I am a musician. Music has been in my blood every since I can remember. I was given my first guitar at 15 and I never looked back. However, it was not until two summers ago that I seriously began to write my own music. Cover songs were my forte and I had mastered the art of making them my own, but had been too scared to live up to the greats in my head. Why write your own music when there is so much good music already out there? But I took the plunge. I began to write and the I thought the process would kill me. Perfectionism is a flaw of mine that has kept me from doing a lot of things. So I toiled and toiled until I gave up and moved on with my life, sticking to other’s brilliant work.
I picked up a book that summer entitled The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. It had been assigned for a class I had in the fall but I could not resist reading it (the cover was too tempting with a couple kissing in the rain). So I cracked it open and was hooked from the first page. The story of Bendrix raptured me. The book rarely left my hands in the span of a week. Once it was over, I quickly turned back to the beginning and began reading again. I felt something strange happen to me. There was some kind of itch in my soul after my encounter with this piece of fiction. I could hear a sort of whisper coming from the walls around me.
And so I picked up my guitar and put this literature to music. Once it started, it all came tumbling out through my fingers and throat. I felt I was at the mercy of my own work. This song had to be written for the sake of something… maybe my soul? I can’t be sure. I don’t know enough about these things. And so The End of the Affair was born. My first real piece of creative work that felt right.
I didn’t end up playing the song for any one but myself until months after it had been written. I still get nervous about putting my work out in the public square to be critiqued and tested. It started with just a small group of friends and the response was positive. How can it not when it is your friends right? And so after a couple more months of refining, I signed up for Westmont’s Phoenix open mic night – a big deal for a Westmont musician. The organization puts out a publication every year that is accompanied by a CD of all original creative work from students. You try out and if picked, you get to record with professionals (as close as you can get at least) and play at the release show in the spring. And so I jumped off and dove into this public sphere of music. The response was again positive, but nothing too exciting. I tried out for the CD with my Graham Greene inspired song. I made it and boy was I not prepared for the next month of events.
The recording process was tiring and made me hate the song by the time it was over. I was recording with other Westmont artists who seemed way more experienced and better altogether put up against my song about a dirty affair between two fictional characters. I gathered my things and expected to hide under a rock when the CD came out. I was approached by the music editor who informed me that she had been putting together the playlist and had decided to make my track the first one on the CD. Shit. There was no escaping this now. My fate was sealed. By the night of the release, all I could think was, “What have I gotten myself into?” I got up on stage and fumbled for a guitar that wasn’t mine which needed to be tuned and it was an awkward moment to say the least. I jumped off the bridge again and off to the races.
Once I had struck the last chord, I went deaf. I didn’t want to hear the silence or whatever else that followed my performance. I hate the ending of a song because I just never know what to do. It’s not like acting where the cast comes out and bows. In music, there is this awkward thank you as you walk off stage and you hope there is clapping. Once I slinked back into the corner of the theatre, I finally became a human again and got some small comments here or there. I thought they were being generous until what followed this mysterious night.
The next week, I was approached by people who I had met before and people I had never seen before and they all wanted to comment on my song. And this was the beginning of what felt like a flood of response in which I had dreaded more than people hating my music – they actually liked it. Shit. What have I gotten myself into? And from that point on, I was grouped in with Westmont “celebrities” and the only song request at any musical event I play at was (and largely still is) The End of the Affair. No matter how much I hate that song, it will be my mark. Who would have thought that Westmont students love the story of that dirty affair between Bendrix and Sarah more than I did?
And so it is a year later and I move forward very cautiously. Why? Because I wonder how I can measure up to my own silly success that came in the form of that first song on the Phoenix. There was my one stroke of creative genius and it came on my first go at this whole compilation CD thing. With the Phoenix quickly approaching again, I am nervous. How do I find that genius again? And then I watched a video a friend showed me on the TED website: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html. This woman, Elizabeth Gilbert, wrote a bestselling book called Eat, Pray, Love and now everyone is asking her what’s next? How do you top something like that? Her response is: I don’t know…
It is odd the way we have referenced the creative process as something that is very self involved. Gilbert presents an interesting idea, that maybe we are at the mercy of the creature of creativity. It shows up and it is our job to channel it. Other days, you show up, but it doesn’t. And this is the way it goes. Maybe we have to admit that this creative genius is outside of us and as much as we like to think we are in control of it, we are not. I know this well. Creativity often strikes me miles away from my guitar or in the car where I have no pen or paper. But sometimes it comes just at the right moment. This was my End of the Affair experience – the creative genius showed up and so did I. And to this day, a good song takes me no more than a day to write, otherwise I will toil and toil but nothing comes out. But that is okay. As Gilbert said, all we can do is show up for work. And maybe we will create something worth hearing.
So will I measure up to that song? I don’t know. I like to think I have some more songs worth singing in me, but I have to be dedicated to showing up and letting the creative genius do its work. And so I commit to this. Because it’s too big to do on my own.