You may have heard Craig Bickhardt‘s songs in the Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies or sung by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Alison Krauss and B. B. King. He has appeared on Austin City Limits, the Grand Ol Opry, Mountain Stage and has shared the concert stage with Bruce Springsteen, Harry Chapin, Hank Williams Jr. and dozens of legendary performers in a career that spans more than four decades. His new album, The More I Wonder, is available here.
I live for those days when the songs emerge unexpectedly as if from half-forgotten dreams. Some mornings, if I remain still and keep my eyes closed I can recall fragments of a dream song. My song “Easy Fires” was dreamed and written from fragments of memory, at least the essence of it was.
A song can also begin as a shy whisper, a barely audible murmur within. It isn’t the Muse exactly, but maybe the mythology has some basis in fact. I’ve occasionally had the impression upon listening to some other writer’s song that it was a specter that visited me once and got turned away because I wasn’t ready or willing to be its mouthpiece.
We call it inspiration, yet what is inspiration but an urge to express what is yet to be fully understood by the artist? It is born of a glimpse and an impulse. The glimpse is only a possibility that flashes before the mind’s eye. The impulse is an inexorable desire to bring that vision to life (inspire literally means to “to breathe in”).
Writers dwell in a world of living memories. We have the curse of sensual recall. Sights, sounds and smells produce feelings that accompany memories and we are at the mercy of them. We are carried away on many currents at once. We don’t want it to be otherwise. We love the bittersweet associations of the past and present because that’s what creates the emotional state necessary to write. Perhaps we give to the past a greater significance than it really deserves, but where would we go for our songs without it and our dreams? Somewhere between the dream and the memory, the song emerges quietly like a star at twilight or suddenly like a ship out of the mist.
I can still see it now, rickety and gray like a weathered old sailor who has put up his oil skins and crouched among the reeds to watch the sunsets. The old pier stood at the end of the island on the bay side. I was a boy of eight or nine standing in my father’s shade while he hooked the bait onto my line. We used squid or sometimes fresh clams that we dug up ourselves. The slimy, white tongues caught us mostly sea robin, the occasional flounder and some bass that strayed under the pier in the early mornings. The sea robin were all but useless as food. Most fishermen would break their skulls on the pilings and throw them back dead so they wouldn’t make the mistake of biting again. It was brutal but necessary, Dad said. I threw a robin back into the bay before crushing its skull. The other fishermen on the pier clucked and shook their heads as if to say I was a poor fisherman if I didn’t understand the rules of the contest. Were the rules for the fish or the fisherman, I asked? Never mind, Dad said, we don’t throw the sea robin back alive.
The pier was a place where I felt close to my father. He never spoke much while we fished but he always looked wise wearing his frayed Filson fishing hat and his Hemingway-white beard. He taught me to tie a barrel knot, and tried to teach me patience, but like any other youngster I was eager to catch a prize fish and grew quickly bored when I didn’t.
In those long summer mornings I’d eventually fall into the rhythm of time on the bay, savoring the anticipation after my cast while the water lapped steadily against the hulls in the slips. I held the line delicately as Dad had instructed and watched the bobber for the slightest sign of a nibble from below the waterline. When the fish would strike, the adrenalin rush would almost cause me to drop the rod. But I held fast and reeled him in. Nothing could top the excitement of those final few feet as the fish emerged from the depths pale white and silver flashing just below the surface. That was always the supreme moment when I might have caught the biggest fish ever. We’d let the fish play out just a bit until Dad positioned the net below him. Suddenly the net scooped upwards and when it broke the surface he would immediately identify what I’d caught. Bass, he’d say, good work, into the bucket for dinner.
Sometimes I think I’m just reliving the past, experiencing that old adrenalin rush as I reel in a song. The moment it emerges from the depths, I’m reaching out with my net. The song sometimes fights valiantly, but with any luck it’s unable to escape my “hook.”
“You write it all, discovering it at the end of a line of words”, Annie Dillard explains in The Writing Life (italics mine). I’ve often had the experience Dillard describes. I’m casting about for the right thought to carry me further into what I presume I’m writing. Images and rhymes are scattered all around me like colorful lures. Finally there is a strike. I discover it, the real song I’m writing rather than the one I thought I was working on.
Sometimes we’re more like divers than fishers. We have to go down where the song lives rather than wait for it to strike. What I need in order to begin a good song is some irritant, some experience or feeling that gets lodged inside of me until I can’t be rid of it any other way. We need great patience to write great songs. We must trust to the currents and wait for the event that places in us the seed of a genuine pearl. Then we’ve got to take a deep breath and go in after it.
We must write steadily and often so that we recognize the moment of inspiration, because without knowing what inspiration is, or how it feels, we can never become adept at taking full advantage of it. To the seasoned songwriter, an inspired idea feels like inspiration precisely because he or she can recognize that it’s above and beyond previous limitations (the level of mediocrity we can all hit on any given day).
There is often a silent fear in the creative process that is born of insecurity. For any artist there is resistance enough in the blank canvas, the shapeless wad of clay, or the empty page. A song always comes easier when there is clear purpose behind it; when it seems as if it were a necessary creation for the artist, or maybe when it sounds as if it were fresh-caught in its maturity. Even so, sometimes I lose the song and vanishes with a brusque flip of its tail. My notebooks are an ocean full of lost songs. It happens to us all.
There are also plenty of songs on earth were simply labored into existence without really having any deep conviction or vision at the source. We are all probably guilty of writing a few of these. They are harmless exercises if we consider them as such. The danger lies in the possibility that we might miss an opportunity for something better while we are preoccupied with them.
We should allow some inspired songs to emerge or strike as they will. They are, in all their wildness and fury, already waiting in the blue to be reeled in. We only have to adjust to time’s rhythm on the bay and keep a vigilant grip on the line.