Last night, Dolly Parton reminded me that things come to me easily when I work the hardest. Just like Paul McCartney.
Also, our unconscious brain is the original A.I. engine.
Except, I guess it’s a paradox to call the human brain artificial intelligence? Also, come to think of it, that first sentence was kind of paradoxical too.
Maybe I should back up a step. Maybe several steps.
I am mystified by people who run. Especially those who enjoy running or who can run quickly. I’ve always hated running and it seems to hate me right back. The process of my body lurching forward into a sprint has never once satisfied me. Every second I am running is a second I’d rather not be running.
Over the past year I’ve done a fair amount of running. More than 150 kilometers, at least – which certainly more-than-doubles my lifetime mileage.
Do you know what happens when you run a lot, even when you hate every single second of doing it? Eventually, it gets easier. I stopped getting as out of breath as I did at the start of the year. I stopped getting side stitches after a few months. After a while, I started getting marginally faster on every 5k route through my neighborhood.
Let me tell you: there is no kind of reward for running that is better than the running being over more quickly.
I look a break from running over the long, soggy New Zealand winter and spring. When I started running again in the past month, I feared I was right back to where I started. I was going to hate being slow and breathless and full of cramps. That was true the first few weeks. Then, something surprising happened. Without really trying, one day I checked my stopwatch at the end of my route and realized I had shattered my personal record by 30 seconds. Nothing about the run had seemed remarkable. I hadn’t even hated it any more than I hate any other run.
Things come to you easily when you work the hardest.
That’s also true for mental exertion.
Many people find songwriting mystifying. Or, at least, they have mystifying ideas about it. They have been convinced by scenes in movies like Once or that time Stevie Wonder was on The Cosby Show that songs come to you fully formed like a lightning bolt from the mythical muses targeted directly at your brain.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Songwriting is hard and sometimes painful. I happen to enjoy it more than running. I’m sure that when some runners hear I am closing in on writing my 400th song they wince in response.
I’ve received those mythical songwriting lightning bolts a few times over the past 25 years. Every one has something in common: they happen when I’m also working very hard on writing a lot of unremarkable songs.
I’ve received a lightning bolt of inspiration and sat down and written a song in one draft. I’ve written a song by singing it under my breath during a walk home. Once I even wrote a song on the back of a Chunnel ticket and then immediately sat down at a piano to play it through when I got back to the states.
Every one of those songs were surrounded by a dozen weaker ones. I was doing whatever the songwriting equivalent is of jogging a lot of 5ks. Every so often, your effort gifts you with an effortless speed run.
(Dolly Parton famously wrote both “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the same day. That is not why this post is about here. I’m just dispensing a little fun fact to remind you that this is post is actually about Dolly Parton. You’ll see.)
The most magical kind of mythical lightning bolts of songwriting are when a song comes to me in a dream. . I’ve written about it before, and how Paul McCartney famously dreamed about “Scrambled Eggs” and they became “Yesterday.” It is doubly magical if the song is sung to me by a famous person in that dream, like Madonna.
The tricky thing about song dreams is that it’s hard to be sure exactly what you’ve fed your unconscious mind to result in it spitting out lyrics and melody. That’s why Paul regarded his “Scrambled Eggs” with such an air of suspicion. Was the dream really an act of creative genesis, or just a regurgitation of a song I heard at the supermarket earlier that day?
I have been writing non-stop for the past two months. You’ve seen a month of that here on CK, but it began with a concerted effort to perform my way through those nearly-400 songs, making revisions as I went. Much like my 2022 mileage, I’ve played more unique songs in the past 60 days than I have in years – since 2015, at least.
This morning I woke up from the first one of those dreams I’ve had in a long while. I was at either a fancy awards ceremony or perhaps a very large bar mitzvah with Gina. A hush fell over the crowd and the inimitable Dolly Parton took the stage in a ball gown patterned with criss-crossing stripes of red and blue over a nude illusion.
Then, Dolly sang a beautiful song. I remember feeling very inspired by it, and I started quietly singing along under my breath.
Suddenly, in that way that dreams work, Dolly Parton was right there in front of my face singing the final line along with me. Of course, I was mortified, as anyone other than Kelly Clarkson would be to suddenly find yourself face-to-face with Dolly Parton singing her own song.
Dolly’s green eyes stared deep into mine, penetrating right to my unconscious self’s soul. And this is what she said.
“Don’t worry, darlin’. You’re doing okay.”
I think I’m as thankful for the new song as I am for her encouraging words.