How Do You Believe in a Mystery

Loudon Wainwright III - Los Angeles, California
As heard on Morning Edition, June 19, 2006
Loudon Wainwright III
Photo by Lisa Schaffer

Loudon Wainwright III has been writing songs for more than 40 years. He believes in the mystery that inspires the creation of a new song. But it’s not something Wainwright wants to think about too much.

Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: creativity

Here’s a question: How do you believe in a mystery, in something you don’t understand and can’t prove? When we’re children we’re encouraged to believe in some mysterious things that turn out to not necessarily be true at all — things like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or the flag. Naturally, we’re disappointed after our illusions have been shattered, but usually we get over it. Some of us, however, become skeptical, even cynical, after that.

I’ve been asked on many occasions how I write my songs. Often I’ll glibly reply, “I sure don’t wake up in the morning and sharpen pencils.” Then I’ll admit how lazy and lucky I am, and how successful and downright great some of the more notorious pencil sharpeners have been — two of my heroes, Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin, being among them.

If I’m feeling expansive I’ll bring up the mysterious aspect, the mere 5 to 10 percent that matters the most — what’s commonly called “the inspiration.” That’s the thing beyond the technique and the discipline, when the sharpening and the gnawing stop, and something, as they say, “comes to you.” It’s a bit like fishing, really. There’s certainly luck involved, but maybe what you took for laziness was (and I’m going out on a limb here) a sort of divine relaxation.

When I write what I consider to be a good song, when I realize it’s going to hang together, when I somehow manage to get it into the boat, so to speak, I invariably find myself looking upwards and thanking something or even, dare I say it, Someone. If I’m alone, my heartfelt thank you is often an audible one. Oh, yes, I’ve been known to mutter a few words at the head of the table at Thanksgiving dinner, or hoarsely whisper an “amen” at a wedding, funeral, or Christmas pageant, but usually it is just embarrassed lip service. As a rule I don’t give thanks at a dinner table or in a church pew. For me, it happens when I’ve been hunched over a guitar for a few hours.

I believe in the power of inspiration, in the mysterious gift of creation — creation with a small “c,” that is — creation as in one’s work, hauling in the day’s catch. When I write a song, I’m happy for a few days and it’s not just because I’ve been reassured that I still have a job, though that’s certainly part of it. Mostly I’m happy, I think, because I’ve experienced a real mystery. I haven’t the slightest idea how it happened or where or from whom or what it came. I’d prefer not to know. In fact, I’d prefer not to talk about it anymore. It might scare the fish away.

Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is known for his songs about family dynamics, especially the dysfunctional side. He has recorded more than 20 albums and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Wainwright has also acted in television and the movies.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.