get back in the shed

It occurred to me the other day—for the very first time!—that “author” and “authority” must derive from the same root. Isn’t it funny how something so obvious can stare you right in the face? As I discovered, both words derive from the Latin verb augēre, meaning “to increase.” (Another word derives from augēre: eke, as in, “I will eke out another 500 words this morning if it kills me.”)

An author is someone who “originates or creates something.” Simple and clear. The Merriam-Webster entry for author as both a noun and a verb is sparse. But if you author something, you may garner authority. I like that entry much more. It sizzles with appealing synonyms: ace, adept, artist, cognoscente, connoisseur, crackerjack, expert, fiend, geek, guru, hand, hotshot, maestro, master, meister, past master, proficient, scholar, sharp, virtuoso, whiz. And maven, naturally. But I kind of wish I’d known “fiend” was an option back when I started this thing.

To author is to plow the barren earth, to start from nothing, to eke. The crops of authorship, in contrast, can be lush and bountiful: a book, a screenplay, a newsletter. The trap lies in thinking that the experience of creation should reflect the experience of consumption. Polar opposites. If the product is present in the process, that part’s just done. There’s no time to savor your success. Move on to what isn’t right, because more work is needed there. You plow only where the earth is parched and lifeless. Don’t make the mistake I always do of reading through the good bits as you revise, pleasing to the ego as it can be. As a writer, your job is to wrestle with what’s broken and incomplete. The ugly, malformed passages. The bleak lacunae in between. It’s the creator’s natural terrain.

At eighteen, Enya spent two years performing in a Celtic folk-rock group with relatives. When the group split with its producer and manager, Nicky Ryan, Enya sided against her family. She left with Ryan, eventually moving in with him and his wife, the writer Roma Ryan. It was an unconventional creative arrangement, but the three recognized a common sensibility in each other. As Jenn Pelly relates in this profile of the chronically undervalued singer, the Ryans “spent their life savings transforming a shed into a small 16-track studio, where Enya spent four tentative years experimenting with an elemental sound—an expanding universe of singing and synthesizers conducted by the moods of one woman—that would go on to sell more than 80 million records.”

No commissions. No deadlines. No external mandate. Just raw creation. Four years in a shed. Week after week, month after month, the three collaborators tilled the dry fields, filling rack after rack of blank tape with new sounds:

In the Ryans’ studio, Enya drew from the elegance and drama of classical music and the melancholy of traditional Irish sounds; from church hymns and silence; from her own green world of cliff tops, rolling hills, and the vastness of the sea. She composed the stately melodies and performed nearly all of the instruments, while Ryan, 12 years her senior, produced…He had an idea to create his own cathedral-scaling version of the Wall of Sound by overdubbing dozens of what he called “multi-vocals” into a “choir of one.” This intrigued Enya. The concept would eventually see Enya and Ryan record up to 500 individual takes of her hushed singing for a single song, layered slowly over weeks, or months, or even a year. Roma, a poet, observed this process, and wrote lyrics infused with the mythology of Ireland. A trinity was born, and it has continued ever since.

That a trio so dedicated to the grinding effort of composition is still producing new and innovative work decades later should surprise no one. Nor should the fact that Enya, long a punchline in mainstream culture, is revered by songwriters, producers, and singers across musical genres:

In a recent interview with The Guardian, R&B icon Brandy—herself an influence on the likes of Frank Ocean and Solange—also proudly asserted her fandom, reflecting on how Enya’s stacked vocals particularly influenced her 2002 album Full Moon. When the Guardian reporter questioned her taste, Brandy defensively arched both brows: “Enya’s a joke to you?”

There’s a reason for the respect Enya commands: creators recognize the vital originality of the work. They know an ace, adept, and artist when they see one. They see the depth and the dedication. To author, and to remain an author, is to turn away from the verdant crops of your creative efforts and trudge back into the empty fields. Not until you “succeed” with a best-selling book or a Grammy-winning album but season after season. There’s very little time in the life of a creator to reap the harvest. You can’t sit around reading through what you’ve published and patting yourself on the back. You’ve got to push yourself out of your comfort zone and right up against the boundary between what you’ve made and what you will make next. Then, you have to hold yourself in place until it almost feels natural.

Enough for now. Time to crank out another 500 words. Eke!

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