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Don’t ask the poet Rilke if you’ve got talent

Here’s an essay I wrote in April, 2005, after my first trip to Nashville. Bob Regan, the president of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association, called me after he read it, saying this should be required reading for anyone that comes to Nashville with dreams of selling their songs. Both he and Steve Seskin have used parts of it in talks to aspiring songwriters…

I spent a couple of years hanging out in Nashville learning how to write songs.

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Last week I attended the NSAI Symposium in Nashville. NSAI is the trade association that represents songwriters.

Although I had a few business meetings, my intent was to watch and listen because I have nothing appropriate for the market. I did play a few cuts from my upcoming CD and the reaction was quite favorable. But I’ve been warned about this town’s friendliness, nobody will say your song sucks.

NSAI is a great organization because it caters to both the professional and aspiring songwriter. NSAI runs song camps and seminars, they publish books and provide a critique service as well as career guidance.

But the possibility of fame and fortune draws all types to the two-day Symposium. It reminded me of the gold-rush days — rumors spread early of past strikes and attendees bought whatever the pick-and-shovel merchants hawked in hopes they too could hit it big.

On rare occasions someone does land a deal and that just fuels the frenzy.

I exceeded my goals last week because I was realistic as to what could be accomplished from a first trip to Nashville. Most at Symposium, on the other hand, were confident that they had what Nashville needed, and consequently left disappointed. Most don’t realize that incredible songwriters living locally struggle to get songs sold. An outsider has to be that much better, and even then the odds are against them.

I learned this the hard way. Seven years ago I attended my first songwriting workshop and was positive that as soon as my songs were heard I’d get a break. I was more confident than most because I’d spent twenty years in the music industry. Nothing came my way. I took subsequent seminars from Rosanne Cash, Steve Seskin, and Jason Blume as well as from other Nashville hot shots — my songwriting improved, but nobody bought my songs.

Structure and function came easy, but the ability to capture an emotion in melody and lyric was a challenge. That same ingredient was also missing in my fiction. It took seven years of writing every day to finally find my voice. To date I have had minor success, but it is still unclear if I will earn a living from writing. There is one thing however, that is certain: my best work is ahead of me.

At one point at Symposium we broke into groups of twenty to play a song for a publisher. There was great anticipation amongst attendees, this is what everyone had come for — to dazzle Nashville with their song.

Industry execs must sift through tons of dirt and pebbles to find a speck of gold, and that’s when standing in an established Nashville writers’ stream, you can imagine what wading through the crippled creek of Symposium songs was like. Most I heard had no business being presented. Even a fancy five-hundred dollar Nashville demo can’t hide a song’s flaws. They sound impressive to a novice and provide work to folks here in town, but that’s about all they do.

I did hear a handful of good songs during the two-days, but publishers don’t need good tunes; often excellent isn’t enough.

And yet people hear a bad song on the radio and think their tune deserves a shot. Sometimes those songs are written by the artist or friends, sometimes by a pro, but most ‘hits’ are penned by professionals; outsiders have little opportunity with established artists.

A woman approached me after our publisher session and told me she enjoyed my song. It was one of the few that had received positive feedback, despite its lack of country credential.
This woman’s song hadn’t fared as well. With pleading eyes she asked if I would listen to another one of her songs and tell me if she had talent. I told her I’d be happy to listen but that she was asking the wrong question.

At the turn of the last century a poetry student sent the famous German poet Rilke a sample of his writing and had asked that very same question.

The poet had responded:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: Must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”

I listened to her song, then told her that it didn’t matter what I thought, that it all depended on how badly she needed to write. I told her that I had given up a successful career as a music-business executive to write full-time. I admitted that if someone had told me back in 1998 how hard this would be, I might not have had the courage, but I was glad that I had done it because no matter what, I realized that I had to write. If she had such desire, I told her, she had nothing to worry about.

She shut her eyes for a moment and sighed, then looked at me. “But what did you really think of the song?”

The legendary Bluebird Cafe

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