“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” – Mary Oliver
I just travelled thousands of miles and paid thousands of dollars to learn how to be a better songwriter and human in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d like to share what I learned, and it won’t cost you a thing.
That’s it. It’s simple. It’s hard.
Over The Rhine‘s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist put it this way in their songwriting workshop; “always carry a butterfly net”.
“The universe is always trying to give you good things,” Linford assured us. My job and your job is to be alert and ready to snatch that goodness from the air as it flutters by.
I was lucky enough to capture several butterflies – and a few whole songs – on my trip to New Mexico. Here are some of the things I did to get ready to meet the muse.
1. Carry Your Instrument
I wrote at least three songs in New Mexico because I had a guitar handy. I couldn’t force them, but when they came I caught them.
Your instrument might be a notepad, sketchbook, camera or the voice memos on your phone. However you translate the good gifts the world bestows – be ready.
Having a guitar was no small feat for me. I don’t fly with my guitars because I’m afraid they will get damaged or someone won’t let me bring them on some leg of my many-legged trips. I arrived in New Mexico without a guitar and without a plan to get one. I begged and borrowed and I’m so glad I did.
My first guitar came to me just 45 seconds after a text to our AirBnB host asking if she knew where I might rent one in town. She was soon standing at our door with a beautiful guitar that belonged to her husband who has passed away. She was glad to have someone play it again. I told her I might just have to write her a song and it turns out I was right.
I wouldn’t have that song or any new songs if I didn’t make it a priority to have my instrument ready for the muse.
2. Stop The Car
If you are driving from A to B, it’s a good idea to leave yourself a little time to discover C along the way. It’s not always possible, I know, but I discovered two wonderful pilgrimage sites on my travels because I was riding with a poet who likes to pull over and take a look.
The first was a UFO watchtower in Hooper, Colorado. This was the strangest roadside attraction I’ve ever seen and I’m still trying to make sense of it. There was a moment in the car where we all had to decide if we wanted to pull off the road and find out what the strange alien signs along the highway were all about. We could have driven right by, but we stopped.
The second was a Stations Of The Cross in the “oldest town in Colorado”, San Luis. I felt a little iffy about this stop, because my host was driving me back to the airport to catch a flight. We had some wiggle room, but still. I saw how excited she was about this site so I figured it was worth a short delay. Again, we were richly rewarded for our meandering. We discovered the most beautiful, powerful depiction of Christ’s journey to the cross I’ve ever seen, with a surprise resurrection vignette at the end that I’m carrying in my heart still.
Make some time to stop the car.
3. Go On Foot
How about we ditch the car altogether? I am convinced that the reason we take our own cities for granted is because we don’t walk enough. When we are in New York or Paris or Berlin, we are walking. Sure, these are amazing cities with lots to discover. But that incredible burger joint or that curious little antique shop would be missed by car. Your own city is the same. Get out and walk around a bit.
The pace of walking allows the eye to linger. We can hear and smell our surroundings and see beyond a passing blur.
4. Listen to People
I spent most of my time in Santa Fe listening to people. At meals, served in a college cafeteria, I would choose a new table every time, sitting with new people most meals. I would ask questions and listen. I was richly rewarded with stories and new friends.
Two of the songs I wrote in my time away are direct interpretations of the stories told to me by friends and strangers. I listened and took mental notes. Then, when I was alone and it was no longer rude, I took actual notes. I could refer to those notes later when a melody struck me.
I’ve heard of portrait artists asking their subjects questions as they draw them. I like that idea, and I imagine the conversation shapes the portrait in wonderful ways.
There’s a big bonus to this tip, too. In listening to others, I discover more of who I am.
5. Share What You Find
Knowing that I’m crafting dispatches back to my little pocket of the world keeps me alert whenever I’m out. I’m aware that I am an interpreter – a tour guide to the world as I experience it. So are you. So are we all.
Whether I write a song or a blog post or snap a photo or tell a story around the dinner table, I know that more often than not I’ll pouring out what I am taking in. This motivates me and creates a feedback loop of attention.
Even Mary Oliver, whose discoveries of nature’s little glories feel so private and personal, is only known to us because she wrote those discoveries down and had them published.
If you haven’t found your sharing voice yet, experiment with the goal of bringing others into the good experiences you’ve been having.
I’d love to hear about your tips for paying attention. Did I miss anything?