“If You Sing That A Lot”: A Recipe for Writers

If you want to write, stop worrying about not being able to write, or what to write, or what not to write. Give up not having enough time. Not being good enough. Not being young or old enough. Stop obsessing about something someone said about your writing—or something they didn’t say. Stop reading between the lines of comments and feedback and replies. Stop waiting for someone to die so you can write. Stop waiting for the writer in you to be born. Give up your grudges and regrets. Give up the long lists of excuses and lies you tell yourself then push away the page.

But how do you give up a habit that’s become as natural as breathing? The smart parent knows the power of distraction is stronger than the word “No.”

Distract yourself with what you want. And then do it again.

Don’t waste time. Refocus on “the larger conversation.” The conversation that’s continued since the first stories were told.

Train your ear and eye on the story. Go to the ballet. Go to the street. An AA meeting. A concert. Your parent at the kitchen table. Readings on YouTube. Old movies. Get lost in stories of every kind.

If you want to write, you must read. I find this single most important act neglected by too many who say they long to write. And if writer’s block has you in its grip, and you can barely stand to look at your own last page, all the better! In the spirit of this season which calls us to hibernate, consider this idea: when you next feel the pull to check the news or Facebook, watch TV or your Twitter feed, open a book instead!

Read one poem or page—even a paragraph…

While I love the many ways we have to “connect” with each other and the world via media, I find that reading literature (as in physical books whose pages you can smell!) directly inspires and strengthens my writing like nothing else.

And rather than read a lot, read less—but go deep. Reread a sentence several times. Memorize a line. Read a paragraph/poem aloud to an empty room (even if the only empty room is the bathroom). Take a book with you everywhere. Read it to the walls. Whisper it under your breath. Whisper that line again.

If you spend a lot of time waiting—in cars, lines, waiting rooms—open a book, even if there’s only enough time to read a single sentence. Jot down a reflection or idea or a line of your own on its blank last page. Media will always be there, waiting to engage us. But literature nourishes and changes our writing at its source. Savor the sentence. Enter the image.

Bob Dylan says it best in the following excerpt from his 30-plus-minute MusiCares Person of the Year speech (2/6/15) in which he describes his songs as if they were inevitable children born of singing others’ songs:

For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.” I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,

Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose

Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes

He asked poor Howard where can I go

Howard said there’s only one place I know

Sam said tell me quick man I got to run

Howard just pointed with his gun

And said that way down on Highway 61

You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.

“Ain’t no use sit ‘n cry / You’ll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away.” “I’m sailing away my own true love.” “Boots of Spanish Leather” — Sheryl Crow just sung that.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

I think Dylan’s talking about falling in love—and letting that love become more important than anything, more important than failing. Perhaps he’s talking about letting your own writing become a reply, a call back, a letter to the beloved, God, or just another songwriter.


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