The Mystery of Writing – And Songwriting
Writing, by all appearances, is a mysterious art. How do writers sit down and come up with a beautiful combination of words, one that nobody else has put together quite the same way before? What do writers do all day? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself as I fuss around my workspace and make to-do lists, and generally find other ‘more important’ things to do with my time.
I can afford to do that, though, because I’m a fast writer. Need a review? I can probably do it in under an hour. Need a 400-page book? Give me eight months (that did happen). In the fall, I wrote one of these blogs on the subway. I thought of it in the shower, wrote it on the subway in a notebook in 15 minutes, got to work and typed it out, and had it tweeted five minutes later. Then I taught a lesson on Baroque concertos. Bam.
Despite what I’ve just said, I’m not actually patting myself on the back. There are two reasons I’m a fast writer, and they align with what Silas House said in the entry above.
1) I’m a slow thinker.
This is the reason I hate Twitter, more than anything else. I hate the implied fast pace of it. Can’t read more than a sentence? Don’t worry, everything is summarized in some cryptic, usually crappily written phrase that’s supposed to entice you, but, um, fails. To the people who can craft a brilliant tweet that says all it needs to, I applaud you. I do.
Many of us want to linger over words and enjoy the opportunity to observe, take in, analyze, craft, re-observe, and re-craft. We are the slow thinkers. Ask me my opinion on something, or to recap a story for you, and I can’t. I fail, big-time, in oral communication. People ask me to rephrase all the time when I’m talking. I especially hate talking on the phone. Give me a day to respond thoughtfully to your email and I will do it right.
So when I have to write something, I think about it long and hard first. I don’t wake up in the morning and tell myself to sit down and write something, I let it all coalesce in my head instead. I carefully think about the way I want to structure sentences, or how to avoid regurgitating clichéd journalistic lines (not always successful in that). If it looks like I’m not paying attention to you in conversation, I’m probably not – I’m probably writing about you in my head. And when I’m ready, I have to sit down and write, now, before it all disappears. Take this blog, for example. I’m supposed to be reviewing a textbook right now…it’s not even a bad assignment, considering it’s a textbook on pop music history. But I got this idea in my head, couldn’t stop thinking about it, and had to write before it evaporated.
2) I practice.
Sorry, but it’s true. Want to know how to play guitar? Practice. You can’t learn “Smoke on the Water” and then stop into a guitar shop once every two weeks, play it, and claim you’re going to be the next Hendrix. And you can’t tell your friends that “once I write my novel…” when you’ve never even sat down to draft an outline of the plot. Or written a letter to your grandma. You gotta write something.
This blog is my practice. As such, it’s full of mistakes, it has sins that have highly offended strict grammarians, and it is the truest evidence of my improvement (if I’ve made any). On average, I write one a week. Sometimes I write entries and don’t post them. Sometimes I take the worst offenders off the site. Meanwhile, my book perishes in the dark corners of my mind – I haven’t even finished the proposal – but I know that when I return to it, I’ll have practiced writing a lot, and it will be a better book for it.
A note on that: I have also learned the rules of writing. Not all of them, but many. I started as a child, by reading (like a total dork) with a flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. I also learned to prop a book up on the counter to read while I washed my hair, hold a book down with my foot to read while I dried my hair, and read by passing streetlights in the backseat of the car. There are pictures of me standing in a park staring into a book oblivious to the world while my brothers flail around me in horseplay.
When I grew up, I took note of the authors I liked, how they crafted their sentences and how they structured their works. I eliminated words that bothered me from my vocabulary. I learned how to use a thesaurus. I looked up words that I didn’t know. This past fall, I took a grammar class. I edit a journal and I correct essays for a living, but between the ages of 11 and 34 I didn’t learn a thing about grammar. And boy, did I learn a lot when I finally did it at 34. I still mess up – it’s hard to stop using “hopefully” at the beginning of sentences (yep, that’s incorrect). And I often – too often – start sentences with coordinating conjunctions. Or overuse the em-dash when other punctuation is more appropriate. Ok, I’ll stop.
Why am I talking about myself so much? It always has a point.
The best songwriters, to me, are the ones who sit still. They are the ones who observe, and who practice. These songwriters learn to play other people’s songs before they write their own. They understand structure, whether it’s the way lyrics operate in verses and choruses, or the way chord progressions should happen, or what notes of a scale work overtop of such progressions. These songwriters also take time to observe the world around them, to find small facial expressions and turns of phrase in their conversations with other people. A moment of sitting on your back porch and watching leaves fall is as heartbreaking as seeing your best friend die in battle; as a result, both can have an equal impact (don’t use impact as a verb!) on a listener.
So while I was thinking about all of this, I came up with a little list of the songwriters that I think best “sit still”.
1. Andrew Cash, “Conversations Under Bridges”
Cash can do a lot with very little. He once came in to my class and entranced the students for an hour with only stories and a guitar. This song, one of my favourites since I first heard it live in 2008, isn’t overly complex in its arrangement or delivery, allowing lyrics like “And through the haze/ I don’t know I thought that I could see a halo/ around the Polish cashier…” give you little moments in time that generally go unnoticed.
2. Calexico, “Slowness”
This song seems romantic, but when you listen closely, it’s very clearly setting up a scene that is quite evocative. It focuses on travel, roads, cars, (an accident too?), and then sweetly turns back around to a brief instant of the recognition of love that stretches out in the couple’s minds.
(The song starts about halfway through this video)
3. Ian Tyson, “Rockies Turn Rose”
I distinctly remember finding this song in February 2000. It was that period where I was dorking out over folk music, taking everything I could find out of the library and hiding in my apartment (it was cold) listening to them and I had this boyfriend who didn’t give a crap about me, but I hoped that one day he’d think of me the way Ian thinks of his “Calgary girl” in this song. I also lived in a place where you could see the Rockies actually turn rose in the morning, a particularly beautiful sight on those cold February days.
4. NQ Arbuckle, “I Liked You Right from the Start”
Yeah, another song about Alberta. Sort of. The king of observation, Neville Quinlan can make the most ordinary moment seem like all of history’s miracles combined. The best lines for me in this one are, well, all of them, but especially: “In a Mexican bar/ somewhere in Alberta” (because I don’t know of any of those) and “Tell me that you want me/ And I won’t ask you why” (because who ever does that? We all ask why.)
5. Rose Cousins, “All the Stars”
Hm. This song just feels like one of those that came from sitting on your porch worrying, and having that worry turn to wonder and then hope. Probably because you took a bottle of wine out with you on the porch.
6. Sarah Harmer, “Basement Apartment”
I’ve always been amazed by the way Harmer described exactly what it is like to live in a basement apartment. The only thing she missed were the house centipedes that suddenly appear from behind your toaster to say hi when you get up in the morning.
I first heard this song when my life was completely changing and messy. I was reminded of it several years later when that happened again and I actually moved into a basement apartment, defeated by recent events. “You’re in your ‘basement years’”, my friends, who were also basement dwellers, assured me. “It happens when you’re 28. Don’t worry, you’ll move out when you hit 29.” I finally escaped at 31… on the day I moved, another friend called and said, “Hey, did you ever hear that Sarah Harmer song?”
7. Scott MacLeod, “Broken Heart”
Scott is one of my favourite people ever. Encouraging, helpful, a good listener, and solid deliverer of advice, he’s also a super-ambitious songwriter who manages to translate the angst we all feel into songs that actually make you feel hopeful. “Broken Heart” is one of those songs that I listened to hundreds of times for an analysis project, so whenever I think of him, that song pops into my head. And every time I think of that song, I wonder yet again, “Was I born with a broken heart or was it busted from the start?”
I can’t find a video for this song…maybe it’s elsewhere online.
8. Steve Earle, “More Than I Can Do”
I doubt Earle was ever someone who sat still, but no doubt he’s one of the best observational songwriters. Mostly this one cracks me up because it, like the others, is true. “Just because you won’t unlock your door/ that don’t mean you don’t love me anymore”.
What do y’all think? I better get back to work.