Dear Rick Moody: How Can I Write Now That I’m Sober?
Rick Moody, Life Coach, on Learning to Trust the Process
Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach,
I am both a singer-songwriter and a writer of prose. I quit drinking nine years ago. My life has gotten significantly better since then, which is to be expected. I released one album while actively drinking. I recorded my second record sober, but about half of the pieces on the record were written while I was more than half in the proverbial bag. I recently released my third album; all of the songs were written after I quit drinking. My material has gotten better over time. Whether this is because I’ve aged and matured as an artist or because I’m now writing sober, I’m not sure. I think it’s possible that both are true.
Artistically and socially, what I craved in drinking was the ability to turn off the exceedingly critical and often cruel voice in my head—a voice that tells me I’m not good enough and what I’m creating is shit. When I had my first beer at age 17, it was magical; I couldn’t remember a time post age six when the voice had been so quiet.
I don’t know how to write sober. I’ve done it, but it’s hard and it takes me a great deal of time. There was a seven-year gap between my last two records. When I was drinking, I’d churn out a song in an evening and, more often than not, in the morning, even when I’d wake up on my kitchen floor or in an unfamiliar bed, I’d find that the piece I’d written drunk was good.
I have (sober) musician friends who write every day, regardless of whether they feel inspired or not. They, as we say in creative writing, put their butts in the chair. They admit that the majority of their songs are throw-away pieces. This does not work for me. I’ve never written a song that I have not later recorded. I have no throw-away pieces, and I really don’t want to. My confidence is so low that, were it not for my band who I trust enough to share new material, I would throw all of my pieces away. One criticism and I’ll never play the song again; this is not hyperbole. I’ve done this many times.
I teach literature and creative writing and frequently rail against the very dangerous myth that, in order to be creative, one must indulge in addiction. I make the case that writers we admire and whose addictions we romanticize died truly horrible deaths. According to Mariel Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway couldn’t write anything in the end and could barely hold a pen. Shortly before his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald was fired from the set of a film based on one of his own short stories. He died not long after and, according to Zelda Fitzgerald, his funeral was poorly attended.
I bought into this dangerous myth of the tortured artists for far too long. I wouldn’t say I’m no longer tortured, but I think of suicide much less and I no longer spend half of my days hungover.
What can I do to write sober? Help…
* * * *
There are 10,000 ways to write a song. I am going to try to catalogue some of the ways in this letter. As there are 10,000, I am only going to get to a small number of them in the available space. Before I start, I should say that the question, it seems to me, is not how can I write a song sober?, but, rather, is it necessary to express myself in song? Therein lies some of the difficulty. The attachment to certain ideas about what constitutes a “song,” and what is the relationship of this artifact to the author thereof.
When T. S. Eliot said that poetry was about “escape from personality,” rather than expression of self, he seemed (at least to some critics) to be recommending that, at a certain point, the mechanism of poetry was more important than the confessional impulse. Maybe, in the journey, the adventure, of self-discovery, there comes a point when self is no longer the magnetic center of the discovery at all, when transcending self is in part the goal.
I had a friend in one of those 12-step groups, and he said to me that you could tell the old-timers in the group because they were the guys in the back of the meeting space rocking in their chairs saying, “We’re nothing, we’re nothing, we’re nothing.” I have thought about this remark many, many times over the years. My friend, who is a very good writer (it bears mentioning) probably whipped this remark off, like he whipped off many other astounding remarks, without thinking unduly about it, and yet I am thinking about it still. The point of the observation seems to be that the longer you stay clean, sober, in remission from whatever compulsion and/or mental illness, the more you become like those Buddhist adepts who no longer cling to desire and attachment as you once did. You don’t require that magnetic center of self. There is the joy of living, of being here, of being alive and perceptive, of being a contributing member of society, but what there is, no longer, is the cult of one’s own personality.
It may be, therefore, that the issue is not how to write a song, but how to let go of certain ideas of what the song is, and whether or not the song needs to express Emily Rodgers.
1) You can take one of your earlier songs and just write it backwards. I was backstage at a gig a few years ago and I heard two successful indie/alt guys bantering, and one of them said: “I can’t tell you how many of our songs are just other songs we did backwards.” I believe that he meant the music I believe he just took the music from the other songs and played it backwards and then came up with some lyrics, and that was the new song. I assume he rerecorded the backing tracks so that they didn’t sound backward. But the chord progression was backward. It happens I really like this songwriter, and think he is a remarkable craftsperson with respect to poppy, infectious melodies. This, apparently is how he does it.
2) You could take a song from Korea, or Taiwan, or India, some language you don’t know, and try to guess at the meaning of the lyrics of the song, and make your homophonic translation the lyrics of your new song. This is basically a variation on Charles Bernstein’s amazing list of generative exercises for poets, which I personally use in class very often. I could basically write this entire letter, Emily Rodgers, by just substituting Bernstein’s recommendations for songwriting instead of poetry, and it would suffice. The point here is that, for example, the many years that Bryan Ferry takes, these days, to come up with another version of the line “Dance away the heartache, dance away the tears,” these are wasted years. Any lyric can be made a good lyric by applying some simple rules. The hangup only comes when you compare and despair with the Leonard Cohens or Joni Mitchells of the world.
3) Take some old song by the Carter Family, or the Anglican hymnal, and just update the words slightly. I have done this repeatedly with excellent results. No one ever knows. And the fact that you are using some of the greatest songs ever written will only lend seriousness to your endeavor. Again, this is to recognize that the great old sentiments are still the best sentiments.
4) Do the same with the music from these old songs and just make up new lyrics quickly without thinking. Without wanting to be too provocative in a life coaching letter, Emily Rodgers, it’s obvious that this is the methodology of some of the greatest of contemporary songwriters, for example the dude with the Novel Prize, who is sometimes not half the lyricist he is made out to be. Isn’t there a song from the 80s called “Wiggle, Wiggle?” On Under the Red Sky? I think so. Probably, we could, without fear of legal reprisal, also accuse the eminent band known as Led Zeppelin similarly. Personally speaking, I did this, at one point, with “This Land Is Your Land,” because, you know, why not. He stole the melody from the Carter Family himself, and I believe they stole it from a hymn.
5) Use some lyrical framework that is at hand, like your grocery list, or your list of books that you would like to read but have not read yet, and just rearrange the words slightly. This is the case with what I believe to be one of the greatest songs ever written, viz., Syd Barrett’s “Word Song.” (Here’s a really good video to go with it). Syd also manages to do this amazing thing with his abcedarian list: he sings it all on the same note. In fact, he doesn’t even vary the chords, except on this little guitar bridge thing between “verses.” Does it express the Syd Barrett, of the divided-self period, the period after Pink Floyd? It certainly does, if inferentially. This is the great thing about “found” lyrics. They are just as confessional as the confessional ones. In fact, in my own case, the found lyrics are sometimes more confessional than the confessional.
These are all approaches to songwriting that don’t require an Emily Rodgers to become songs, or rather they require a joyful technician, a musician at play, but not an agonizing Emily Rodgers. They trust that whatever the inner Emily Rodgers needs to express will be fully and completely expressed by her subconscious, without input from the fretting self who alleges to have control over the songwriting enterprise. As my friend Rob Fitterman says: “I am happy to have my poem express someone, I’m just not sure I need it to express me.”
Relatedly, what we are talking about here is what work should and ought to be in the joyful afterlife of sobriety, and/or how do our work habits change as we grow older and pursue our creativity as fully grown adults. I have found, in fact, that at every point in my writing life (and this includes writing songs) in which I have advanced the argument that I know exactly how I do what I do, or that there is a particular formula for how the work gets done I have suddenly, perilously abandoned the formula. That is to say that for me, creativity happens apart from any formula that I might impute to it. If I say I always write in the morning, I will immediately start writing in the afternoon. If I say I need to be in my office to do it, I will immediately stop using the office once and for all. If I say I need my books around me, I will start writing in the car (a lot of of my novel The Four Fingers of Death was written in my parked car, for some reason—it was the only quiet place). The only conclusion seems to be that nothing works on an ongoing basis, and one has to keep tricking the self into cooperating in the fungible, mutable activity of creating. One has to surprise the self and to accept wherever the surprise leads. So be alert to the possibility that you must abandon whatever was the route from before.
Here are some more suggestions:
6) Stop writing with a guitar in your hand. I don’t actually know if you write with a guitar in your hand, but I believe it is really easy to find that our primary instrument of choice can quickly become a thing in which we employ the same tricks over and over again. (I think Rod Stewart once famously boasted: “I only know five chords, and I’ve used them in every song!”) Try writing apart from your instrument of choice. I write a lot of melodies now with my voice alone and without a guitar at hand, which is itself a renovation of technique, because I was trained as a piano player and used to write only on the piano. I think there’s an Innocence Mission song where Karen Peris plays bass, not guitar or piano, and that’s how she got to the song. I think it’s “Snow” from Birds of My Neighborhood. Or that is my recollection.
7) Start collaborating. Even the greats get stale sometimes, and trying to write with someone else can be a great stimulus. (Note that brace of great songs that McCartney and Elvis Costello wrote together in the 80s.) I personally have found that writing songs with other people can be electrifying and powerful. It can be a grinding horror, too. This I concede. But even when horrible the experiment is sometimes enough to jolt one out of a rut. It’s as if one has to have some mediocre collaborations in order to get to the fruitful ones. These days, I lend myself out almost indiscriminately, or, rather, my discrimination is precisely to avoid discriminating, because I believe you have to be out there playing with people and being with other players to get to the songs.
8) Make music out of anything nearby. I really love all those recordings of Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) where he’s just beating on the side of table in his kitchen and singing along with it. There’s one on Trout Mask Replica where the recording consists of nothing but the Captain singing into one of those old awful cassette recorders of the day and you can hear him punching in and punching out whenever he comes up with a line. That recording is the truth! I have tried to make music with teapots, with door screeches (Sun Ra did this in the mid-60s), with the sounds of drains. You can use any of this stuff, these days, and record it right onto your computer, and then sing over it.
9) Oblique Strategies. This is the name of a deck of cards that Brian Eno designed with a visual artist friend in the early 70s in which each card has some rules for making art. I have it on my phone now, too, and I just picked one of the cards for you, Emily Rodgers. It says: Trust in the you of now. And, in a way, Emily Rodgers, this is as good a piece of advice as your life coach could, in this case, possibly offer.
I am saying over and over again, in a number of different ways, that you should trust the process, Emily, in the you of now, and be alert to the process of change, motility, adaptivity, the artist growing older, the artist needing different sustenance, and a different point of purchase in the process of making. That’s all as it should be. Time is the avenger. It’s up to us to watch and wait. If you can manage this, this acceptance of where you are, and the different standards of the present, it’s all going to be fine. I am sure of that. Look at songwriters who have lapsed for periods of time. Gillian Welch took eight years off recently and then came back with a great album. Leonard Cohen had a couple of extremely fallow periods. David Bowie took nearly ten years off and then had the incredible Next Day. (And he’s a really good model for finding the lyrics right nearby because he often fed stuff into the computer and had it generate found lyrics for him.)
This silence, you know, is just another kind of music. Music is just the stuff that happens between the rests. So if you need to take more time now and to adjust to what it feels like, today, to be this songwriter, this adult who doesn’t have to drink to get there, and who doesn’t have to write about the carnage of that time, where’s the harm?
I will say that in my own case, which is reasonably well-known by now I think, I quit drinking in the middle of my first novel, and you can see the difference, the dark, self-centered, romantic self-destruction of the first half, and the beginning-to-see-the-light of the second half. It’s a bad book, Garden State, owing to this fault line, and I have gotten quite a bit better since. I don’t think of anything I did drunk as being interesting at this late date. I would not trade the nakedness before human consciousness of sobriety now. I cherish it. And if it means that I am not as great an artist in the public sense of the thing, by not taking part in the romantic mythology of the great self-destructive artists, then I am okay with that. I just want to continue down this path of creativity, wherever it leads, even if it’s just to some glade where I am going to sit and watch my son and daughter grow and do very little else.
I know well the committee of naysayers you allude to, Emily, but I do honestly believe that we can come to have work habits that short circuit those voices, and provide us with, over time, a modicum of relief. I think the committee is really vestigial, and is as vainglorious as thinking your every song, or poem, or novel, is astounding. The truth is always between. Which is why work is more important than the reputation of the work, however long it takes to produce.
I will look forward to hearing what comes next.
Rick Moody, Life Coach