In 2008 I wrote a song called “The Man I Didn’t Kill.” The story of the song is pretty simple in a way. I get song ideas all the time just from observations of life. I never mind a drive to the hospital or the million other tasks I have to do in my work as a minister. It is an ocean of songwriting material, because it’s simply life experience. I really admire the great songwriters who live in Nashville, sit in an office all day and crank out lyrics. I’m not sure I’m that imaginative.
My ideas come from life. I walk through, listening to people in trouble, solving problems, managing a congregation, dealing with budgets, praying for the sick. All along, though, the artist in my brain tries to pay attention. I’m not looking for songs, but I’m paying attention for things that interest me. Kate Campbell talked a lot about being curious—noting things you care about and trying to understand why.
So songs, or at least ideas, pop up everywhere. Back about 2008 or 2009, I wrote a song that ended up on my cd “Overload of Bad News Blues.” It’s called, “The Man I Didn’t Kill.” It came from a close call. One day a pedestrian walked out in front of me without looking. I was watching him, so I hit the breaks and, for the first time, he saw me. Small bit of life.
As I drove on down the road, I started mulling over what had just happened. What if I HAD struck him? This connected to my childhood. I ran out in front of a car and was knocked down in the road while my horrified parents watched. I was scraped up, but fortunately the driver saw me and also hit the breaks. Back to my near miss, I started reflecting. My life would have been changed forever, and maybe his family. When you think about things that don’t happen—a choice you make, a decision you pull back from, a bad option you don’t select—it can make as great a difference as the ones you do. There is a difference, though. We don’t really see the “things that never happen.”
So, I wrote about it, and it ended up as, I think, a pretty good song. Just to give you a taste of the way it come out for me:
A post was not abandoned,
Damage wasn’t done.
The shortcut wasn’t taken–
The bet was never won.
The wrist she didn’t slice,
The needle never used,
A come-on went unanswered
A childhood not abused
It’s the things that can’t be measured
Choices we don’t know
Hate nobody sows
A soul the devil doesn’t get
Is one that heaven will
There’s power in the blood of
The man I didn’t kill LISTEN CLICK HERE
This is an idea with a lot of play. I love Lucinda Williams, and in 2011 she came out with her album “Blessed.” The title cut takes some similar ideas and takes them in a very different direction than my song did. She mulls the notion of how it is the things not seen as blessings that often bless. I had never heard her song until the album came out. I am very sure she never heard mine! But similar ideas can occur to us and come out very differently in the hands of different writers. My song was more about what might of happened but didn’t. “Blessed” is about the ways that blessing comes from what shouldn’t have happened but does anyway–surely the signification of something from beyond us all. She writes:
We were blessed by the battered woman
Who didn’t seek revenge
We were blessed by the warrior
Who didn’t need to win
We were blessed by the blind man
Who could see for miles and miles
We were blessed by the fighter
Who didn’t fight for the prize
It goes to show that ideas and experiences can have a lot of room for exploration and development. One way to let ideas grow in our writing and work is to “let them” go to unexpected places. What would be the opposite of our expectations? The reverse of the “usual course”? Your ideas can be like children—you have to let them out and play now and then!.
So, too, with life. Expectations, roles, surrounding cultures can weigh us down into ruts in living. I heard a preacher say once that a rut is a grave that’s open on both ends. You don’t get out of it until you stop thinking it’s the only way.
Leaving the ruts, though, is risky. It can be stressful. But it can open up life, songs, and our minds, if we’ll pay attention.