John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was nervous when he saw the word "process" in the title of this site. Process implies routine, and Darnielle doesn't really have a routine when it comes to songwriting. In fact, he eschews the idea. If he writes every day, it's a descriptor of his routine rather than a mandate. Keep a journal? Heck no, because Darnielle feels pretentious writing about himself. Darnielle wants to demystify the songwriting process; he doesn't want to see it as something that happens only when certain factors align. He considers songwriting, or any creative endeavor, labor. (As you'll read, Darnielle isn't too keen on the idea of writer's block.)
Of course, when things are going well he will stick to what works. For example, he wrote almost all of All Eternals Deck at his dining room table "because it just seemed to be coming out good there." He likes a certain kind of writing instrument and a certain kind of notebook. And he'll stick with one guitar, even if it's not the best one, "if it seems to be giving up the goods."
Darnielle's fiction and songwriting don't really overlap in their process. He writes his fiction in his office in the morning. The routine is not complicated: he arrives, he sits down, he writes. "I've always wanted to demystify the process. While there is magic in it, the bottom line is that it’s work. It’s labor. That’s what makes it noble. Getting to the office has really helped me see it as work." But when it's time to revise, he likes to pace the room, manuscript in hand.
For the uninitiated: Darnielle is one of the most respected songwriters today. Rolling Stone has called him "the best storyteller in rock" while Sasha Frere-Jones, writing in the New Yorker, called him "America's best non hip-hop lyricist." That's plenty of acclaim for one genre, but Darnielle's reputation as a fiction writer is just as stellar: his first novel Wolf in White Van was nominated for a National Book Award in 2014, while the New York Times praised the "simple clarity" and "effortless sketching of modern lives" in his 2017 novel Universal Harvester. For this interview, we talked about his songwriting and his fiction writing.
The Mountain Goats' fantastic new album Goths is out this Friday on Merge Records. Read my interview with John Darnielle after video/song. Darnielle started the conversation talking about Eugene O'Neill, which is why there's no question at first. And one more thing: I get emails every day from people with interview suggestions. Darnielle has been my most requested interview. So it was great to finally make this happen.
I have a tiny twinge of jealousy about your PhD in English Literature. Eugene O’Neill was actually who I was going to focus on if I went to graduate school. Reading Desire Under the Elms was a massive experience for me. I read it out of class. At Pitzer (Darnielle's undergraduate institution) you get to pilot your own ship as an English major, so when it came time to graduate I thought about what I hadn’t read up to that point. It was a long list. And while the canon is always in need of constant revising, you shouldn’t be able to graduate without hitting a couple of touchstones. So I read Desire and Iceman Cometh, both of which are good, but the writing isn’t nearly as good as some of his other stuff. I find Iceman so interesting, though, because he presents his ideas more clearly than in any of his other plays. But his dialogue—you need to be a tremendous actor of high caliber to be able to perform that play.
Funny you say that about O’Neill because his dialogue is laughable at times. The symbolism is so overt: how many times can he reference fog in Long Day’s Journey Into Night? He’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tennessee Williams when it comes to poetid dialogue.
O’Neill is like Plato in that sense. With Plato, people didn’t really talk to each other like that. It’s not conversational dialogue; instead, it’s dialogue to get some ideas at you in a certain way.
Enough about them. Let’s talk about you as a writer, whether it’s as a prose writer or songwriter How much writing do you do each day?
I have to say I was pleased when I looked deeper at your site, though when I see the word “process” I typically break out into hives because during interview season, I get asked all the time about my process. Tell me about your creative process, they ask. But that’s not even a question. You can’t do anything with that. It’s like asking, How do you feel about your lungs? Laughs.
I don’t adhere to any rules when it comes to my process. If I say I write every day, that’s more a description of what I do than a dictum. I don’t say that I have to write every day. But it does turn out that I do write most days. If I don’t do any, it’s unusual. It can be as little as scrawling down an idea. I think of writing as a place that you carry around inside of you. Whether you can find enough time each day to pull anything concrete from inside you is one thing, but creativity in writing is not the product of writing. It’s a space, an internal state of being. I firmly believe that everyone has it, but some of us are lucky to have the time and have had good enough teachers to coax our creativity into producing relics of itself.
Don’t you think you have to write every day, though, to be a good writer?
For one thing, I don’t believe in hard and fast rules for anything related to the process. I think that’s toxic. Like when some people say that you have to keep a journal. No you don’t. I don’t keep a journal, because I feel pretentious when I write about myself. While I don’t think it’s important to write every day, I do think it’s true that you’ll get better at anything you do a lot of.
This is an unusual thing to say in music, because there’s this myth that you have your whole life to write your first album and nine months to write your second. And it’s a rock critic cliché to say you prefer an artist’s early work. So many of us can name bands that we lost interest in after the second album. That’s weird, because that’s never the case in fiction, especially with the big writers. Not many people prefer a novelist’s early work over their later work.
As writers go along, they get better at what they do because the books get a lot more meat on their bones. In your first novel, you want to prove yourself, so you throw a lot of pyrotechnics into it. But as you go, you learn how to be more subtle with your tricks, and you learn how to please yourself instead of other people. That tends to be true in writing and in music. Over time, it doesn’t matter whether people tell you that you’re great. All that matters is that you wrote the thing you wanted to write. Writers tend to get more focused the more they write.
Has your prose writing process affected your songwriting process at all, maybe made you a more disciplined songwriter?
No, I would say if anything it’s the other way around. The two don’t really cross pollinate. They are different thematically. I’ve been writing prose since I was a kid; when I was young, I wanted to be a writer. Then when the Mountain Goats started, the only prose I wrote was music criticism for the longest time. I never even tried to write fiction for over 25 years.
I see fiction as a reprieve from songwriting, which is something I really know how to do. When I sit down to write a song, I know what I'm doing. It’s a familiar place for me, though I have to challenge myself to do it in different ways to keep it fresh. At this point, when I sit down with an idea, I know that ninety minutes later I’ll have a song. I write songs with an intense focus, usually in one sitting.
Prose is so leisurely. When you write a novel, it’s like returning to a country time and time again. On a daily basis, you arrive at the office and enter the space. It’s infinite. A song is too, but as a songwriter your job is to close off the infinite possibilities quickly. It’s about shutting as many doors as you can to winnow your focus.
But to answer your question: I do think that the songs inform the prose in terms of rhythmic build. I know that you add an instrument after the first chorus ends to keep it sonically interesting. And you build to a minor crescendo throughout the course of a song. These are also things that are easy to apply to novel writing.
Let’s talk about your environment. Is there an ideal time or place when you get your best writing done, either your prose or songs?
The short answer is that I keep an office external to the house, and I go in there in the morning. But that’s only for my prose writing. I can do music anytime and anywhere, which is partly out of necessity. I can write in the van or at the venue. When I'm at the house, there’s no particular room I favor, but when I write music, the center of power floats. When I was writing All Eternals Deck, I wrote the demos at our dining room table because it just seemed to be coming out good there. It’s almost mystical. I don’t believe that there’s a power hanging over it, but at the same time there’s a power accumulating. It’s the same thing when I work with a particular guitar, because I have a bunch. Sometimes, one guitar is just giving up the goods, so you keep writing with that one even though it’s not the best guitar you have. Once I get a new guitar, once I get comfortable with it, it tends to spit out a few good songs pretty quickly.
Back to prose, I write in my office in the morning. I’ve always wanted an office. I go there, and it sounds simple, but it’s a habit: I sit down and I write. For the first year, I didn’t have internet access in the office, so all I could do was write. But I eventually needed it to do research for my books, for example to find out what movies were playing in 1972. So I’ll write in the morning then go out for lunch, after which I stop by the house. That’s when the Mountain Goats stuff pulls me aside. But I think that’s good because it allows me to use my office just for prose since it gains power as a place the more I use it. That’s where I wrote Universal Harvester, so now it feels like something big happened there.
I imagine it’s also a feeling of confidence to work in a space where something big has happened. That comfort is reassuring.
It’s interesting because I know there are some producers—and I hope never to work with one—who try to make their clients uncomfortable. Of course, if the client knew, they’d get fired. But they have this idea that their clients will work better when they are frustrated. Don’t let the clients get too comfortable or else they won't do their best. I've done takes in the studio where I say to myself I'm going to do this well because I want to get out of here. Laughs.
Are there any rituals to your writing process?
Not really. I’ve always wanted to demystify the process. While there is magic in it, the bottom line is that it’s work. It’s labor. That’s what makes it noble. Getting to the office has really helped me see it as work. If you are going to a place to do work, your mind is your best friend and says Let’s work. My mind flips pretty quickly when I get there. When I went to the office this morning, I had a bunch of stuff on my plate that I spent about an hour and half doing, then I turned to my writing and my mind immediately said You're here. This is the place.
What about writer’s block?
It doesn’t exist. I consider creative work labor, not magic, but so is the ability to build a house. If bricklayers get bricklayer’s block, they get fired. It’s not like there’s no creativity in that work either. All work is creative, and labor is noble. Writing is labor. Painting is labor. You have tools when you write, tools like language. You're not always writing at the peak of your game, but the idea that nothing is coming doesn’t make sense. It’s something you do.
How about writing instruments: do you have a preferred one?
I write songs with pen and paper, almost always. I’m a big fan of notebooks and pens. I do not like to write in blue ball point, but I will. I like black ball points and pencils. Pencils are pretty great, actually. And I do get temporary attachments to certain notebooks and pencils. If I'm writing songs in a certain notebook, it will start to feel like This is the notebook where the action is. And I can document this, because I’ll go back to the notebook and realize Holy fuck, these are the four best songs on the album, in the same notebook on four consecutive pages. Or I'll have three great songs, then one total dog, then one great song. I was looking at the Tallahassee notebook recently, and it was insane how so many of the better songs on that record were written either in the same day or within days of each other in the same notebook.
But prose I have to write on my laptop. I keep physical notebooks with outline notes and ideas, but because it’s so big, I have to use a laptop. I even keep notes on my phone in a program called Bear. It’s incredibly useful because it’s so sortable. And they’re not paying me to tell you this.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
Some of this is because I've been at it so long, but on the new album there are some songs where it’s pretty much the first draft. I may have crossed out an entire verse here and there and changed a lyric or two, but not too much. I don’t revise all that much lyrically. But with prose? I revise maniacally. I love it! It’s the best part.
That’s great. What do you like about the revision process so much?
You're vying with the gods! Anyone can write sentences. But knocking them into shape so that they are good, especially when you have a bunch next to each other? That’s incredible. Willa Cather is probably the best prose stylist of the 20th century. It’s effortless to read. So clean, and there is no confusion. When do you ever have to go back to a Willa Cather sentence and ask yourself what happened? Never. Of course, when you stop to look at it, you know that her sentences must have been carefully revised. She must’ve put a great deal of effort in there to make it look effortless.
With poetry, of course, it’s the same way. Thomas Hardy was a brutal reviser. But when the poems come out, they look like they were already there, just waiting for someone to scoop them up. William Gass, one of my favorite writers, was the opposite. I think he revised with an end to you noticing the immense architecture of his sentences.
The initial creative spark is a burst: even if it’s slow, it’s still a flow. But what comes after is sculpting. You make something last by fixing everything that’s wrong. That’s what I did this morning, and it was so satisfying.
I’ve always believed that the best revision process involves getting as far away from your writing process as possible. The closer you are to the writing process, the more likely you are to miss things. So I always print out my drafts and read them aloud.
I read everything out loud. When I'm writing, I'll often stop to read out loud. And I like to print too, because I hate to read from the screen. I usually pace with the manuscript in hand from room to room. Or if it’s a single room, I just pace around the room, reading out loud with a pencil in my hand, noticing what flows or doesn’t flow.
How much distance do you need, either physical or emotional, to write about something?
I do want temporal distance if I'm writing about myself. On the other hand, I can set something someplace in fiction and be in that place as I'm writing about it. The one thing is that you don’t want your theme to be I'm in this place. That’s not a good theme. I'm here is a very narcissistic theme. You want your theme to be beyond you.
When William Wordsworth said Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility, that’s a really good line. In other words, you have strong emotions, but f you're observing something you can't measure it, and if you're measuring something you can't observe it. That’s a solid rule in writing too. It’s something I think about because people are so into live blogging and live tweeting. I am so not interested in what someone’s first reaction was. What’s interesting is how you feel after you spend time with something after letting it mellow inside of you. But we live in a time of great privileging of the first reaction. Some of that is valuable in writing, because your first look might be your best look. But I do think that if the first idea is the best idea, then the first version is not the best version.
Last question: who are you reading?
Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali. I got it at Skylight in Los Angeles on my reading tour. Most of what I read is literature in translation. I'm a big believer in literature in translation. If you limit yourself to your native tongue, you're barely literate. Laughs. So many people don’t keep up with what’s in the world. If you limit yourself to just English literature, you're wearing blinders.