“Many a poem in the history of English literature has begun as a song without words that hummed itself in the poet’s imagination and gradually took form and words and meaning.”—Irwin Edman Artists of all mediums wield an instrument to order creation. The painter has the paintbrush, and the writer has the pen (or quill, or keypad, depending on the era). But from where does inspiration flow? Is it self-propelled? Or, is it truly inspired?
It is believed that Handel composed his 259-page score for "Messiah" in only 24 days! According to tradition, Handel never left his home during the three weeks of composition, and when friends visited him, they often found him "sobbing with intense emotion".
After writing the "Hallelujah" chorus, Handel said, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself."
"Messiah" went on to become one of the most recognized compositions in music history, but Handel did not want any of the credit. At the end of the piece, Handel wrote "SDG", or "Soli Deo Gloria", which means "To God Alone the Glory".
Even today, we pile into auditoriums, usually around Christmas, and immerse ourselves in the sprawling movements that make up "Messiah" with little to no regard for its back story. Handel's creative experience was marked by divine encounters, reclusive behavior, manic episodes, and intense sobbing.
Of course, this is exactly how I feel about my own creative process. Okay, not really, but if you ever visit me in my studio, I really hope I'm not a whimpering heap on the carpet. I can't say I've ever seen all of Heaven open up before me (though that would be cool). Most of the time when I create, I'm looking at my feet. Why? Because I pace when I think. Handel sees Heaven. I see feet.
What encourages me about Handel's experience is his ability to engage with his creative work as if he was the "inspired" and not the "inspirator". Ever since the Renaissance and the advent of Rational Humanism, the creative process has become centered on Self. We, humans, are the source of all creative endeavors. There's no muse, no fairy--just the genius who lives in us. What's discouraging about this perspective is that we leave no room for turmoil and transcendence to kiss. This is why most artists seem neck-deep in nothing but inner despair.
I believe inspiration breaks through the cracks of humanity. For me, songs often start long before my hands hit the piano, or my pen ever touches paper. Songwriting starts with experience.
Two years ago I penned the following lyrics for a song called “New Creation”:
May your grace/ take and turn our hearts to praise/ and crucify our lawless ways/ bring to life a deeper faith
Because your name makes the darkness flee/ your spirit is alive in me/ and you are ever always near/ the perfect love that conquers fear/ you are
I am just now getting around to mixing this song for the upcoming Beggars Made Believers album. Needless to say, we’ve been hanging on to this one for a while. Here’s a sound clip:
I always find it interesting that songs can affect me emotionally years after I write them. “New Creation”, in particular, was written two years ago for a group of youth at a camp in Maryland. The song is intentionally repetitive and set up as a prayer so that others can take ownership of the words as their own.
I first had to experience the words of my song in order to be able to share it with others. Just like Handel experienced the divine before he soundtracked it, for me to write a prayer, I first had to pray it.
When I think about how these words were formed, I feel as though I would shortchange the impact they have had on my life to say that they came from within me and therefore belong to no one else but me. Rather, I believe I was moved to pray that prayer into song, so that others could pray it too. In fact, the most meaningful experiences I’ve had with this song have been when I’ve led others in singing it with me.
I propose that we, creatives, take a step back to observe the beauty inherent to the created order around us before we try excavate some poetic longing from within. I’m not saying that inspiration floats around like fairy dust falling on unsuspecting writers, but there is something transcendent about the essence of song. Wonderful art comes from intensity of living. I believe it is a worthy pursuit to pour our whole selves into a creative work and release it into the world as if we never owned it. In this way, Art travels from one experience to shape another.
I encourage you to write your own experience down and share a song. Even something as simple and honest as a prayer can sing.