HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – February 9, 2020 – 12:00am
Although decades have passed, I can still remember when I wrote one of my first songs. I was in my teens on a bus going home from Ateneo de Manila High School. It was around 4 p.m. I had this melody in my head. I kept singing it quietly so I would not forget it. I had already figured out the chords even without my guitar. The song was titled New Day.
When I got home, I immediately picked up my guitar, played the song practically all night to make sure I had memorized it. I remember how great the feeling was to create something out of thin air. I was ecstatic.
I played it for my high school friends a few days later, and soon enough we were singing it during breaks in class, and in the few school gigs we were invited to.
Things were so simple then. If I had a song in my mind, I could remember them by doing exactly as I did when I wrote New Day. And, boy, did I have songs in my head. I was constantly picking up melodies from out of the blue. It was much later, maybe a complete decade or more when I got myself a tape recorder that was small enough to carry around to record the melodies and lyrics in my head.
When I started to make some serious money from writing and performing, I built myself a recording studio. The idea behind it was to have my own ideal place to write and record my compositions. I thought it was a great idea then. I had a beautiful and complete creative space that I hoped would inspire me to keep creating.
Well, it worked for a few years. The novelty of owning a studio got me to write a few songs. It was so easy to get a decent study going with instruments and voices stacked together to make a song sound great. When I would write commercial jingles, I wrote them with ease since I did not have to reserve and rent a studio outside. I could do it at home where my studio was.
After a few years though, the whole setup started to lose its charm. The idea itself of having to sustain a studio started to run counter to my creative process. Yes, it was good that I had a room with great acoustics to write without the outside world coming in to interrupt me while I was writing. But having to be dependent on my technician to turn on the entire studio with all that expensive equipment just for me to hear a simple melody playing in my head was getting to me. It was too much trouble, I thought. I soon realized that having a studio was good for song production but not necessary during the songwriting stage. In truth, I did not need it. I could write without owning a studio before — why did I need this special room now?
Soon, I found myself writing more and more outside the studio. I felt freer. My output actually increased. I wrote in my room, in school, in church during the homily, in my car while driving, etc. as I used to before.
This realization taught me something valuable about being an artist. I did not need an elaborate setup to do what actually came naturally to me. All I needed to do was to open myself, observe and listen to my thoughts and feelings, and just allow my creativity to express them in song.
My artist daughter told me of a similar experience. Ala had been drawing ever since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Growing up, she made journals of drawings. I remember her constantly illustrating something.
When I told her about my experience of having my own studio, she could relate immediately. As an art student years later at Enmore College in Sydney, and later on as a working artist, she used to rent art studios to be able to draw undisturbed. Sure, she could draw at home but she felt she could be more prolific inside a quieter setting. Or so she thought. Looking back, she told me that she actually painted less when she rented those studios. These days, she paints in her one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her husband and baby.
Before she can spread her drawing paper on the floor, she has to pick up all the scattered toys, books, and other stuff to make space. She says that, surprisingly, she is more prolific now than when she had a private place to paint.
I find I have to constantly learn and relearn that the creative impulse I need to access lies inside myself. I do not need an elaborate setup to be able to create anything. But it also does not mean that the world outside cannot move me to write songs and stuff. Events, people, scenery, travel, etc. can and have moved me many times to write books, songs, and articles.
National Artist BenCab showed me his elaborately beautiful studio on his Baguio property where his museum is located. But he said he still prefers to use his old, cramped, less-than-ideal studio where he did most of his earlier paintings.
American author Stephen King, in his book On Writing, notes how his early books were written under rough conditions. He wrote them on the backs of used paper during his free time in between jobs that paid the rent. When he had earned his first few millions, he bought a beautiful huge desk and set it up in a room with perfect lighting in his new house. It was to be his exclusive creative space. He banned anyone from entering it. The room was for his writing only.
Soon, he realized that he could not get himself to write like he used to. Eventually, he moved the desk to a corner and settled for a smaller one, and he allowed his kids to play in the room whenever they wanted. He eventually got his mojo back. “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around,” he wrote.
There is also a Zen saying that I’ll paraphrase: “You do not need to cover the world in leather. Just wear shoes.”
You do not need perfect conditions to do art. You do not even need inspiration. This idea of having to feel inspired is so trite and unrealistic. You can be your own source of inspiration. I know I do not need an earth-shaking experience to move me to write although it helps when muses do show up. I cannot expect the world to adjust to me. I have to do my work almost under any conditions. I just have to get in touch with myself.
Everything I need is already inside me. I just have to actually do the work.