A few years ago I had lunch with a friend in Chattanooga. His name is Chris Slaten, and he’s an excellent songwriter, performing under the name Son of Laughter. I’m envious of his beard. I asked him how his songwriting was going, and since he’s a schoolteacher I wondered where and when he wrote. Did he have an office? He smiled between bites of tortilla chips and tapped his temple. “I do it up here,” he said.
This may come as a surprise to you, that a song could be written in that miraculous space between a human’s ears. It surprises me, even though I’ve done it before. Chris said that the other day he had a doctor’s appointment and he sat in the waiting room with a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He opened the book for a moment, then shut it and decided instead to work on a song. He stared at a fake plant in the corner for twenty minutes and bent his will to the task. He said he was sure that he looked strange, staring all that time without really moving. But he made progress. He got home, grabbed his guitar, and tested out what he had “written,” then helped his wife with dinner until the next time he had twenty minutes to think—which was, he said, the next morning’s commute to the school.
If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing.
It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blue-prints, or the gardens. One of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur, is called “The Writer.” Look it up. Seriously. Right now, go find a computer, Google it, and read it twice. Then head over to a bookstore and buy his collected poems. Keep the book on your nightstand and read one of them each night before you sleep. Writing is always a matter of life or death, he says, and finding the right arrangements of words is like being a bird trapped in a house, trying to find its way through the open window.
When I was in college I wrote most of my songs during class. I often sat next to my friend C.J., who was not only my college roommate, but was the guy who taught me to play the guitar ten years earlier at church camp. The first song I ever learned on the guitar was “Patience,” by Guns ‘n Roses, which starts in the key of C with a whistle solo, and I must say that there are much worse first songs a guy could have learned. C.J., who was hard at work learning to write songs even in high school, also happens to be the guy who introduced me to the music of Rich Mullins. I have happy memories of the music we made at C.J’s house during his senior year of high school. We’d pull out the guitars and Belinda, his mom, would belt out “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey. Man, did she have some pipes. The whole family did. Those “na-na-na’s” at the end of the song provided me one of my first opportunities to sing harmony. I was the skinny kid in the background, trying to keep up, trying to learn to sing in tune.
When I look back at those days I’m overwhelmed by their kindness. The Fluhartys encouraged me to sing, to play, to write, even though I was sloppy and flat and overeager. When C.J. graduated high school and went to Bible College, I followed suit, partly because I had nothing better to do.
So there we sat next to each other in Old Testament survey classes, covertly passing lyrics back and forth. I watched the way he wrote his songs, the way he ordered the words on the page, arranging the stanzas so he could keep track of the meter of each line, the way he anguished over the syncopation of the syllables. I had still not managed to finish a song of my own—nothing worth sharing, anyway—but I felt a burning desire to contribute to our little college band’s body of work.
I was a freshman, and fresh out of a pretty intense relationship with a girl. Then along came Jamie. She was beautiful and funny and full of life. She was a junior, and it was impossible to ignore her. We fell in love in a matter of weeks, and I knew without a doubt that if we kept dating we’d be married before you could sing the chorus of “Patience.”
That was what scared me.
I had just started college, I had dreams of playing music with a band, and was utterly unprepared to marry anybody, even if she was beautiful and wonderful and encouraging beyond measure. There were days when I wished I could retreat to a simpler place where there were no big decisions to be made. These are the lyrics I worked on for those early weeks of college.
I take a walk down a dusty road and I
Sink my feet in memories of colder days gone by I don’t want to go, but it’s all downhill
And it seems so easy, I think I will
Could you tell that I’d been crying When you talked to me today?
I’d been running from the words inside I never meant to say
So come on with me and I’ll walk you around Through the backstreets of this old ghost town
Come along and you will see
There’s a place where we can be Far away from you and me Way down
I’ll spare you the rest. To be honest, reading it now I don’t really know what it means. Something about memories, something melodramatic about wanting to escape all the questions so we could just hang out like the lovebirds we were. Apparently there was some kind of tearful discussion about our future, but I don’t remember it now.
I don’t mean to diminish what must have felt at the time like a big deal, but the obscurity of the lyric makes it difficult for me to take it seriously. There are two more verses equally vague and earnest, but at the time I couldn’t find the chorus. One afternoon in apartment 418 my nineteen-year-old self mustered the courage to play my unfinished song for C.J. and ask him what he thought. Where should the chorus go? What should it be about? Was this all terrible?
No, he said, it wasn’t a bad start. He liked it in all its “Toad the Wet Sprocket-ripoff” glory. He looked over the lyrics, pointed at the part about the ghost town that ended with “way down” and said, “That’s your chorus. It already has one.” Then he took a bite out of his apple and walked over to the courtyard picnic table with his guitar to work on a song of his own.
Sometimes you’ve done all the planting you need to do, and it’s time to start weeding the garden.
from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson