Report from Nashville, Tennessee, where Billy is mixing songs upstairs and I am mixing words and cloth downstairs; our work on the new record and CD packaging continues. I wrote this a week or so ago when it snowed:
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking around in our house, trying to get some exercise because it was bitterly cold outside and snowing a little. Sometimes, I sing old ballads while doing my indoor walking. Sometimes, I listen to music or call Mawmaw. But yesterday, after I sang a few ballads, I got to thinking about a song that I’m writing. I am in the tinkering stage. Most of the time, I write a whole lyric all at once. I really feel annoyed if I write a verse and nothing else. I am a bit compulsive about getting down at least two verses and a chorus, otherwise I’ll probably never come back to that writing fragment. It’s just a personal tick. I don’t have a rational explanation for it.
But once I have those two verses and a chorus, I can convince myself the song is finished and I feel accomplished . . . for a night or a day or two. Then I tiptoe back over to my piece of paper and acknowledge all of the little things that don’t satisfy me. I start to identify the tin words and irritating parts, the jagged un-singable things, the obvious cliched blunders.
You may have noticed that I’ve been sewing a lot lately. Sewing, like songwriting, is a compulsion of mine, too. I am thankful to be making some income from it because I feel I have to sew and, if I don’t sew for a few days, I feel very strange and slightly sick. I am like this about writing and singing, too. It’s a good thing all of this is part of my job or I’d be very cranky at my work as an astronaut or a book editor.
While I was walking around our furniture, I was thinking how my sewing works quite a lot like my songwriting. When making a patchwork piece I start with this bag of scraps which is like my vocabulary and the storehouse of all that I’ve read and heard. I start the patchwork with a central piece, usually pictorial, like the idea of my song – an image, a title, a phrase, a rhyme. Then I start building blocks of color around my pictorial center. Before I sew a strip or block of color, I test it against what I’ve already sewn, like testing words against each other. Some fabrics just seem to jump and pulse with resonance when put next to each other, just like words that seem to fit so rightly into my meter and rhyme. Some fabrics are quiet and give the eye a rest, just like quiet words, little important joining words. Some fabrics are beautiful, but all wrong for that particular spot in the patchwork and I have to set them aside. Words are like that, too; so gorgeous, but jarring in the song.
I can see how these two of my favorite things to do are both puzzle-like, but also full of freedom and possibilities. They aren’t like puzzles that are already solved, broken, and then my work is to put them back together (I like those, too, sometimes). Patchwork and song poems are the kinds of puzzles I make and solve at the same time. I am the author, the rule-maker, the rule-bender, and for a little while, as I sew or write, the queen of my own colorful labyrinth.