If someone locked you in a room and said, “Write a story” or “Compose a sestina” could you do that? Us writers are creative people, but when we are creative, it’s usually inspired by random thoughts, misheard conversations, or weeks of reflection. It never just happens. Right?
I love Motown, and I keep thinking of one particular story from the label’s heyday. Berry Gordy, desperate for a hit from the Supremes (which had recently switched members and became Diana Ross and the…), assembled some of his best songwriters for a late-night meeting at the Pontchartrain Hotel in downtown Detroit. The composers were then tasked with the writing of a brand new song for Ross that would break the top twenty. That night. Practically locked in the room with pizzas and pop, the song they came up with was “Love Child.” It was well outside the Supremes’ range, neither a snappy love song nor a mid-tempo ballad, the song dealt with themes like unwanted pregnancy, poverty, pressure to have sex, stuff not usually addressed by Hitsville. It might not have been Motown, but it felt topical, much more 1968 than the Eisenhower era when the group began. The writers, now called the Clan, had come up with something truly original and on-point, all in one night. The song went on to break the top twenty and hit first, briefly restarting the Supremes’ rise before Ross went solo the next year.
Much of the music of the sixties was created by songwriters behind desks. The Brill Building in New York City is famous for launching the careers of talented writers like Carole King or Neil Diamond, people who would write tunes for the Monkees or the Shirelles pretty much on demand.
So, back to my first question: If someone paid you a stipend, put you in a room, and told you to write, could you do it? Would you freeze up and get writers’ block? I am curious what I would do. I am pretty good with deadlines, but the immense pressure of say, writing something good, would probably be too much. I’m pretty sure I would go crazy. I prefer my writing style, which is waiting to overhear something interesting, and then picking up a notebook and covertly jotting down notes. It may take longer, but it’s the kind of pressure I can stand, my own.
A kinda strange version of the song.