Jeff Tweedy performs live. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
Jeff Tweedy has amassed a following in old and new-fashioned ways, building his base across the decades with albums and songs of his own across at least a half-dozen acts (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Golden Smog, Loose Fur, Tweedy, solo) and expanding it with Wilco’s Solid Sound festival (reinventing the festival in the modern age), writing a memoir, keeping a steady live sitcom on his wife’s Insta during covid-times, and now sharing a slice of his wisdom with a book about songwriting: How to Write One Song (out now via Dutton).
It is, for all intents and purposes, a guide to writing just one song. But it is also not just a guide to writing a song. Tweedy wrote a book that’s as much a defense and call to creation, sounding the bell again and again that nearly anyone can create. He speaks to the reader throughout – much like his memoir, this is a conversational work, less interested in communicating to the reader (except when necessary) and more concerned with connecting with the reader.
If you’ve had the privilege to listen to his audiobook, to see his shows, then you can and likely will hear Jeff’s voice in your head as you read, see that twinkle in his eye at the little jokes, the shrugs in his shoulders, and the wide smiles he so often beams.
How to Write One Song can cast magic over the reader, and quoting too much from it may weaken the magic. I will keep myself to a few quotes, a few brief points, and allow you to discover the book on your own. It is a quick read, and if I’d not spent time practicing the strategies within the book, I would have likely finished it in a night.
It’s not that kind of book, though, the sort that’s best consumed quickly; less like a chocolate peanut butter cup and more like a tiny three-tiered cake. You can finish it in one go, but it’d be kinda weird. Instead, I recommend reading it in its Parts.
The first, with its backgrounding, its offhanded wisdom, the way it establishes the remainder of the book, this is the discussion. The part where you, as the reader, necessarily ask if this applies to you, and Tweedy, as the writer, asserts that it applies to anyone who’s human and has the physical capacity to engage in creativity. If anything, a reasonable takeaway is that all humans necessarily benefit from creative pursuits, the structures that permit those pursuits, and the active diminution of any thoughts and beliefs that make us – the creators – think we are not worthy. Jeff writes of how aspirations and goals are different things, but ultimately, what resonates most deeply is:
The second time I read this, I added a note, “Is this the mission statement? Is this what Warm and Warmer brought to my table?” And I share this here because, though this is a book about writing songs, it is just as much a book about being here, being human, and finding a way to feel less alone. And isn’t that everything Tweedy’s music has come to represent for his audience?
Now it bears repeating, this is not a book about the mysticisms of being human, even if it contains musings on the topic. Tweedy offers real and tangible advice throughout: “Inspiration is rarely the first step” and it “has to be invited.” So, he encourages us readers to establish a practice of working creatively, in as little as five minutes a day, gently chastising us for pretending we do not have the time. (After all, look at how much time you spend on the phone, he points out; “Nobody makes good choices when they aren’t aware they are making a choice.”) Build a space where you can work, an environment your mind associates with openness and receptiveness.
And then, of course, Tweedy offers concrete strategies: seven exercises for writing words and four recommendations for making music. I am not a trained musician, though I enjoy putzing around on my great grandmother’s piano in my living room, so I have not thoroughly explored these recommendations; I can, however, speak to the way some of these writing exercises helped me untangle my ego and disrupt my process while sitting at my desk. I love to write, but it has felt almost a dreary thing in this confined life; taking old recorded conversations and turning them into poems stuttered my heart in ways I have trouble understanding. Cutting up old verses and making them something new created meanings I didn’t know could be found, and I built a few walls of words to shelter me in this coming fall. I expect to keep adding to them.
I do not want to betray you, reader, by sharing some of the moments that made me laugh aloud, those phrases Tweedy drops onto the page like he’s in conversation with us. So instead, I’ll end with a pair of assertions he makes about writer’s block:
“First off, let’s stop calling it a block. The only impediment between a creator and their goal is actually a creation in itself. So we can name it whatever we like. I prefer to think of these periods as hurdles or speed bumps or challenges. Calling it a block seems to give it way more weight than it deserves.”
“There are no rules AND I make them!”
Reading How to Write One Song, I kept thinking back to the times I’ve seen Wilco or Tweedy, the way every one of their shows is embossed with the ideas of love and kindness first, of the genuine power of empathy, of wonder. “There’s more of this than there is of that”, he said about love and hate. “Look at that stupid rainbow,” he said with a wide grin splitting his face. And if there’s anything I took from this book, it’s that we all need to give ourselves the time to create, have a little self-empathy, and put in the good work of being human.