By Terri Hendrix
(Nov/Dec 2011/Vol. 4 – Issue 6)
As a kid, I was always the first one up on Christmas morning. With the lights from the Christmas tree illuminating a path through the dark, I’d gingerly make my way towards my brother and sister’s stockings, reach inside them, and steal most of their chocolate candy. I’d then sort through the candy I didn’t like in my own stocking, and “regift” it into theirs. When finished, I’d fluff their stockings back up, making sure they were in the exact place on their hooks in which I’d found them, and then go peacefully back to sleep.
So it should come as no surprise to you, that the first guitar I ever “owned” was, in fact, one that I stole from my sister Tammi, shortly after Christmas.
I “borrowed” it, with green ribbon still tied around the handle of its new case, from underneath her bed. It didn’t take her long to figure out that every time she stepped out of the house, I’d make a beeline towards her guitar and soon be immersed in a Mel Bay songbook (found in her case), with songs and their guitar chords. My dad got a kick out of hearing me practice, and even taught me a few chords he’d learned as a kid. Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are of us belting through the chorus of “Little Brown Jug,” with me hacking away at the chords.
After mastering the morbid classic “Tom Dooley,” I attempted my first barre chord. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my fingers to stretch into the F position. Eventually, rather than making the “real” chord, I settled on just playing a D in its place. It didn’t matter which key the song was in; if it called for an F chord, I opted for my short cut, and just played a D instead.
From the day I made Tammi’s guitar my guitar, I became obsessed with it. A few years later, I discovered it was easier to make up my own songs than remember the words to country classics like “Faded Love” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane” And that’s how I ventured into songwriting. I’d lift the guitar chords from popular songs, and substitute my words for theirs. True, my melodies sounded just like theirs, but my songs were original to me. Besides, with me as my sole audience, who was gonna notice?
It took me longer to figure out that some “songs” didn’t need music. They just needed to be written and left alone. I’d poke at the words with my pencil somewhat begrudgingly, because I knew that those “songs” were the hardest ones to finish. Years later, I would come to find out that these weren’t songs at all — but poems.
My mother would joke that if she wanted to find me, all she needed to do was follow my “paper trail,” and she’d eventually find me with my guitar in one hand, and pencil in the other. Because I was always writing. At least I was until my mom “stumbled” (while snooping) across my spiral-bound collection of songs and read all of my lyrics.
Upon her discovery, I got in a whole lot of trouble. What disturbed my mom most was one of my songs called “Female Dog,” which made minced meat of my sister (rude of me, considering it was technically written with her guitar). My mom wasted no time in promptly inserting a bar of soap in my mouth.
“Say you’re sorry!”
Right, I thought. And just how could I do that with a bar of Dial soap in my mouth? “Ahh-uuuah,” I managed, bobbing my head up and down, wide-eyed, looking up at my mother.
As my words turned to mere bubbles, I bowed my head in defeat.
After my first “bad review,” I took pains to avoid my mom’s opinion of my “art.” She was on the lookout for my journals from that point on, and because she had tactics similar to that of a bloodhound, I developed a rather cryptic approach to writing. To spare us both the angst of her finding what I’d written, I never kept my “material” in one place — or on one page.
I’d write a line on a napkin, a chorus on a torn-out piece of colored construction paper, and I’d even doodle in chalk to the side of a game of hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of our house.
Perhaps it was the invasion of my privacy — along with the lengths I had to go to in order to write, our relocation from Panama back to Texas, and the insecurity of adolescence — that did it, but that burst of creativity that had turned my imagination to liquid and made words pour out of my mind like a waterfall, drew to a trickle and then to a complete stop. By the time of my senior year, I was too busy singing and learning new songs for high school choir to practice guitar. And every time I tried to write, I just ended up frustrated — staring at a blank page. So I quit writing and singing my own songs.
It wasn’t until I was in the middle of my freshman year of music school at Hardin-Simmons State University, in Abilene, Texas, that I started writing again. Although I received a scholarship in voice, I wasn’t doing well majoring in music and, consequently, was failing most of my classes. So, I did what came automatic, and scribbled down my innermost thoughts and fears inside my music theory notebooks, scraps of paper, and receipts. Surely enough, the old muse came back, only this time without my mom peeking over my shoulder. When I ran out of room in my notebooks, I ripped out my compositions and stored them inside a lawn bag that I kept stuffed in a cardboard Chiquita banana box – which I kept hidden under my bed.
By the end of my second semester, I decided to change majors and switch schools. My brother had gone to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos (now called Texas State), and upon his recommendation of the town, I transferred. I had experience waiting tables, and began working at a local restaurant. That’s where I soon found out about a local open-mic night, at Cheatham Street Warehouse, where anyone who was willing could play their own original songs in front of an audience.
I gathered my courage, attended my first open mic there, and upon finishing, went to the restroom and threw up.
Courage was on my side though, for within a few more weeks a hunger to play my songs won out over fear, and I found myself back at Cheatham Street in the song circle hacking through what I’d written. By making the trek weekly, in time I began to improve as a guitar player, and even mastered the F chord I’d once dreaded making.
What drove me to perform was the realization that it was the only way I could effectively communicate what I most wanted to say. I had a desire to write and take folks on a ride with my songs. And in some cases, I just wanted to make people laugh, so I wrote funny songs too, and mixed them into my repertoire.
The more I felt a sense of connection with an audience, the more relaxed and capable I was of performing to my potential.
I became addicted to the song and a junkie for the music. I wanted to inject the soul of a song in my veins and have it boil my blood till I was able to light other people up inside, too. But it seemed as if I was born without any natural abilities, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I was gonna have to practice harder than most if I wanted to become a better artist. And though the muse would come and go — a Godiva chocolate one day, a toothache the next — once I had a taste of consuming what was just beyond my reach and setting it to words, the hunger to improve my writing and playing didn’t leave me.
I’ve crisscrossed the globe with my guitar in tow several times since my first open mic. And though I thought it would go away, my self-doubt and stage fright still rear their head in my performances on occasion. I try and use the negativity to help me improve my craft. It’s only by questioning my own work that I improve. The second-guessing of my abilities I could do without, but hey, I’m human.
Just like learning an instrument, writing takes practice, and whatever we bring to the table is unique unto us. It’s self-doubt (and over-confidence, too) that seeds the weeds that prevent songs from ever reaching sunshine. For me, I’ve found that the best way to cut through those weeds and find my way back to the light is to quit worrying about writing as an adult and approach it like I did as a kid, holding my sister’s guitar with stolen chocolate on my fingertips. When you write like a kid, it’s honest and there’s always something new to discover.
There are ideas for songs everywhere. When I catch one, I call my cell phone and leave myself a message so I don’t forget. To this day, I still can’t write an entire song on just one sheet of paper, so I don’t even try. I write my thoughts on Post-it notes, napkins, and if in a crunch, toilet paper. And I never throw any of my lyrics away, even if they don’t seem like they will ever be used. If I get hung up on a line, I put parenthesis around it and move on. I still write to music written by other people — when I get stuck on a melody. Upon the song’s completion, I’ll revisit it and come up with my own chords. They’re all shortcuts that help me finish a song, just like the shortcuts I came up with as a kid when I was learning to make an F chord.
Sometimes songs get stuck (or I get stuck in songs) not for lack of creativity or other mental blocks, but simply because the songs aren’t ready to be songs yet. Sometimes songs sit unfinished for years. But if a song’s meant to be a song, sooner or later (sometimes much later), it all falls into place. Within time, whatever kinks there may be (like lines not folding within the measures correctly) turn the sand within the oyster into a pearl, or … an appetizer for what’s to come. I often round up my most stubborn unfinished tunes and marry them to each other. I make them live together for awhile, and if they get along, vows are exchanged. Sometimes the union produces kids, and that’s when I’ll get a theme for a record started.
As for subject matter, for me, I like M&M’s with my popcorn. It’s a mixture of the Yin and Yang, light and dark, bitter (or salty) and sweet — and anything that reads well, speaks personal truth, or that could be framed within a portrait that makes a song speak to me. “Is there magic to it?” I’ve been asked. Maybe so. It’s a lot like the holidays. Songs wave hello and good-bye like the season. They come as gifts and open up our hearts to see things we only felt in our souls. Some twinkle like Christmas lights. Some ring out like carols for all to sing along to. And yes, some stink up the house like burnt sugar cookies, or are received with as much enthusiasm as socks or fruitcakes. But the wonder of it all is that there’s an endless supply of songs, perhaps waiting in each of our hearts to be written.
This essay is taken from the updated and revised, second-edition of Terri Hendrix’s book, Cry Till You Laugh — The Part that Ain’t Art, which was released in October. For more information, visit www.terrihendrix.com.