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Composer. Poet?

I’m a composer. I’ve considered myself a composer since I was twelve years old. I’ve only recently started writing lyrics for my own music, though, and the resilience that I’ve honed in my composing process disappears completely when I try to write verse. I become almost paralyzed by self-doubt. What if I’m terrible at an art form that I love and respect?

In writer Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, she talks about “shadow artists”: people who fear acknowledging their own creativity, and who instead stay on the periphery of what they wish they could accomplish themselves. In this way, they “shadow” other artists. They might be on the board of an opera company, wishing they could sing; they might work in an art gallery while secretly longing to paint. Or, in my case, they might set text to music for a living, ignoring an inner voice that whispers: Maybe I should try writing my own texts.

Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that thriving artists could be “shadow artists,” too. I suppressed the part of me that longs to write words, telling myself that I should leave it to the professionals. Writing art-songs and choral music has allowed me to get close to poetry without actually having to write any poems myself.

Nearly everyone in my extended family is a writer, or an editor, or both. I grew up loving to read, and as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I accumulated enough credits to graduate with two degrees: a B.M. in Music Composition and a B.A. in English. My English major came with a focus in creative writing; I took poetry workshops for four years; and I once came in second place in a national poetry contest judged by a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I had all the credentials — not that one needs any credentials at all — to have started writing my own texts years ago.

What finally compelled me to stop ignoring my desire to write? It took hearing another composer’s setting of their own text for me to actually listen to the inner voice I’d ignored for years — the one that screamed out: You can do this! You can do even better than this. I come from a legacy of language; nothing can stop me from writing except for my own self-doubt.

Returning to writing feels like coming home. I also feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, and rusty. Rather than diving head-first back into poetry, I started making “erasure” poems of my older writing. Erasure poetry takes an existing text and “erases” certain words, leaving behind a new text. My attempts at erasure included, of all things, using a previous Cantate column as inspiration (“Sustainable Composing,” from Winter 2016). Starting with words I’d already written felt safer to me than facing a blank page, but now I’m back to writing new texts, too.

Even musicians, I know now, can be shadow artists. We can hide our desires from ourselves even as we hover at the edges of art we wish we could create. I know some conductors who are excellent arrangers or composers, yet hesitate to refer to themselves as such. It used to feel like I couldn’t hold “composer” and “writer” in the same space; it used to feel as though I had to choose between them.

Luckily, that’s not true. A composer is someone who composes. A writer is someone who writes. There’s room for all of us to be passionate about more than one form of art, and some of the most compelling compositions I know were written by people who are also instrumentalists or conductors.

Is there any art that you’re longing to make, but aren’t? Maybe composing’s not your shadow skill. Maybe after loving voice lessons in college, you’ve neglected your solo singing for years, choosing instead to conduct others. Maybe it still pulls at you, sometimes, when you hear certain singers: I could do that. I could do better than that.

It’s precisely because we hold these skills in such high regard that they scare us. We know exactly what it means to be great at that skill, and we’re scared that we won’t possess whatever it takes to excel. That shouldn’t stop us from trying, though.

If I write my own lyrics and they’re terrible, this is probably the worst that will happen: No one will want to program that music, and in a year or two I’ll withdraw those pieces from my catalogue. Even so, the writer in me will have finally emerged from the shadows. I’ll have acknowledged that she exists.

It’s even more painful to neglect our desires than it is to risk making bad art. We have to listen for that small inner voice that yearns, when we hear a certain piece or see a particular work of art, to do what that artist has done. To do it even better. If we don’t at least try, some part of our complicated, ambitious, talented selves will remain in the shadows. It might feel strange at first, out in the sunlight — a little uncomfortable, a little too vulnerable. But it still feels like standing in the sun.

.  .  .  .  .

Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 30, No.1, Fall 2017.

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