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Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and… Songwriting?

Posted in: Interviews,Lyrics,Practices by Michael Iafrate on February 24, 2013

For the last couple of years, I have wanted to do some reflection on the practice of songwriting and its connection to the traditional Lenten challenge to grow in one’s “prayer life.” In the course of reflecting on songwriting and/as spiritual practice, it struck me that while there is quite a bit of reflection on rock performance and the analysis of finished songs in discussions of popular music and theology, there seems to be a lack of attention on the practice of songwriting, particularly as it takes place in an “individual” or “personal” mode.

One recent exception is the work of John McClure who has reflected on “song-making” as a source of insight for theological practice. Some of this work touches on what is happening in the songwriter when she is writing a song. McClure writes,

[S]ongwriters are keenly aware that their craft is cathartic, educative, and integrative in relation to their own lives. Writing in and out of a tradition carries with it certain ways of externalizing and dealing with one’s experiences and ideas. Songwriting, therefore, involves a constant reeducation and maturation of the whole person within certain traditions of thought and practice. Writing changes the artist, providing healing, perspective, vision, and qualities of good judgment. Most good songwriters are aware that songs are doing this to them, and how songs are doing it. (John S. McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention [Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2011], 21)

McClure makes connections between the practice of songwriting and the process of theological production, a kind of theological engagement that looks to popular music for “models and methods for how theologians might conduct their own work” (Gordon Lynch, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005], 40). (I took a stab at a similar kind of reflection in a contribution to the Rock and Theology project’s forthcoming collection of essays, Secular Music and Sacred Theology, probing DIY punk culture for insights, ethical commitments, and aesthetic options that have contributed or might contribute to my own theological work.)

Here, though, I am interested in the relationship between songwriting and the variety of experiences we have come to call “prayer.” Much of what McClure writes in his chapter on songwriting and theological production has relevance for reflection on songwriting and prayer, particularly the way he richly describes the various ways a songwriter “cultivat[es] a life of self-awareness.” McClure’s descriptions of songwriting practices sound an awful lot like prayer, and they ring true for me as I reflect on my nearly 20 years of songwriting experience.

The connection between prayer and creative activities may seem like an obvious one on one level. Creative people often say that that the creative life is, or can be, a form of prayer. Artists “find God” in painting, writing, dancing, playing music, etc. This is no doubt often true, and I have described my experience of playing music in this way over the years. But these claims, while true, are often quite vague and only focus on the positive dimension of these creative endeavors, and of prayer. Even McClure’s chapter on songwriting and theology only briefly mentions the need for perseverance in the practice of songwriting. What of the intense struggle that prayer often (usually?) is and that creativity often (usually?) is? In prayer and in the creative life, what are the practices through which we struggle against these difficulties? What exactly is prayer anyway, and what exactly is going on when one sits down to write a song?

I have struggled to write reflections about these matters over the last couple of years in part because of the very struggle I have had with writing songs during that time. For the past several years, I have had a sort of “desert experience” when it comes to songwriting, i.e. a multi-year “dry spell” where songwriting happens with little regularity or predictability, and indeed with long periods of “nothing.” A large part of this has to do with regular changes in life circumstances and the increasing fragmentation of life due to various commitments, relationships, family, projects, jobs, continued work in doctoral studies and academic life, etc. Strains on one’s time can mean, of course, less time for the creative space required for writing songs. Over the past year, I have gradually come out of this “desert” and am now in the middle of recording two new albums of original material. But as I have moved in and out of these periods where songwriting has been difficult or relatively “easy,” I can’t help but think that the problems and frustrations one encounters integrating “prayer” into one’s life are largely the same as those encountered when a songwriter is “stuck” somewhere in the process of writing songs.

I can anticipate a possible objection, one that might emerge, predictably perhaps, from those who would like to keep “spiritual” matters wholly separate from “secular” ones. That objection might go something like this: when a person is praying, he or she is not “doing” anything or trying to be “creative” or “productive” as one attempts to do while writing a song, but is rather “receiving” from “elsewhere.” There is perhaps some truth to this claim, but it could be questioned from two directions. First, the objection flies in the face of the experience of most songwriters. It is very common to experience songwriting very much as “receiving” something from somewhere outside of oneself. I have certainly felt this way over the course of my many years of writing songs. And I got a sense of just how widespread this feeling is during last year’s Lenten season while doing some unorthodox “spiritual reading,” taking in the interviews in the collection Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo. Leonard Cohen, for example, relays this experience over and over in his interview: “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.” Also, from another direction, consider that across religious traditions prayer is not always experienced as passive and apophatic but as active and kataphatic, as in Ignatian prayer in which the pray-er is indeed also “doing something,” often something very “creative” or “productive.” There is often a very active attentiveness to life which is central to the practices of both prayer and songwriting.

And so lately I have been pondering what sorts of songwriting practices or “disciplines” or “exercises” I might intentionally enter into in order to become more open, more attentive, more creative, etc. And I have been open to learning about such practices wherever I might find them, whether on blogs, or in books, or in conversations with other songwriters. Some concrete tips and techniques are interesting and indeed helpful. (The iPhone, for example, has been immensely helpful in helping me capture ideas as they happen and building demos with elegantly simple recording software.) Other “tricks” for generating song ideas, those found in books on songwriting, often seem too rigid and formulaic. The best advice I have found often comes in books about writing in general, such as Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. For me, the most helpful suggestions are not those that offer songwriting “tricks,” but those which help the songwriter come to see that the process of writing songs requires the carving out of time and clearing of space in daily life for attentiveness to life, an attentiveness that is the same, or at least similar to, that which is essential to prayer.

Reading quality interviews with songwriters, for example, often has the “feel” of spiritual reading that offers instruction or suggestions for prayer. Consider the following excerpt from an interview with Leonard Cohen in Songwriters on Songwriting in which he describes his morning routine:

I get up at 4:30. My alarm is set for 4:30. Sometimes I sleep through it. But when I am being good to myself, I get up at 4:30, get dressed, go down to a zendo not far from here. And while others, I suppose, are moving towards enlightenment, I’m working on a song while I’m sitting there. At a certain moment I can bring what I’ve learned at the zendo, the capacity to concentrate, I can bring it to bear on the lines that are elluding me.

Then I come back to the house after two hours, it’s about 6:30 now, quarter to seven. I brew an enormous pot of coffee and sit down in a very deliberate way, at the kitchen table or at the computer, and begin, first of all, to put down the lines that have come to me so that I don’t forget them. And then play the song over and over again, try to find some form.

Those are wonderful hours. Before the phone starts ringing, before your civilian life returns to you with all its bewildering complexities. It’s a simple time in the morning. A wonderful, invigorating time.

These reflections hopefully open up some interesting paths toward rethinking prayer from musical experience and vice versa. Prayer and songwriting are not the “same thing,” but they are also not necessarily completely different things. Prayer is not a completely unique category of activity relegated to some “spiritual sphere” but a practice embedded in the stuff of life. Can practices of prayer, particularly practices that respond to the “struggle” that prayer can be, provide insights into the practice of songwriting? Can attentive songwriting practices help to make one a “better” person of “prayer”? Perhaps becoming a better songwriter will help one become a “better” person of “prayer,” and vice versa, not necessarily because both practices are “the same thing,” but because of a kind of resemblance. Can we begin to explore and describe that resemblance? And what can that interaction teach us about the relationship between the “secular” and the “sacred”?

Michael J. Iafrate
Wheeling, West Virginia
USA

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