A few years ago I realized with a thud of dread that I had about a month to come up with the songs for a new album. I had two, maybe three ready to go, which meant I needed to write at least eight more songs, preferably ten or twelve. Some people start a record with forty or fifty in the queue and it’s the producer’s job to help the writer narrow them all down to the ten or twelve that will comprise the collection. Even when I was in college, spending every spare minute writing because it helped me avoid schoolwork, I didn’t have that many songs in the queue—ever. I’m so distrustful of my own abilities, my tendency is to abandon a song (or at least shelve it) as soon as I stop believing in it. It’s possible, I suppose, that that method thwarts the output, never allowing a sloppy song the chance to grow into a good one, but after twenty years I might as well stick to what I know. So in a couple of months, six weeks, maybe, I knew I’d be in the studio with a producer, shaking hands with the drummer and bass player, teaching them the basic layout of a few songs. I should have felt some anxiety about it, but I didn’t, mainly because there’s a last-minute rush of creativity that accompanies every project, the way Jamie used to nest like a madwoman in the weeks before each of our children’s births. (Never underestimate the power of a good panic to summon a song.)
One of them appeared while I was walking our woods. It arrived in the key of G, a 4/4 ballad that felt like something by British songwriter David Gray. I sang the first few words at the piano during a rare moment when Jamie and the kids were all out somewhere. (Never underestimate, either, the power of a quiet house, a few minutes in the half-light of late afternoon, when there’s no fear of being overheard, when one can make a fool of oneself with abandon. King David may have danced through the streets of Jerusalem—but that’s something I can’t imagine doing, not for a million bucks.) I sang the first line, mumbled the rest, changed the chords underneath, and landed on a phrase that felt solid and meaningful, and at once I could imagine the dim shape of the finished work. A car pulled up the drive and the moment was gone, but I had a nibble—enough to tell me there were fish in the pond.
I walked around our home, over the stream by way of the wooden bridge that my son Asher built, up around the old dam and the empty pond, down to the pasture with the stone wall, thinking, thinking, thinking about what verse two might be. I started with the same few words of the first verse, then changed it up enough to suggest a parallel idea, and by the time I hiked past the statue of St. Francis near the bend in the trail, there was another possible verse waiting to be sung at the piano—but not until I happened upon another miraculous moment of solitude when the house was empty.
At the risk of repeating myself, this is how it works. It’s not magic. It’s work. You think, you walk, you think some more, you look for moments to hammer it out on the piano, then you think again. A few days later I thrust the unfinished song upon Skye and Jamie, apologizing in advance for the discomfort such a performance would cause. That little performance is a crucial stage in the making of a song. You hear the song’s weaknesses because you’re able to listen to it through their ears. It’s like taking your mom to a film you love, and only then realizing how offensive the language is. But it also exposes the song’s strengths, if there are any. And this one, thank God, felt in the end like a proper song. A Song. An idea was introduced, a feeling conveyed, a response evoked. Weak and wobbly as its legs were, the thing took a few steps and held its ground. When the performance was over I ducked into my bedroom with a glimmer of hope.
Eight more to go. Eight more battles with fear. Eight more leaps of faith.
Do you see how God redeemed, and continues to redeem, the broken and selfish motives that drove me here? How all those fears that bang around in my head are gathered, sifted like wheat, and then turned into something better than self- expression, self-preservation? I’ll probably always be self-conscious, so the battle to make something out of nothing at all will rage on, and I’ll have to fight it in the familiar territory of selfishness until the Spirit winnows my work into something loving and lovable. I’m no longer surprised by my capacity for self-doubt, but I’ve learned that the only way to victory is to lose myself, to surrender to sacredness—which is safer than insecurity. I have to accept the fact that I’m beloved by God. That’s it. Compared to that the songs don’t matter all that much—a realization which has the surprising consequence of making them easier to write.
from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson