THE READING ROOM: Mary Gauthier on Answering When Writing Calls
Photo by Laura E. Partain
Last week’s column featured a short review of Mary Gauthier’s new book, Saved by a Song, and an excerpt from the book’s introduction. This week, I talk with Mary about her process of writing the book and her ideas about songwriting.
We caught up recently over Zoom.
What inspired you to write this book? How long did it take you to write it?
In my secret life I fancied myself as an author but I never had the focus — you know, it was a barstool dream (laughs) — but then an editor from Yale [Yale University Press] showed up at a gig in Connecticut and offered me a book contract. He said, “We want you to write a book for us.” I was like, “For Yale? Are you kidding me? I’m a high school dropout, a college quitter.” (laughs) Then the guy who signed me left the press, so I had the manuscript; I got it back. It sat around for a couple of years and then I met someone at St. Martin’s and she wanted to take a meeting with me: “We want you to write a book for us,” she told me. But they didn’t want that book; it was more about the art of songwriting and no memoir really. Yale didn’t want memoir; St. Martin’s wanted memoir. So it took years and years and years to get it in balance. I wrote straight-up memoir, and then they said, “Well, we don’t want memoir in and of itself we, want memoir as it relates to your songwriting.” So I had to merge these two books so I think the whole process was at least six or seven years in the making.
You always dreamed of writing a book, though.
I love books. In my heart of hearts, to me — and I don’t wanna insult anybody because it’s just how I feel — but the real rock stars are authors because of the level of difficulty involved in writing a book as opposed to writing a song. It’s such a time commitment and you can put 10 years of your life every day into it and then 10 people could read it.
What are some of the challenges you faced writing the book as opposed to writing your songs?
Yeah, you know, it’s a very different medium. Writing long form for a songwriter is kinda hard. I did two things I needed to stop doing. One was I took too long to tell the story; the other thing was I didn’t tell enough of the story. I’m used to short form, jamming the story in three and a half minutes. So I had a lot of editing to do on stories where I went on and on and on and weren’t relative to the thesis of the book, and then other situations where I needed to expand the story and connect it the thesis of the book.
Were there books you turned to for inspiration as you were writing yours?
Oh yeah, I read all the books on the creative process that I love; re-read them, since I already had them. From Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, which I love, and Stephen King’s book on writing to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. All of those books are in my lexicon — the Flannery O’Connor book on writing — they’re all right there on my shelf one after the other, lined up. These books on writing, I use them when I teach. I teach songwriting quite a bit. So I try to guide my students to relevant books on writing that might fit them personally. But I also just love reading about writing because writing is hard.
Were there musicians’ memoirs you read?
I stayed away because I didn’t want to end up even subconsciously copping somebody’s narrative or form. I wanted to come up with my unique hybrid here where it’s instructional for songwriters who are interested in how another songwriter does their work and also how someone with a difficult story — my story’s a difficult story — can use this art form as a tool to help them stabilize their life. I don’t want to throw the word “heal” around a lot because it has negative connotations now; everybody’s selling you healing. I think songs and music have been transformative for me; I had to get sober, but once I got sober I needed something I could be deeply committed to that was connected to purpose. This is where I landed, and I think it’s is one of the big reasons I was able to continue to stay sober. I’ll be 31 years sober on July 13. When I found music and song I found something that I would never quite fully master. It’s always teaching me more; it’s always showing me bits of myself I didn’t see before, bits of human nature I didn’t see before. It blew my mind wide open to work with the veterans and use this with them to deal with their PTSD and then even further to work with doctors and nurses during COVID and really carrying a heavy weight and being on the front lines without a whole lot of support.
I love that you open the book with that famous epigraph from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Yeah, I think a lot of people have started their books with that quote because that’s what drives a writer, isn’t it? To discover and uncover that which might kill me? The desperation is important, and we get that confused with ambition. Of course ambition is in there but if it’s fueled by desperation you just might be a writer.
What kinds of questions do students come to you with in your songwriting classes?
I have taught thousands and thousands of students over the years. The overarching common denominator is that they’re not sure that their story really matters. Even the most cocky amongst them are not sure that their story matters. So, my job, and I say it in the book, is to encourage courage; to be vulnerable in your songs, let yourself be seen and then realize your story does matter in relation to how it can be useful to other people. I think encouraging courage is the deal. I can teach craft and never have taught them a thing. Craft is not the essence of songwriting; the essence of songwriting is art. And how do you teach art? Well, I think you have to teach people to go out on a limb where they don’t know what the hell’s going on anymore and then try to express that. That’s where real miracles start happening, where really interesting things start to occur. When you get to the end of yourself and what you know, you start writing. Yeah, you write through the obvious. And that’s one of the overarching common denominators: so many of the students come in and they just write the obvious. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know that. Say something we don’t know, and that of course means be vulnerable. My work as a teacher is to help them write the best possible song. They’ll have to figure out what to do with them. I can guarantee you that if they write an amazing song that people respond to it will start to have a life of its own if they put it out into the world.
You talk in the book about the vocation of songwriting, songwriting as a calling.
We don’t talk about calling that much in contemporary life. I know that I felt called; there was a whisper in my ear that said “write.” It didn’t appear until I got sober, but when it came, it came. It was really, really real; I was pulled and called to do this. I was successful in the restaurant business at the time I started writing songs. So I was doing just fine as a young person doing well in the restaurant business, but then I started going to open mics and I just wanted to write songs and I wanted to write ’em well. It was a magnetic pull, and I was called. I get students sometimes who come to my workshops in their 60s and 70s and they’ve put this call off their whole life. They’ve felt it but they were told to get a real job, you need to support your family and be an adult. Then they retire and they still feel called. You can imagine all the buried “my-story-is-not-worth-it” beliefs that have to get ripped out. The calling: I don’t think it ever shouts at you; it’s a whisper but it seems to linger for a lifetime.
What will readers be surprised to learn about you? What were you surprised to learn about yourself?
What was surprising to me, I think, is that for decades I was working on songs and working in an art form that was helping me as a human being and I didn’t really fully consciously know that was what was happening. I didn’t know that the songs themselves were helping me transform trauma.
What themes or lessons would you like readers to take away from your book?
Songwriting shouldn’t be left to professionals. With the advent of the music business, culturally, we have been taught to believe that your average person shouldn’t, just can’t, write songs. It should be for people in the music industry, and they create it as something we are to buy, or steal, or listen to for free now, but not something that anyone can do. But I believe that anyone called to do it can do it, and probably should do it because the songs are coming to you for a reason. I think they come to help. I think there is a benevolent force behind it. Music and song can be done by a lot more people than do it right now and they can be far more than just entertainment, if we need them to be. Of course they can be escapist entertainment that contains nothing but drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and that is fine. The umbrella is large and contains multitudes. We can use this art form for so many things: You can march soldiers to war with songs, you can use music to hate, you can use music to love and create empathy. I find you can use music to begin the process of transforming deep trauma.
So are you ready to write your next book?
I’m thinkin’ about it. I’m throwing ideas at ’em; so far it’s a solid “we-love-you-we-want-another-book-but-not-that-book.” I’m thinking, as long as I have their attention, hell, yeah! Oh, my god, it’s like being on a major label again. (laughs)