How To Know What To Say (and When Not To Say It)

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It is a good thing to wake up feeling healthy after having been ill. I am crawling out from under the terrible anvil of what amounts to either a massive cold, or the flu. Whatever official title the bug wishes to be dubbed, it was no picnic and it managed to cost me, and no doubt my wife, some comfort and income. I canceled the first show I’ve ever had to cancel because of it. For me, occupationally, this time of year is typically as barren as the leafless trees, so to cancel a show is almost like turning down a million bucks (don’t worry, I wasn’t getting paid 1/1,000,000 of a million bucks, I just needed a melodramatic analogy).

I am, as they say, living the dream: a dream that consists very little in the way of actually making live music, mostly spent scampering here and there for the nibbles of odds-and-ends work and necessary supplemental income. During this portion of the calendar year, it is foolish to turn down any kind of work, white- or blue-collar; I’ve dabbled in both over the years. As a singer-songwriter whose head may not always sit squarely upon my chipped shoulders, I find myself facing this reality each year: figure out how to survive and pay for the season’s fiduciary demands, strive to live and love for family and other selves, and if I can summon the humility, figure out how to die just a little bit to my own bloated egocentric self. All for the triumph of the Great Emancipation. All for the sake of the muse. All for the sake of having – or finding – something to say under the gray skies of winter.

I am a quiet, shy person; painfully and awkwardly so at times (Is there a good sort of shyness?). There are days when I find words to be a burden, an albatross, while others I simply am unable to procure any, even though I wish I could. Even when I want my mind and lips moistened by their horizon-less presence, words rarely come easy. Instead, they hang there so luminous and well-written on the pages – albeit from someone else’s pen. Every so often I revisit some of my own meager word collections, and the humbling experience evinces in me a desire to to take my own hand and slap my own freckled face. I see an amalgam of gross overstatements, mere wanna-be grandeur, and petty, presumptuous thoughts that are so over-the-top narcissistic that I can’t believe anyone else would bother finish reading one sentence, let alone several of them. How regrettably often I manage to neglect the innocent purity of observational thought for the foul stool of complaint, for the ignorant assumption that I am all alone in my “suffering”, that language is my dominion alone. It is an easy train to hitch a ride upon, this self-centeredness. I suppose to an extent we all like hanging our dirty laundry out for others to see so they might take pity on us, express their sympathy in so many ways, and, yes, in my case even procure a few “Oh, that poor guy” CD sales. Oh, good grief, it’s wretched. But it’s the truth. Dirty laundry rarely looks good and it almost certainly never smells so. The ugly truth is better than a clean lie.

In looking back, I have, however, managed to utter a few thoughts, either in song or prose, that have left me scratching my own head, not out of confusion, but in astonishment that such a series of solid, relatable, realistic words surely must have originated from somewhere other than my own shallow-as-a-thimble wisdom. They came from Someone much greater than myself because they speak something real, yes even to me. In those moments, though I wish I naturally possessed such indiscriminate Saul-like wisdom, I know full well who bears the brains in the family and I remember who has earned the title of Author and Perfector. I must kneel and praise all small, forgotten miracles. I consider myself somewhat of a rarity in that it is not often that I enter the process knowing ahead of time what I am going to say in a song or an essay. Thoughts, like meandering brambles, creep out and form their own hedge. Sometimes, in effect, they guard the Truth, while others they cling to it so tightly that it’s a wonder the Truth survives at all. So, I ask all you writer-types (as opposed to typewriters): How does one know what to say? Better, if silence is golden, and less is more, then how does one know what to say and when not to say it?

From my own experience, I usually sit staring for a few moments at an empty piece of paper or at a blank computer screen. That’s about the time it takes for the voices in the back of my mind to begin their disdainful jeering and proverbial tomato-tossing, “Don’t even kid yourself into thinking you can write something worthwhile”, “You’re a fraud, a poser, and a loser, and you know it.” So, to silence – or at least temporarily muzzle – these doomsday voices, I write. Anything. Anything to put a word, any word, down on the page. A penny for a thought. It may be total bunk, but at least it is a word. The word becomes flesh. Something is nearly always better than nothing when it comes to writing. Even a “shitty first draft” – as writer/memoirist, Anne Lamott, describes the process – is progress on the whole and is a step, however small or cosmic, in a direction away from the inner-wrecking voices. Most times I have no real idea what I have to say until I start hacking away at it and actually start saying it. I guess in many ways, it is a cart before the horse approach, but it is the only way I know to make progress miring along in the knee-deep mud path. You just have to wade hip-high through it and look for the green grass on the other side. This quote by novelist E. M. Forster gives me some hope and fairly sums it up: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

The word became flesh. And dwelt among us.

Maybe that’s just it — writing becomes the substance of thought, the coup of grace, the good treasure of the heart. I don’t always know what is tangled up in my convoluted heart and mind until I, for better or worse, put pen to paper or, in this case, fingers to keyboard. And once I find what is in my heart, there too shall my treasure be discovered. It is, like all things spiritual, hope in the Word made flesh, the fleshing out of good, the rooting out of bad, and the making sense of it all, however slow, dry, humorous, melancholic, exuberant, wise or even foolish. It is the digging away at the sand of our thoughts in hopes of excavating the power of Word that is all ours, and it is all God’s. And it is good.

Profile photo of Eric Peters

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


6 Comments

  1. John Michalak

    Of course, the irony in this is that you just wrote some profound words about not being able to write. Your post reminds me of one of David’s psalms or perhaps the covenant lawsuit of the prophets. David bemoaned his status, his attackers, but the second half of many psalms still praised God as his deliverer. Yours was a a more postmodern version though where the “attack” was internal rather than external. Still, a valid cry to God, I think.

    I don’t (yet) have the pressure you do of writing songs to pay the bills, but I think I can identify with the rest. As has been discussed elsewhere by AP and others, writing is often just grunt-work, 99% perspiration (well, maybe not 99%).

    But, in addition to than that, I tend to think the inspirational writing is in the DOING. As a phlegmatic-melancholy, I’d much rather reflect on something than act on it, but I think that’s where some of the best stuff comes from. I read recently that some modern philosophers, seeking relevance with their fellow scientific compadres are seeking a way to make their philosophy more practical, finding a way to bring reflection into the realm of experimentation, something that is testable in the real-world. But, most of the time, philosophers are awarded simply for their arm-chair conclusions, and I think we often think songwriting can also stay in such a safe world of theory.

    But, just as the Word of God is generally useless to us if it’s just about head-knowledge, if it’s not considered a means to an end of going out and DOING something, I also think, to reverse is true–the best songwriting must be birthed from the doing, from experience, from practical servanthood. What right do I have to write about compassion if I haven’t been out there being compassionate? About social justice, if I haven’t at least sought to practice some of my own (even if I fail at it)? Even just getting out the door to hear some other musician play is a type of external experience that usually inspires me to write.

    The coldness of winter should give us lots of reasons to step out our door and serve, experience, do. The need in the world never stops with the off-season. I don’t know what this DOING looks like for anyone. I am going through lots of trial and error myself with all this. But, it’s the meat of inspiration, in my opinion, and the best way for even the passive, contemplative songwriter (or philosopher) to seek first God’s Kingdom.

  2. Kara

    Eric,
    Thank you for explaining your songwriting experience and in truth revealing the process within the process.

    I’m so thrilled to reply that I just know I’m going to say something wrong and regret it later! You posed the question,
    “How does one know what to say… and when not to say it?”
    For myself, the “What” is that substance or matter that has been dormant for years or is maybe just on the surface that becomes necessary to put into words. When I say becomes, I mean there is little else in the world I could do but write it down. Maybe it’s a last resort for me. It becomes necessary to put into words for the sake of a few things I can think of off the top of my head and several others that I’ll think of while I can’t fall asleep tonight.
    First, God uses songwriting to help me make sense of many yesterdays. I’ve realized the subject of my song is the journey and the song itself is the trusted friend who accompanied me. As I sing it, I grin through the tears, knowing I was not alone. When I share the song it is my joy (and all of our, perhaps) to witness that others too, have taken the journey and I can see it in their faces that they now know they are not alone. Life is shared. That is the second reason why I find it necessary to write the words. Thirdly, after sharing my testimony with a former classmate I said to myself, “You, know, I’d much rather sing it than say it”, then I could craft my words and order my thoughts privately and honestly. I am aware, of course, of the effectiveness of sharing my testimony through informal conversation, it’s just a preference.

    The Lord knows this about me, that nothing sends shivers up my spine and back down again like words fitly spoken and there are only a few things that can provoke tears like a song that is true. I am talking about truth itself being the source of inspiration and the words and melody it’s vessel. Both are God’s.

    In the end, in the beginning, and all through the process, “It’s all ours, and it is all God’s. And it is all good”. I agree.
    Though you may suspect by now that it doesn’t happen often, I do somewhat enjoy being speechless. I wrote a song about it and posted it as a reply to Curt Mcley’s review of Appendix M in the RR. We missed seeing you on the BTLOG tour!
    Keep up the good words.

  3. Chris R

    The ugly truth is better than a clean lie….. I enjoyed that line. Well written, honest writing. As far as I am concerned, for me, my amateur writings (found on c-ruleinrome.blogspot.com..shameless/shaameful truth in the company of writers I admire) are often simply a way for me to process through my thoughts. If someone else can profit, then thats wonderful. But mostly it is for me. To process. To think. Honest writing is always the best writing. Thanks for your ramblings. They are an encouragement to me.

  4. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Well said, Eric. Thank you for staring at the blank screen and not letting the jeering voices shout you down.

    Writing as protest, indeed.

    JGray

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