How Do You Believe in a Mystery? Loudon Wainwright III has been writing songs for more than 30 years. He believes in the mystery that inspires the creation of a new song. But it's not something Wainwright wants to think about too much.
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How Do You Believe in a Mystery?

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How Do You Believe in a Mystery?

How Do You Believe in a Mystery?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of This I Believe introduction)


Our Monday series THIS I BELIEVE brings you statements of personal conviction from nurses, politicians, farmers, students, everyone. And today a singer/songwriter with a cult following, Loudon Wainwright III.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

Mr. JAY ALLISON (Independent Producer): What you believe is distinct from what you know. Belief contains mystery.

People who write for our series often tell us that in the process of naming their beliefs, they find themselves in uncharted terrain. That's okay with Loudon Wainwright. The not knowing is what's important to him.

Here he is with his essay for THIS I BELIEVE.

Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Singer/Songwriter): Here's a question. How do you believe in a mystery, in something you don't understand and can't prove?

When we're children we're encouraged to believe in some mysterious things that turn out to not necessarily be true at all. Things like the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny or the flag. Naturally, we're disappointed after our illusions have been shattered, but usually we get over it.

Some of us, however, become skeptical, even cynical, after that.

I've been asked on many occasions how I write my songs. Often I'll glibly reply, I sure don't wake up in the morning and sharpen pencils. Then I'll admit how lazy and lucky I am and how successful and downright great some of the more notorious pencil sharpeners have been, two of my heroes, Frank Leosser and Irving Berlin being among them.

If I'm feeling expansive, I'll bring up the mysterious aspect, the mere five to ten percent that matters the most, what's commonly called the inspiration. That's the thing beyond the technique and the discipline, when the sharpening and the gnawing stop, and something, as they say, comes to you. It's a bit like fishing, really. There's certainly luck involved, but maybe what you took for laziness was - and I'm going out on a limb here - a sort of divine relaxation.

When I write what I consider to be a good song, when I realize it's going to hang together, when I somehow manage to get it into the boat, so to speak, I invariably find myself looking upwards and thanking something, or even, dare I say it, someone. If I'm alone my heartfelt thank you is often an audible one. Oh yes, I've been known to mutter a few words at the head of the table at Thanksgiving dinner or hoarsely whisper an Amen at a wedding, funeral, or Christmas pageant, but usually its just embarrassed lip service.

As a rule, I don't give thanks at a dinner table or in a church pew. For me it happens when I've been hunched over a guitar for a few hours.

I believe in the power of inspiration, in the mysterious gift of creation. Creation with a small c, that is. Creation as in one's work, hauling in the day's catch.

When I write a song I'm happy for a few days. And it's not just because I've been reassured that I still have a job, though that's certainly part of it. Mostly I'm happy, I think, because I've experienced a real mystery. I haven't the slightest idea how it happened or where or from whom or what it came. I'd prefer not to know.

In fact, I'd prefer not to talk about it anymore. It might scare the fish away.

Mr. ALLISON: Loudon Wainwright III with his essay for THIS I BELIEVE.

The invitation to write for our series extends to all. You can find out more and see all the essays at our website,

Incidentally, after Wainwright read his essay in the studio, he played us this fitting song of his: The Muse Blues.

For THIS I BELIEVE, I'm Jay Allison.

(Soundbite of song "The Muse Blues")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm a dusty firecracker. I ain't got any fuse. I ain't got no inspiration since I lost my muse. I'm a table with two legs, I'm a spider with five...

INSKEEP: THIS I BELIEVE continues next Monday on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with an essay from Brian Grazer, a producer whose credits include A Beautiful Mind and 24.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Muse, where are you? You know I eat, drink, and I smoke stuff. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.

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