Should Go Before You in 2015, he's only written a handful of songs, an unusually low number for him. Green is, by his own admission, a slow writer anyway, due to partly to fear. "I've always had this fear that I'm so scared to write the wrong thing down, even though the only way to get to the right thing is to first write the wrong thing down. And it's a real problem because I keep everything up in my head until I feel like I've got it. It's almost like I'm afraid to force it, so I never force it. That really slows my process," he told me when we talked. But while he thinks often about why the words have been slow in coming, I didn't get the sense that he's too concerned. He recently took two months off from music, and while he imagined that he'd writing something during that time, he didn't. "I'm comfortable not feeling the need to get in the studio," he said.
M.C. Taylor will tell you that he's not a narrative songwriter. There may be a story behind the songs, but they don't really tell a story. And even if they did, he wouldn't tell you what those songs are about because that's not his duty as a writer. Taylor would never dare tell you what meaning you're supposed to glean from his lyrics. "Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can't quite tell whether it's happy or sad. That's the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. My songs are about whatever you want them to be about. You have your idea and I have mine, and I would never disabuse anyone of their notion." he told me.
Any artist will tell you that discipline is a necessary component of their creative process. Anyone who sits around waiting for the muse is probably not long for the craft. You have to work at it. Theresa Wayman of Warpaint certainly adheres to this idea: she creates something every day, even if it's nothing great. She told me, "Even if you're a creative person, it's important to go to work every day. . . . I have to exercise some aspect of myself, even if I create something that I never want to hear or see again. At least I've accomplished something if I do that. . . . You have get through the crap to create something beautiful."
Wayman wasn't always this disciplined, though. Another component of the creative process is the willingness to change your routine to stay energized creatively. To Wayman, that change meant becoming more disciplined. Using discipline as a way to disrupt the creative process would appear to be a paradox, although it really isn't.
If you ever happen upon Robert Ellis in public, and he's intently staring at you in a way that probably makes you deeply uncomfortable while he's also jotting down words in a journal, don't worry. There's a good chance he's writing a song. You see, for the song "Perfect Strangers" off his new album Robert Ellis, Ellis rode the subway in New York City for a month one August. Every day, he'd hop on the train, sit down, and pull out his journal. Then he's stare ("creepily," in his words) at the other passengers, trying to imagine where they were going, what their job was, and what their family was like. Then he'd write down his impressions, and those impressions formed the basis for "Perfect Strangers."
Ironically, though, Ellis is driven much more by melody than by lyrics. He actually hates to see his lyrics alone on a page, telling me that they too often look like the musings of a "high school creative writing student . . . A lyrical alone is not enough to kick me in the gut to make me finish. When I look at lyrics naked on the page, they always seem shitty to me. It's rare that I look at just my lyrics and feel good about them."
Regardless of what kind of art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point, you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific and so talented
"You can't have purple prose and expect people to get to the core on their own," Kristin Welchez told me as we discussed her songwriting process. Welchez is the leader of the Dum Dum Girls with a new project under the moniker Kristin Kontrol. Welchez told me that she's always been "indulgent" in her words (it's feedback she's gotten since grade school) but that she tries to be as direct as possible in her songwriting. Stripping an idea to its bare essentials is the easiest way to minimize distance between you and the audience; it doesn't matter whether they're readers or concertgoers. To reinforce this idea to a young Welchez, one of her English teachers gave her a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, and she's tried to follow this precept ever since.