Last week the Irish band U2 did a terrible thing. They released a previously unannounced album and Apple automatically put it into everyone’s iTunes accounts–for free.
I know, right? Those jerks.
I’m mostly joking; I did find the situation creepy. Let me decide if I want your music. If I don’t, let me delete it. And at least as serious as the presumption and privacy violation, as I started listening to the new album, all I heard was over-produced, generic pop. Like most of their recent efforts, this album lacked verve and originality. The band’s fingerprints, even. After a few spins, I think I’m out.
Songs of Innocence did, however, spark an intense discussion about the group and their place in popular culture, including a fascinating New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman on “The Church of U2.” (Aside: I was discussing the piece with my friend Kimberly Truesdale, she pointed toward some pieces she’d written about the same themes a decade ago, including this one. Very smart stuff.)
In the process of reading these essays I started listening to the U2 music I actually like including their masterpiece “One.” In the chorus, the speaker sings, “We get to carry each other.” And today, the emphasis in the line sounds to me as if it’s on the word “get.” As in we have the opportunity to carry each other. The responsibility. The reward. The expectation. All of these things, good and bad at once, come from being subject to one another.
I have inconsistent work habits to put it mildly. I’ve written 7,000 words in a day, but most days I write none. I cannot defend this. It is not good process. I know it, and yet I persist in doing it. I think about my projects all the time, but they occupy my fingers less. I don’t think of it as the muse leaving the building. It’s more like a tide. At periods, it will be in and my brain is fecund. Then it rolls out and I’m like a shell baking on an arid shore.
Or like a vessel. I pour myself out, trusting that it will refill. And right now, I’m waiting.
In the last week I’ve graded about 40 student papers and held about 30 student conferences. This is on top of normal teaching and life responsibilities and it’s only a week out from a book release, which has itself consumed a lot of my emotional energy. What had to give was, as it so often has been lately, my own reading and writing time. I haven’t read a novel in weeks. And I haven’t written a substantial amount of fiction words in even longer. My creative vessel is parched.
But as I sat in those conferences, I heard the answers I needed coming out of my own mouth: Get the words on the page, no matter what it takes. Be skeptical about adjectives and adverbs; use specific verbs and nouns instead. The reader will feel the things you show. Make your first drafts low-stakes by working ahead. Know you can always fix the words later.
This is why I miss reading. When I read other people’s books, I’m reminded of all the themes I want to explore, all the cool things fiction can do, and all the ways it can make me feel. When I’m reading, I’m also writing. Everything that I pour out of the vessel comes back magnified.
So while Bono might not have been right about everyone with an iTunes account wanting his most recent creative efforts, he was correct about one thing: “We get to carry each other.” We get to read each other’s words. We get to join conversations. We get to offer words of response and encouragement. And each contribution that we make to the creative community only replenishes us.
The only way to feel better about my writing is to do it. And in doing, I’ll find the seeds to keep doing, one word at a time.