We Suffer So You Reap

September 5th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Have we mentioned how irritating the Los Angeles Times website is? Especially when it comes to articles in the Calendar section? The Times does not want people to read them — of that we are convinced. Setting aside the registration hurdles, there are costs associated with accessing Calendar content. Why, we cannot say — most days we barely glance at anything more than the headlines when we read the section.

This is really a shame, because every now and then we find something we want to share. Normally we resist the urge — why put another human through our unique misery? Today’s edition, however, had another of the fascinating “Songwriter” series (when Robert Hilburn shows up on the page, he can be very interesting…or maybe it’s all about the subject matter). Joni Mitchell is profiled, and reminded us that songwriters are writers, too.

If you can leap the LAT hurdles, we highly recommend reading the article in its entirety. If the task of getting to the article proves too daunting (never fear, great mortals have been felled by lesser sites), we’ve helpfully pulled out our favorite quotes, and, naturally, offered our own thoughts on Mitchell’s thoughts.

Mitchell looks at her writing process from various angles, with a single theme repeating throughout: her drive for honesty in her work. We talked last weak about how many books we encounter today seem written to rival the shelf life of milk. At the time, we were talking about authors who use disposable cultural touchstones to create an instant bond. If you don’t know the reference (and most will be forgotten within a year), there is no depth. Worse, there is no longevity for the work.

Mitchell makes universal themes personal. She uses her writing to work through the day-to-day issues she faces, picking them up, turning them over, and dissecting them until her mind is settled:

Her two arts, painting and songwriting, happen in almost opposite ways for her. “In painting, you’re brain empties out and there’s not a word in it; it’s like a deep meditation, like a trance,” she says. “I could step on a tack and probably wouldn’t know it when I’m painting. In writing, it’s kind of the opposite. That’s why some people take stimulants.

“You stir up chaotic thoughts, then you pluck from this overactive mind. It’s part of my process as a writer, being emotionally disturbed by something exterior someone said or something that is happening in society. It’s on your mind, and it won’t go away until you deal with it.”

This quote made Mitchell human — she’s too close to her work to be objective (it’s nice to know certain neuroses truly are universal):

Even after all this time, she doesn’t understand all the excitement over the song. “I thought ‘Both Sides Now’ was a failure, so what do I know?” she says, smiling. “I was not a good judge of my early material; none of it sounded all that good to me. That’s why I wanted to keep moving forward.”

Moving forward lead to works that were critically acclaimed and works that weren’t — but the key for Mitchell was following her own journey. Sometimes writers, especially genre fiction writers, get into a groove. It’s a nice groove, but variations on a theme need to take a work in a different direction, not repeat the same note over and over. The public (them!) loves to lock artists into neat blocks — as do record labels, publishers, motion picture studios — it makes marketing so much easier when you can work from preconceived notions.

As Mitchell saw it, writing the same song, different verse, over and over wouldn’t work:

“I was born the day of the discoverer,” she says finally. “I have a need to find things out for myself, hopefully discover something new. I don’t have a great deal of tolerance for copycats. Neither did [Charles] Mingus. He had this one song called “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There Would Be a Lot of Dead Copy Cats.”

Whether her works were received with open arms or not wasn’t the most important factor in Mitchell’s work. If you expand as an artist, you will eventually let someone down — a fan who likes that one song you did on your first album. The reviewer who thinks you should have stuck with first person your entire career. The editor (or agent) who isn’t willing to publish your new book because it isn’t what the public expects.

To grow artistically, you must, first, please yourself. And that, we believe, comes from honesty. One of our favorite things to do is to take the opposite side during a debate — often looking at our cherished beliefs through another viewpoint hones our arguments. Sometimes our position changes. The same idea works as you look at human encounters:

About the lack of accusation and retribution in the songs, she says, now warming to the subject: “I think men write very dishonestly about breakups. I wanted to be capable of being responsible for my own errors. If there was friction between me and another person, I wanted to be able to see my participation in it so I could see what could be changed and what could not.

“That is part of the pursuit of happiness. You have to pull the weeds in your soul when you are young, when they are sprouting, otherwise they will choke you.”

There is something about writing that leads us look at how others do it, isn’t there? Does she write one long draft? Does he have chapters of uniform length? How many drafts is right? How did that person write a blockbuster when I’m the creative genius? What am I doing wrong?

For Mitchell, process is ingrained. Writing, editing, polishing — it’s all focused on the goal of digging below the surface to discover the real emotions, the real honesty behind the work:

“Hejira” was written while driving cross-country alone, Mitchell finding a parallel in her solitary mood with the doomed aviator Amelia Earhart. She considers it one of her most inspired works, and it gets her to talking about process.

“I usually work from music first,” she says. “One, it’s harder, which I like, and it’s more challenging. Two, it’s kind of like writing the score, then making the movie, which is kind of ass-backward. I was choosing hard subjects and demanding a lot of honesty of myself. That forces you to spend a lot of time exploring who you are because the more you know about yourself, the more you know about human nature.”

Once she got the idea for a song, the rest came quickly. “It has to be immediate with me. If I wait, everything is lost.” She also rewrites a lot, “demanding greater and greater clarity. I get the gist and then go for the language. I polish. Lots of editing and switching around. More like making a film.”

She scoffs at the claim of many songwriters that songs just come to them whole, flowing through them almost as if they are innocent bystanders.

“Mostly when they say the song just came through me, it means the song doesn’t make any sense to them, either,” she says with a laugh. “I throw most of that kind of writing out. I am always trying to get at something in myself that is buried deep.”

“When I hear these questions, I realize how simple I am,” she says. “But OK, here we go: I checked into a motel, read for a while, move over and play guitar for a while. Then, I switch to another guitar tuning. ‘Oh, that sounds fresh. That’s nothing I’ve heard from someone else, nor have I stolen from myself.’ Then I find a melody and a bridge. Then, I ask myself, ‘What’s in your mind, Joan?’

“Well, I think: I’ve been driving across the burning desert and I think about what I saw. I looked up in the sky, six jet trails hanging overhead. I go, ‘Oh, it’s like the first change in the I Ching and there are six strings on my guitar.’ That’s interesting. So I start writing.”

Mitchell has left the music business and is now painting. Art evolves, and she’s no longer fighting third party expectations:

“I’m so happy,” she says. “Such good friends. So much in love with life, but romantic love is over for me. I’m very happy about this leg of my life. I wish I were better at painting. Great thing, though, having a challenge — painting personal things, which have their own validity.”

Yes, we know, we didn’t begin to do this subject justice…

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