Deserting Myself.

Howlin' at the moon. Arizona Desert. February 2016.

Howlin' at the moon. Arizona Desert. February 2016.

I just spent 9 days alone in the Arizona desert writing songs. The idea for the retreat came back in December after finally admitting to myself that my writing efforts over the past year had been less than fruitful (oh, and the songs were all complete crap) and that I needed to step up my game in the name of all that is meaningful and important in life…..(*snore*….see post for context). The purpose of the trip was to change my surroundings, eliminate distractions, and hopefully find inspiration for some new tunes. I chose the Arizona Desert because it offered the exact opposite of what February in Ottawa could: warmth, cacti, clear skies for stargazing, and increased accessibility to tacos. So, before long, I had cashed in all of my travel rewards and booked myself a modest (but free) little getaway. 

I found myself emotionally conflicted beforehand. Half of me knew it was the best thing I could be doing for my music, while the other half of me felt tremendously guilty about leaving my wife and baby behind knowing there was a chance that I could come home with nothing to show for it. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and I came home with a bunch of full songs and lots of new ideas that I’m excited to see through (hooray). But, I still missed my ladies everyday and found myself reverting to that feeling of guilt during my least productive moments of the trip [Oh - I should also mention that this guilt was completely self-inflicted and that my wife was super supportive of the writing retreat idea the whole way through. She’s the coolest.]. 

There were definitely some unforeseen - yet wholly expected — challenges. 

My plan at the outset was to write a new song each day, but it only took one day of attempting to do that before I learned that it just wasn’t gonna happen that way.

Trying to force-write a song can be like trying to find a mate when you’re painfully lonely, have no self-confidence, and have been out of the game for too long. The stinky cologne of desperation can be detected by a prospective mate from so far away that by the time you’re in each other’s immediate vicinity, you might as well just not even bother trying. Just accept defeat, finish your beverage, go home, and prepare yourself some nachos in a giant casserole dish while you regroup [because if you’re interested in having your confidence slowly whittled away, at least this way it will be delicious]. 

It just seems like regardless of how well-intentioned your pursuits may be - whether to write a song or to secure some romance potential — the odds are quite high that you reek of creep vibes. Just chill out, stinky. The point of me saying this is that I learned on this trip how much of a creep I’ve been towards my own inspiration for so long — like a Peeping Tom who spies on imaginary songs that are way better than the songs he actually writes. This is a horribly unproductive, and awkwardly desperate way of going about this process. I’m just learning now that I need to put down the binoculars, climb down the tree, and introduce myself to these songs in person like a GD gentleman. Like romance, you can’t force inspiration. It will find you when the time is right. I guess the best thing we can do for ourselves in the meantime is to be patient, learn to be at peace with ourselves, and to not expect too much. The time will come.

Before going into the desert, I had expected to spend approximately 25 hours a day writing - as if I was some sort of nocturnal Beethoven-esque madman. Papers would be thrown everywhere with sloppily-written half-baked ideas written on them, coffee would be ever-present, and I’d do most of it wearing nothing but my underwear. But alas, that also didn’t happen as expected. Writing all day every day is hard! It’s especially tough when the inspiration isn’t there in the first place. So, I ended up spending about half the day each day going on aimless adventures through the desert on bicycle, attempting to bond with the cacti. With the warm sun on my face, the whistle of the wind teasing my ears, and the ever-changing sandscapes elusively making home for themselves, I managed to get some good thinking time in. At night, I would look up at the stars in fascination of just how many there are, while pondering just how many other people might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment in the privacy of their own thoughts. That stuff helped. 

It was a self-reflective journey more than anything. One of the biggest realizations I made about my writing style is that almost all of the music I’ve ever written is rooted in some form of sadness. Despite being an overtly happy person now, I definitely had an existentially rough few years when I was a bit younger, and the result was a very depressing bunch of songs. In fact, my inclination towards songwriting in general probably blossomed out of a need to express my disdain for the things I couldn’t change about a world that I didn’t see my place in yet. I mention this only because I guess this is the first time I’ve acknowledged that I should probably learn to write about all of the other emotions with the same sort of gusto. Luckily, the dark grey doom cloud of depression no longer lingers above me. I can still occasionally see it looming off in the distance — as if an impending storm — to remind me how far I’ve come but also how close it remains. It will always be a part of me. I am also reminded that simply ignoring it doesn’t protect me or anybody else from any unforeseen  disasters. Acknowledgement is key. 

In general, though, there is certainly something valuable about going on this type of writing retreat and dedicating an extended period of time to just creation. With the inability to force inspiration, the next best thing is to be well-prepared for it. While I was there —alone with my paper, my guitar, and my thoughts - I often felt like I was just living a relatively regular pseudo-vacationy sort of life, except that I was constantly “on-call” for songwriting duty. It was great in that regard. Any time a new idea would come, I was fully equipped and ready to get it down and build upon it with a sense of purpose. As diligent as I can try to be in my day-to-day life at home, it’s hard to switch off all of the other responsibilities that come along with work, family, and general grown-up stuff. I’ll definitely do this again. 

It remains to be seen, but I might try to do another [shorter] similar retreat soon, but in some remote Canadian location before the snow melts. I like the idea of having an album that was half written in +30C and half written in -30C. 

And that’s that, folks. Feeling groovy. I hope you are too.  

- Mark