They say you don’t find books — books find you.
I often get weary of all the things “they” say. I mean, who are they anyway? But Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, a novel by Kathleen Rooney, had to have found me. The book speaks of how our synapses come alive when we move around within urban spaces (New York City in this case) — and, without realizing how suited it was at the time, a friend recommended it during a week I spent in the Big Apple walking about and coming alive myself.
Who knows? Maybe “they” are right after all.
In the story, the main character (Lillian) makes colorful observations as she strolls the neighborhood she lives in. I do the same when I’m staying in New York, taking note, for example, of how a pizza place can’t be deemed outstanding unless you can smell it from a block away. Over the years I’ve become one those ladies who can’t live without an oversized shopping cart — the kind I swore you’d never ever catch me pushing. But there I was pushing it through the city streets, which lead me to a budding lyric about how we change our attitudes over time — a tasty theme that often comes up for me when I notice how differently I navigate the world than I used to.
In my blog posting Long May You Run, I touched on how a daily jogging routine releases creative endorphins. But response to stimuli is a result of any form of body-in-motion — biking, rowing, even watching something else move: a swimmer in a lap pool, birds flying overhead, big ol’ jet airliners heading somewhere, rain pouring down. For me, even if the view is of a spectacular sunset, it’s the headlights on the highway that are more likely to fire up my brain.
Lillian’s character, a poet, speaks of connecting to the pavement in order to problem-solve. She discovers new rhythms and fresh rhymes in the energy of her pace. But she also writes about how stillness actually blocks her in that her least desirable place from which to write is where there are no distractions. Without noise and chatter, she is destined for an empty page.
I get it. A turn-off-the world / do not disturb mindset means no catalysts. No triggers. No outside seeping its way in.
Some songwriters may think this theory (though I would argue it’s more than a theory) applies only to accessing lyrics. That’s been my experience, but that may be because my song babies usually start with words. Other songwriters receive their “incoming” in musical form. Melody is language, after all.
Often when I feel there’s something I want to express but can’t put my finger on it, I find myself changing my orientation and moving toward action, even if it’s just a visit to the mall. My unconscious knows where to go in order to serve my creativity.
Creativity is not stagnant. It is energy, and energy is alive. How dull it would be if it weren’t!
In NYC it’s always about the walk. The sight of young lovers kissing on a stoop prompts me to ponder, “How long have they known each other? Maybe they just met. How delicious is that first kiss?” And voila … away we go.
Of course, it’s possible to access our feelings and put them into words when we’re just chillin’. If those feelings are powerful enough, or our memories of them stay with us long enough, songs can flourish in an immobile state.
That said, there are certain songs I have no doubt were conceived on the spot. For example, no one can convince me that Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” didn’t come to him while at the helm of a boat, after which he probably took the idea back to his laboratory to flesh it out. He simply could not have captured the same authentic essence if he were lying in bed facing the ceiling. Similarly, as I was flying back home to Los Angeles looking out the window from 30,000 feet, I had the thought that Joni Mitchell must have had a similar view when the analogy of clouds to angel hair and ice cream castles occurred to her.
I think it’s safe to say that some of the most poignant experiential songs were sparked in the immediacy and with the clarity of the moment with which they coincided — when life-in-motion was encircling and captivating the author. I’ve looked at songwriting from both sides now and I think it’s a pretty safe bet.