If anything matters at all
No matter how big
No matter how small
— Pierce Pettis
This summer, I spent my vacation at a songwriting retreat called “Writing a Song That Matters.”
It’s basically music camp for adults, but way more amazing than I could have imagined. It’s held at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley, and it’s led by Dar Williams and three other incredible singer-songwriters, Raquel Vidal, and Michele and Rick Gedney.
I knew from the moment I saw the description that I had to go. I hadn’t been writing much music for a while, but I had been itching to get back to it, and this seemed like the perfect creative kick in the pants. I had no concrete expectations but definitely high hopes. And the retreat smashed and rearranged all of them by being better than I imagined.
There’s so much I could (and perhaps will) share about the retreat. About the amazing people I met from all different places and backgrounds and walks of life and their beautiful songs and stories. About the generosity, passion, and humility with which Dar Williams shepherded us. About the jokes and laughs and late-night jam sessions. About how quickly our group came to feel like old friends as we held creative and emotional space for one another.
But what made it all possible was a reversal of value systems that I have held deeply for all my life. Never, not once, was any song that was shared assessed as either “good” or “bad.” The focus was entirely on why it mattered–to the writer, to the audience–and everything always mattered.
This was a profound of a shift for me. So much of my life has been spent assessing myself–my appearance, my academics, my music, my work, my writing, even my personality–to decide whether it is “good” or “bad.” My conclusion has almost always been that it–whatever it was–was “bad.”
You can imagine how this became a barrier to songwriting. I quit writing a while ago mostly out of self-consciousness, out of a sense that my music wasn’t good enough and therefore that it wasn’t worth investing time and energy in. That conviction was so strong that it almost kept me from going to this retreat–because I felt like I wasn’t good enough at music to justify spending a week working on it.
To have those assumptions challenged gave me enormous freedom, though it took a few days for me to realize and lean into it. I admit that the first song I played for the group was one I chose because (1) it was less emotionally vulnerable than a lot of my music, (2) it had at various times been labeled a “good” song, and (3) it has a neat guitar riff I thought might impress people. It turns out, none of those walls I put up were necessary. I was never, ever being judged. I, through my music, was always being welcomed and told that I mattered, that my music mattered–and so was everyone else there.
If the bar isn’t about good or bad but about what matters, that both broadens the parameters and takes them deeper. Aiming to write about what matters gave me liberty to express myself and explore things that previously felt unworthy (including silly things!)–but it also called me to take my craft much, much more seriously; to be more careful with my words; to invest more of myself in every note.
Dar told us that when she got started in her musical career, she just wrote songs that mattered to her–and was pleasantly surprised to find that they mattered to other people, too. Trying to write a “good” song is a mask, a defense mechanism, and ultimately a way to keep from running the risk of connecting with anyone. To write a song that matters is to be vulnerable, to be brave, to trust that you are not the only one–to believe that everything matters, including you and your stories, and everyone else and theirs.
My deepest thanks to Dar, Raquel, Michelle, Rick, and my 25 new family members with whom I had the privilege of journeying last week. You have changed my life, and I know I am and will be so much better–kinder, gentler, and more myself–for it. This isn’t just a retreat–it’s a growing community of artists and humans who are learning how to make their communities–and therefore this world–a more beautiful, humane, and compassionate place.
And don’t worry, everyone else–I’ll be sharing some of my songs that matter soon enough. For now, here’s one of Dar’s.