Songwriters on Songwriting: Paul Simon

Paul Simon

You described yourself when working on the Graceland album, sitting in a room and tossing a ball against a wall while working. What effect, if any, does that physical activity have on your mental activity?

I think it’s very calming. It’s like a Zen exercise, really. It’s a very pleasant feeling if you like playing ball. The act of throwing a ball and catching a ball is so natural… and calming that your mind kind of wanders. And that’s really what you want to happen. You want your mind to wander, to pick up words and phrases and fool around with them and drop them.

As soon as your mind knows that it’s on and it’s supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn’t or it produces things that are very predictable. And that’s why I say I’m not interested in writing something that I thought about. I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up.

It always picks up on something true. You’ll find out much more about what you’re thinking that way than you will if you’re determined to say something. What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.

I think when I get blocked, when I have writer’s block (though I never think of it as writer’s block anymore), what it is is that you have something to say but you don’t want to say it. So your mind says, “I have nothing to say. I’ve just nothing more to say. I can’t write anything. I have not thoughts.” Closer to the truth is that you have a thought that you really would prefer not to have. And you’re not going to say that thought. Your mind is protected. Once you discover what that thought is, if you can find another way of approaching it that isn’t negative to you, then you can deal with that subject matter.

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