I sighed deeply, dropping the pen dramatically onto the open pages of the little notebook that lay on my purple bedspread. It was during seventh grade, and I was in the middle of reading the heart-wrenching second installment of the “Twilight” series — “New Moon.” After pouring over the pages detailing Bella Swan’s despair at being left by the sparkly vampire love of her life Edward Cullen, I had felt compelled to write something myself.
“Life’s dreary without you, I wish you were here,” I sang softly into my point-and-shoot camera, using its voice memo function to record the first words to the very first song I would ever write. “I can’t stop thinking about you, with every single tear.” I nodded to myself. Wow, I really had something here. Sheer brilliance was flowing out of my mouth. Then, came the show-stopping chorus: “I need you like a flower needs sun / I need you more than anyone.” Damn, I was good.
Sure, as a 12-year-old, I had never experienced anything remotely resembling romantic love. But I was sure the words I was singing were flowing straight out of Bella Swan’s mouth. I emailed the voice memo to a few of my close friends, and they told me I should definitely send it to the producers of the “New Moon” movie so they could use it in the film’s soundtrack. I showed it to my dad, and he told me I should take singing lessons.
Fortunately, my “Twilight” song was not the pinnacle of my songwriting career. A few years later, I started spitting out songs on the piano. They were clunky at first, with my piano skills and voice undeveloped and my lyricism cliche and amateur. I wrote about love and other things I knew nothing about. Most of it was terrible, but I slowly began to find my place.
I discovered the kind of songwriter I wanted to be in a song I had adored for years: “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. It was a tune I used to knock out of the park singing karaoke with my pals at middle school sleepovers. I identified with Sara’s sassy kiss-off to her record label — I was sick of love songs, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to write one. Not anymore.
The next time I sat down at the piano, I did my best to emulate the jazzy, snappy style of “Love Song,” ditching the whiny “I need you’s” of my past. I wrote from my own experience, rather than copying the platitudes I’d heard plastered all over the radio. I penned something tongue-in-cheek, fun and catchy — the first song I’d written that I truly felt proud of.
“I want you to know that I am really sorry / I didn’t mean to key your Ferrari,” I sang the ridiculous words to the song I’d written in front of a panel of judges a few months later. I had entered a youth songwriting competition, hoping that my quirky-cute singer-songwriter vibe might prove to be a winning formula. I delivered the bouncy piano chords with the confidence of a Grammy-winning pop star. I was every powerful female vocalist I’d ever desperately wanted to be. I was Regina Spektor; I was Kate Nash; I was Sara Bareilles.
But I didn’t make the cut. Crushed by the failure, I wondered if maybe I’d never progressed from my earliest Twihard songwriting attempts. I retreated into a Bella Swan-level mope fest. If the judges hadn’t liked my song, maybe I wasn’t any good at this music thing after all.
I kept at it anyway. I’ve failed innumerable times since that songwriting competition, but I’ve never stopped trying. Every song I finish still fills me with the tingly excitement and flush of pride I felt after emptying my vampire-loving heart into my camera’s voice recorder for the first time. No naysayer can erase that.
Creative work can be soul-crushing. No matter how hard you work at it, there’s always someone better, and you can always find a reason to feel inadequate. Failure is certain. But what a lot of people forget is that success is also a distinct possibility. If you keep working really hard at something — writing or singing or painting or dancing or whatever else fills you with fire — you’re going to get better. You’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s true — the more experience you get, the more you’ll improve.
I’ve written a lot of shitty songs, and I’m sure I’ll write many more. Improvement is a colossally slow process. But I’ve come miles from my melodramatic vampire-inspired first effort. No shade, Stephenie Meyer; I appreciate the inspiration you gave “Twilight”-dazzled younger Madeline. I’m just glad I didn’t stop there.
Madeline Wells writes the Thursday arts column on trying to make it in the music industry. Contact her at [email protected].