On Dictation and Songwriting

In terms of songwriting, the notion of taking Dictation is the process of getting the material from elsewhere. It’s like Jean Cocteau, in his film Orphée, at his car radio, taking dictation straight from the Other. As Cocteau explains, “I feel myself inhabited by a force or being. It gives the orders; I follow.”[i] Artists from every discipline describe this phenomenon. Poet Gary Snyder said, “You get a good poem and you don’t know where it came from.”[ii] John Mellencamp said, “My best songs are just given to me from some place outside myself.”[iii]

Lewis Hyde, in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, maintains that works of art “are not entirely personal.”[iv] He states, “…the gift is lost in self-consciousness.” Maybe someone should start a website where people can submit all the instances and evocations of artist-reported Dictation, to create by sheer accumulation a public appreciation of just how universal the mechanism is.  Apprehending its manifestation in your own psyche is a matter of proprioception [see my last blog post on this term]. It has to be understood from the inside.

The poet Jack Spicer put it like this:[v]

“In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine, of emotion, until the poet’s heart broke, or was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the outside coming in.”

Spicer tells a lovely story about Yeats encountering “spooks” through a trance state experienced by his wife. So he asks the spooks, “Why are you here?” They reply, “We are here to give you metaphors for your poetry.” These are the kind of spooks we need—useful spooks. Inspiration is a mysterious thing. The word itself contains the germ of the idea; “in” + “spirare,” “to breathe in.” As if the inhalation of air into the lungs contains the spirit of the idea.

The sense of Dictation that I’m trying to get to is not rote, or absolute. It isn’t that your mind takes a vacation. On the contrary, the creative, generative mind is complicit. By cultivating a conscious awareness of this flow of energy you can cultivate the creative production at a deep immersion level—the REM stage of wakefulness, if you will. At the very least, you can attempt to refrain from mucking it up through your own willful interruption of the transmission in progress.

Spicer puts it this way: “You want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out. And you don’t really want the eyes to fall out.” Songwriters have often spoken eloquently of the process. Leonard Cohen said, “Anybody who writes songs knows that it’s nothing they command. You are the instrument of something else.”[vi]

I don’t propose these ideas as if they were news to you. I propose them to reinforce how important it is to be mindful at all times; to respect and appreciate the elusive origins of the work—what D.H. Lawrence called, “Not I, but the wind that blows through me.”[vii]

[i] George Plimpton, (ed.) (1989). The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, p. 106.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, 25th Anniversary Edition, NY: Vintage, 2007, p. 193.

[iii] John Mellencamp, interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, March 31, 2009. WHYY, Philadelphia, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129303836.

[iv] Hyde, p. 197.

[v] Jack Spicer, Excerpts from the Vancouver Lectures,” The Poetics of New American Poetry, eds. Donald Allen, Warren Tallman, New York: Grove Press, 1973, p. 228.

[vi] Leonard Cohen, In His Own Words, London: Omnibus Press, 1998, p. 49.

[vii] D.H. Lawrence, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” Look! We have come through! 1917.


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