Last year I was invited to a songwriter’s retreat… well, actually I was sort of hired, along with four or five other songwriters to mentor and encourage aspiring songwriters. There were about sixty or sixty-five attendees, and we met at a beautiful retreat in upper Michigan. Perhaps, I should voice the reasons I approached gig with certain trepidations. I had just gone through a long period of “writer’s block”… in fact, after Mary’s death, I had gone almost three years without writing anything. I kept telling myself that maybe we could check out that old cliche… “them that can… do, them that can’t… teach”. In my defense, I had taught at other songwriting gatherings and found that even if I didn’t write, I could offer some fairly cogent ideas for approaching the daunting task of making yourself vulnerable and of exposing all your insecurities in a song.
What I didn’t know about this particular retreat was that everyone there… faculty included, was supposed to write a song in the three or four days we were there. Not only write a song, but to perform it publicly for all the others to hear and appreciate. (And here are those insecurities… maybe NOT appreciate).
I will say this….John Lamb, who was the director and moving force behind the retreat did his homework. He had a rather long and detailed suggestion sheet for everyone there… he found out where each person was from, something about the history of their area, or some other interesting fact and actually gave each aspiring songwriter some tangible thing to go to if they ended up not knowing what to write about. I could see, especially for beginning songwriters, how that could be extremely helpful.
He gave each person their own particular sheet and an assignment to write a song based on their town, or state, or what not. He had some rather specific criteria that were intended to keep us connected to the task at hand. For instance, any colloquialisms or customs that were part of the everyday fabric of our particular areas. He also had very detailed suggestions of where the song could go if you ran into a blank wall and didn’t know where to turn. I could clearly see how his process could be extremely helpful to aspiring songwriters. Unfortunately, not for me.
I’ve always known that I write differently from most songwriters… most writers get an idea for a song and sort of write a poem about it, (sometimes, simultaneously writing a melody… sometimes adding the melody later), so it comes out as a fairly well connected whole. With me… melody comes ages before the lyrics. I can have a melody in my head for a long time before I figure out what it’s about, and the problem with that is that now I’m locked into the melody and the number of syllables in a phrase, so now I’m forced to find words that fit EXACTLY into those confines. Not the best way to write. Also… I don’t write quickly. Elephants have babies faster than I write songs. So the idea of writing a song in a finite period of time was terrifying to me. All of the wonderful guideposts that John Lamb gave everybody to keep us on the problem at hand worked against me and just… well… paralyzed me.
On the final night of the retreat, we all gathered and performed the songs each one of us had written. Everyone wrote a song…. some were fantastic. I mean, standing ovation fantastic. And all of them were quite good and affirmed that John Lamb was onto something. That most of us could write a really good song with some guidance and the desire to do it.
Well…. ALL of us didn’t write a song… I ended up with one and a half lines. It was embarrassing. I just couldn’t do it… everything worked against me. All the information John gave, which was so helpful to others, just stopped me dead in my tracks. I left the retreat vowing never to attempt to write a song again.
You see, John had found out I was from a small town in New Mexico… Portales, and that we grew peanuts there. “Portales, New Mexico: Peanut Basin of the Nation”. What he didn’t know that some damn visiting professor from Dallas, in his inimitable wit and wisdom had dubbed us “Goober Gulch” and the nickname had stuck, so I had grown up cringing at the name… he also wanted the song to be a “slice of small town life”.. a love story…. he wanted me to work a holiday into the song… and something about the financial circumstance of our hero…. anyway, it was just too much stuff… so all I wrote was..”You ain’t got no money… your Visa was declined”… I didn’t get a standing ovation.
I came home and four months later finally wrote the song… John Lamb was threatening to put the word out that I didn’t live up to my obligations if I didn’t.
Click below if you’d like to hear it….