I Write the Songs

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Words and music don’t just mean things, they are things. Real things.

From the day I wrote my first song at 17, music has been a piece of my life. Once upon a time I felt certain that I would become a singer-songwriter. But the singer part eventually un-hyphenated itself, and now it’s enough to be a songwriter. Not a performer. Just a songwriter.

Few will ever hear my songs—that’s just a fact of life—and yet I will keep right on writing. That popular and folksy definition of insanity comes to mind: “Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” But I don’t expect anything to change. I just keep on writing—doing the same thing over and over—not out of some latent insanity, but for my manifest sanity. Every conceived and completed song that I write is, for me, like a soul- and sanity-affirming flag of occupation. A triumph. A victory. A win.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, describes art as an act of war against resistance, which he names as “the enemy within.” Resistance isn’t just a passive force of our human nature, but an active thing that he says “aims to kill” the artistic impulse—the urge to create—that lives within the artist. The only real defense against resistance is to go on offense, to fight back, to forge ahead. That is true, of course, but songwriting is more than that.

A song can be an act of principled rebellion, an effort to infiltrate the fragmenting chaos with a small piece of restorative order. A self-asserting shout into the constant noise. A defiant declaration that words and music don’t just mean things, they are things. Real things. Light in the darkness. Meaning in the madness. Every song a faith-born banner of goodness, truth, or beauty staked in the lugubrious landfill of life in this kairos, this moment of time. And to paraphrase Descartes, “Cogito ergo scribo.” I think, therefore, I write. And in that writing, I create. I make a song.

And in making a song I am, in the words of Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, creating a “cultural artifact.” When I write out of what he calls a “call to faith” to create, I believe that in some small way my personal ex nihilo creation can help make some kind of sense of this fallen world. But my song is more than just a faith-made message; it is also a thing of hope—an arrow arcing into the darkness of time and space aimed at eternity. I create with the “assurance of things hoped for” that my musical artifact might pierce the veil to become part of what Crouch calls “the furniture of heaven.” There will be a culture to cultivate in that very real new world that believers are destined by faith to one day populate. I give life to a song in hope that it might live forever there.

And in that sense, songwriting is an act of incarnation. Hans Boersma says that “the entire cosmos is meant to serve as a sacrament.” It is a material embodiment of the nature of God by which we as humans can enter into and experience his presence. Music is also part of the Creator’s nature, but it is an immaterial part of the cosmos, permeating all creation without physical form. Writing a song harnesses that divine music of the heavenly spheres to shape and make it into a sacrament of form—of words, notes, melody, harmony, and rhythm. Not every song will have a spiritual purpose, but every song has a spiritual nature. It is an incarnation—an enfleshing of the divine nature through hands, voice, and words. A song is a sacrament by which we can engage with God.

But maybe I’m overthinking what really is just a simple fact of my life. I don’t paint or sculpt. I don’t design and build things. I don’t house and feed the homeless. But I can write a song. It doesn’t matter if that songwriting is a learned skill, an inherent ability, or even a divine gift. And it doesn’t even matter if a song is beloved, bewildering, or bemoaned. It matters that it is something I can do, something I can make, a simple fact of my life. It is an act of faith. I think—I believe—, therefore, I write. And with Barry Manilow, I can simply affirm, “I write the songs. I write the songs.”