Mary Chapin Carpenter on Finding Inspiration

Mary Chapin Carpenter has won five Grammys, but she still can't give you a formula for how to write a song. "You know if I had a way to easily describe the writing process I swear I’d just, you know, I’d memorize it," she tells Big Think. "[Songwriting] just seems to be different with every song."


Her latest album Songs from the Movie includes a special track about a time in her life that she was trying to understand, through inspiration.  "You are just open to inspiration wherever it comes from," she says. "There’s a song on the new record called 'Mrs. Hemingway.' And I wrote it after I had devoured a number of now out of print books about the  first wife of Ernest Hemingway." Carpenter explains that she was touched by the young love, the poverty and idealism of Hemingway's first marriage, and lost in the young couple's bohemian life in Paris. The marriage, however, famously came to an end when Hemingway left his wife for one of her friends. 

"And, again, I don’t even remember why I was devouring all of this," she says. "I just was fascinated by her and their life and that period of time.  But as it happens, you know, sometimes we don’t realize what’s kind of going on with ourselves when we’re focusing on something else, and obviously I think I knew what was going on, but my marriage was in the process of ending at that time." Everything she was going through in her personal life, and the inspiration she felt from one of literature's famous real-life doomed romances, went into writing her song "Mrs. Hemingway."

"Sometimes you’re inspired by something you’ve read – absolutely.  Sometimes you are inspired by just a feeling you have," she explains. "Sometimes you’re trying to excavate things that are way down deep inside of you."

After all these years of songwriting, Carpenter continues to write using a pencil with an eraser and a yellow legal pad. When she gets stuck and is in need of inspiration, she relies on tried and true methods that she recommends: 

"I know enough about myself that if I get stuck on, you know, in the middle of working on something that I, you know, push back from the desk and grab a dog or two and I go walking and I call that song walking because I like to just repeat out loud what I’ve been working on and I kind of riff on it and sort of sing as I go.  Invariably when I, by the time I get back from that walk I’ve kind of figured out a solution to whatever was stumping me.  So I call that song walking and I also like to song bike as well.  So, you know, that’s what I do.  I just like to get out and riff it out loud."

Carpenter will continue to inspire us with her music for many more years to come. 

Watch Big Think's interview with Carpenter:

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