I don’t remember exactly when it happened. Somewhere along this journey that is both life and the process of songwriting, I adopted a writing mantra. Find your vulnerability. I’ve championed it to myself and any who would listen. I stubbornly maintain it to be good advice. Mostly because it works.
It’s a slight modification to the advice I received back in high school when I tried my hand at writing a sports article. “Have a take,” the anonymous internet user said, “and don’t suck.” He liked the article though and I never forgot it. Essentially it meant be yourself and do it right. It was kind of a revelation for a super-creative but super-competitive high school kid who wasn’t sure of himself but had to put on airs that he was.
But I wasn’t.
I started writing songs around 9 years old. On a $10 truck stop guitar, I learned how to play and songwriting was a natural progression from it. I still remember the first real song I ever wrote. It was called “Two Ways to Go” and our family still references it. I couldn’t sing worth a darn and only knew 4-1/2 chords but I kept at it. Somewhere along the journey I found songwriting to be the outlet that I needed to express myself. I still wasn’t sure of myself but I was just stubborn enough to keep going.
Somewhere in that awkward time of being a squeaky-voiced teenager wallowing in the throes of puberty, I was still writing but singing was a problem. So I submitted my lyrics to an online critique group in an effort to get better. Something deep within me knew this whole songwriting thing was where I was most “me” and I needed to get better at it.
They ripped me to shreds.
It was a little shocking but I decided right away I was going to take any and all advice they gave me about a song with a grain of salt and immediately apply it to the next song. I was still a kid. I was learning.
High school was a weird time. I was always kind of the independent first-born child who paid his own bills but was deathly afraid of making big mistakes. Aside from trying to figure out the whole being an adult thing, jobs, navigating newfound interest in girls and relationships, starting a punk band with your buddies (true story), there was also that whole idea of adopting theology and life principles for yourself.
It didn’t go well. I kept those airs going pretty well but inside I was spiraling. Like when the tub water is just low enough where it starts draining faster and creates a little hurricane effect down there by the metal ring that’s supposed to be silver. The sickening sound of that last bit of sludge being pulled into the dark abyss of a tub drain was where I found myself at the ripe old age of 16.
If you’ve heard my testimony, it was a song that pried me out of that quicksand. “Redeemed” was the title and I grabbed hold of that like nothing ever before. The follow up to that whole nightmare was a time of healing and restoration in a little room above a garage that I turned into my first little home studio. I spent a lot of time up there. I wrote a lot of songs. I had them all critiqued. I learned about the tenets of songwriting. And then somewhere along the way, somebody told me I’d have to at some point, just like in real life, throw it all out and adopt those tenets for myself. If you want to be real and honest you can’t follow some formula, there’s no “recipe” for success. The only way to be true in songwriting is to emote with no barriers of preconceived ideas in the way. You gotta let go. Let it fly.
I nodded yes but I didn’t fully understand. It wasn’t long after that when I started uploading recordings of myself to other songwriting groups. There was a couple of a good ones in there but the overall response was mild. I think they all saw what I hadn’t discovered yet. Just a kid who doesn’t know who he is yet. It was a little frustrating. I just wanted to be taken seriously. That’s what I needed, right?
What I understand now is it doesn’t matter if I’m taken seriously. It doesn’t matter if the whole world knows my name. Am I honest? Am I true? That’s what really matters. Anything else, anything less is ultimately inconsequential. I guess that can be a difficult pill to digest. At least for a stubborn son-of-gun like me, who is still battling those airs that like to stand in the way of finding himself.
But there was some turbulent tub waters still in the way. Somewhere along the way I was discovering that I needed to be myself, but learning how to do it right was becoming more and more challenging.
What do you do when all that supposed confidence is smashed to smithereens and all that’s left is some fragment of your identity that you don’t even recognize?
OK, this whole finding your vulnerability thing might be harder than I thought.
(to be continued)