I’m driving home listening to a new-to-me podcast, Song Exploder. In 15 minutes or so, a singer-songwriter explains one of their songs–where the inspiration came from, how they wrote it, why they played these particular notes, how the song resisted them, how they overcame the resistance and created something whole and right and good.
I get an idea for a slice. Slice Exploder. I’ll take apart one of my slices, figure out how I did it.
I start turning over yesterday’s slice in my mind. It’s a piece I worked on for several days. I got the idea for it last Thursday as soon as the E.R. doctor used the word “puny”–a word I love and very rarely hear anymore. Puny was a legitimate stage of illness when I was growing up. I miss puny. And I knew my son’s puny would be very different from this doctor’s puny. My son’s puny was almost guaranteed to be a knock-down, drag-out fifteen-rounds-in-the-ring kind of thing.
I was pretty sure I wanted to write it.
Actually, the piece started even earlier on my drive from work to the E.R. I never want my son to be hurt, but injury can be a surprising gift. It’s exponentially harder to mother him when he’s ill or injured–and it’s already hard enough. I’ve noticed, though, that special kind of mothering and the allowance he eventually makes bring its own kind of healing, a healing that’s spiritual, emotional, deep, lasting. I wanted to write that tension.
I started drafting on Saturday, right after I decided to join the Slice of Life Story Challenge this month. I worked on it over several short writing sessions. I wrote about twice as many words as ended up in the final piece. I thought it was almost ready to go Monday night, but when I opened it up Tuesday morning for the final edit, it felt very far from finished. It didn’t have an ending. It didn’t have a trajectory. There were several sections of overwriting that needed to be cleaner. There were still far too many words.
I moved pieces around, deleted sentences, added bridges. I worked on it for an hour before I got ready for work. I worked on it in my head while I was driving, getting coffee, walking up the stairs to my office. I had fifteen minutes before class to write. I opened it during class while groups were working on a project.
It wasn’t close to done, it wasn’t close to done, and then suddenly there it was. Finished. Exactly what I wanted to say. Exactly how it was meant to be.
I know how I came up with the idea and I know when and where I wrote it.
But none of this explains how I wrote the piece. Physically, my fingers were doing certain things on keys, and that work I can track. But I can’t track the creative work that went on in my head. I don’t begin to understand it.
I don’t actually know how I created those sentences, those sections, why I put them in this order rather than that order, how I knew the piece wasn’t done yet, how I knew the piece was done. I wasn’t conscious of thinking as I wrote. I was only conscious of doing.
Trying to take my slice apart to see how it works is taking the stone out of the river. Under water, it’s beautiful. Dry on the land, it’s dull and gray.
How is it that I understand so little about how I write?
After listening to a few episodes of Song Exploder, I realize this: after hearing the stories of how these artists wrote their songs, I am still no closer to understanding how this music really came to exist.