By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 10, 2010
[The following excerpt from Rosanne Cash‘s Composed hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes. Thanks to Ms. Cash for permission to run it. The book is brand-new and it’s keeping me up nights. It should be required reading, in my opinion, for all serious writers, artists and musicians, particularly women. But judge for yourself. I’m giving over the whole of today’s post to this passage from Rosanne Cash’s Composed.
It was late in the making of King’s that I had a dream that changed my life.
I had met Linda Ronstadt a few times–in Los Angeles, while I was recording at Lania Lane; when I opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Greek Theater and Linda had come to see the show; and on a number of other occasions, as we traveled in the same circles and worked with many of the same musicians. Her record Heart Like a Wheel had profoundly affected me as a young girl, and I had studied it assiduously as a great example of a feminine point of view concept record, the best one since Joni Mitchell’s Blue, I thought, and equally important in the template I was creating for what I might do in my life. I especially admired her thoughtful song selection, which resulted in a very well-balanced album, and I wanted to make a record with a similarly unified concept, but as a songwriter.
Just as I was beginning to record King’s, I had read an interview with her in which she said that in committing to artistic growth, you had to “refine your skills to support your instincts.” This made such a deep impression on me that I clipped the article to save it. A short time after that, I dreamed I was at a party, sitting on a sofa with Linda and an elderly man who was between us. His name, I somehow knew, was Art. He and Linda were talking animatedly, deeply engrossed in their conversation. I tried to enter the discussion and made a comment to the old man. He turned his head slowly from Linda to me and looked me up and down with obvious disdain and an undisguised lack of interest. “We don’t respect dilletantes,” he spat out, and turned back to Linda. I felt utterly humiliated and woke from this dream, shaken to the core. I had been growing uneasy in my role in the Nashville community and the music business as a whole. I thought of myself primarily as a songwriter, but I had written only three songs on King’s. I was famous and successful, but it felt hollow, and the falsehoods were piling up. With more success had come more pressure to be a certain way, to toe a certain line, to start a fan club (which I refused to do), to participate in big, splashy events, and to act as if the country music scene were a religion to which I belonged. I resisted the push to conform, to buy into a certain narrow aesthetic, and to become part of the established hierarchy. I didn’t want a lofty perch; I wanted to be in the trenches, where the inspiration was. My unease led me to that dream. Carl Jung said that a person might have five “big” dreams in her life–dreams that provoke a shift in consciousness–and this was my first.
From that moment I changed the way I approached songwriting, I changed how I sang, I changed my work ethic, and I changed my life. The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, who had written “Runaway Train” for King’s Record Shop. John encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind. I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where’s the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. Oddly, it turned out that Marge also worked with Linda, which I didn’t know when I sought her out. I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams–an old, entrenched habit–I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range–never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks … I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them. I took painting lessons from Sharon Orr, who had a series of classes at a studio called Art and Soul.
I remained completely humbled by the dream, and it stayed with me through every waking hour of completing King’s Record Shop … I vowed the next record would reflect my new commitment. Rodney [Crowell, Rosanne’s then-husband] was at the top of his game as a record producer, but I had come to feel curiously like a neophyte in the studio after the dream. Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting. I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.
[What can you say after that? “Thanks, Rose … and thanks to ‘Art,’ who sat on the sofa between you and Linda Ronstadt and changed your life.”]