Saturday, April 07, 2012

Songwriting: Where It Begins

What starts a song lyric, or a poem, going? What triggers any moment of inspiration that becomes a work of art? Do you need a specific muse to inspire you?

Almost anything. Anything can trigger that inspiration, it tends to come over like a wave or a sudden feeling. I've never needed a specific muse, anything will do. Art-making is the artist's response to life.

An aside: Any time the words "muse" and "inspire" are mentioned, a certain clan of poets and songwriters feels like they must insist that writing doesn't require a muse. They're right, but their assertion goes too far. They neglect to admit that some of the time, inspiration does happen, and there is a muse. These assertions often come from the craft-oriented wing of writing, those who write with intention and purpose, and use all their craft to work hard at making the best art that they can. I applaud that. However, I'm also very well aware that inspiration does happen, and it cannot always be explained—or explained away. And sometimes, there is a person who triggered it. A painter paints her lover. A composer's wife hums while working in the garden, inciting a symphony of song. Art-making is the artist's response to life, and inspiration can come from anywhere.

A second aside: Lots of people think that your muse, if it's your beloved soul-mate, inspires you to your heights of artistry. That is the romantic myth. it's true sometimes, but all too often poets perpetrate one of those numerous insipid love poems that plague the world with their clichéd repetitions. In fact, most people have romantic notions about love and its connection to inspiration that go too far. Not all muses are beneficent. And not all that a muse inspires is loving, praising, or beatific. Loving is not always a pastoral romp through fields of glory. I'll tell you who your real sou-mate is: the person who most pushes you towards growth, towards becoming a better person. Your soul-mate isn't in fact usually the person who you adore, but the person who pushes you, who pisses you off, who you can't get out of your head even if you try. Sometimes the muse inspires an angry poem.

That's how I wrote this poem, as a response to a moment when the person I most love in this world was really pissing me off. It happens. The most important cusp in a love relationship comes when you choose what you will do next. That moment didn't last, but I am left with a poem I still like. In this instance, as occasionally happens, I was inspired and wrote this poem at white heat in one sitting, in one of my journals. As is also common when writing at white heat, the final version is not far off the first draft, as can be seen from the journal page in question:

Many of my poems, and now song lyrics, have begun from specific inspirations I can recall, and detail, such as the previous example. Art-making is my response to life experience. Sometimes you spin off from another idea that occurred to you, and it just starts to flow. It can be mysterious in its arrival, but you can learn to notice and recognize with experience. There have been poems that were triggered by a person, an encounter, a phrase in a conversation; so sometimes a person does serve as muse, if you will.

A recent instance of multiple threads coming together to inspire a song lyric can be seen in a song I wrote in New Mexico, on my recent roadtrip. I wrote a poem while in Albuquerque, and posted it here: Colder Moons. An online friend made a comment to the poem affirming the poem's last lines:

. . . A thread
runs through memory, links every ground you ever camped on.
A surfeit of tent, an excess of fresh air. Brewing sweet tea
over wood coals some cold blue pre-dawn, embrace
a kind of solace. Some things don't need
to be forgiven.

I was grateful for the comment, and it got me to thinking. Not many days later I took the last line of the poem, "Some things don't need to be forgiven," and used it as the first line for a new song. The line had stayed with me, but having it affirmed in my friend's comment gave it extra weight in my art-making mind.

Here's the first two verses of this new song, written soon after the poem and comment:

Some things don't need to be forgiven,
like stars that fall from desert skies,
like tears that urge the heart to widen,
like a newborn daughter's cries.

Some places in the heart are broken,
it's friendship's edge we use to bind
ourselves together to each other,
your limping half-healed heart to mine.

. . .

This completed song lyric is one of the new songs I am working on now, setting the words to music. It's part of a group of songs I wrote during the roadtrip, and after.

Writing the words for a song usually comes first, for me, although I do sometimes hear the melody at the same time, coming forward together with the words. For this song, the melody did come to me right along with the words, and finishing the total of four verses and refrain to the song was partly a matter of fitting the words to the song in its established melodic pattern, and partly about writing what I wanted to say.

It can become a process of getting it down while you're in the flow, then cleaning it up later, although in this instance once I got going it pretty much flowed. I find myself writing a song like this mostly in one sitting, getting it all down as much as I can; when the words start to come, it can take a few minutes, or an hour, to get them down. Then I set it aside for awhile, to come back after a few days, to polish, clean up, sometimes rearrange lyrics or phrases, and generally rewrite as needed. Taking some time between the initial inspiration and the rewrite often allows you to be more objective, or at least somewhat detached, so that you can look at the song as a song, and start to hear it being sung in your head.

That's how the writing process can go, at least some of the time, from inspiration to finish. Other songs take a lot longer to beat into shape, which can be a process of gathering fragments onto a page in my journal and then figuring out how to fit them together. Your craft as a songwriter comes into play in particular when you rewrite and polish and clean up.

Don't rewrite too soon in the process, is my advice, because at least for me that can completely kill the inspiration. Stay in one mindset while writing, use the other for editing and rewriting. Use the inspiration for as long as you can, for as long as it hangs around. Get down as much as you can. Be greedy with whatever inspires you. You have a lot more time for rewrites than you do for inspiration. When the white heat cools to more calculating craft, that's the time for editing. That's another reason I set a song aside for awhile, before coming back to look at it more objectively. You can spot things when it's further off in the distance that you'd miss entirely when you're still in the midst of being inspired.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I am completely in favour of de-Romanicising the notion of inspiration. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Inspiration is a good idea, nothing more. That’s me at my most dismissive. The next book review I’m going to post reduces inspiration to a thirty second burst of alpha waves which I love. It still doesn’t answer the mystery of what ignites that cerebral big bang though.

Although you wouldn’t think so I am actually acutely aware of how chance factors into the creative process. When I look at my novels in particular they are a record of all the things that I read, watched and experienced over the time it took me to write the novel that piqued my interest. Why is one woman more attractive than another? Why does one piece of music make your hair stand on end and most doesn’t? Why do I like chocolate more than crisps? It’s because I am a unique mix of chemicals and respond in a unique way to the world. The trick is to learn quickly what works for you and make the most of it. A part of me wishes I could rattle off a novel a year. I am perfectly capable of typing a novel a year—two or three easily—but I have learned to trust my process. I wish it was a more efficient process but then I wish my lungs were more efficient and my legs didn’t ache all the time. We work within our limitations. Some people can’t write at all. There’s always someone out there worse off than you are. What I have also learned it to be vigilant. When the right side of my brain (if the books are to be believed) tosses an idea at me it’s up to the left side to grab a hold of it and run with it. All my poetry is inspired. I never sit down and try and write a poem. The poems come, I write ‘em down and the left side of my brain tidies ‘em up. Books are a mixture. You can’t sit around waiting for a whole book load of ideas to come out of nowhere but you can graft the good ideas in when they come and that’s what I do. I got into bed a few nights ago and had barely closed my eyes when I got this idea: “I don’t have much time for memoirists—is that the right word?—people with their heads stuck up their own pasts.” I know it will go into the next book but all the surrounding text will come from graft, not inspiration.

I see no reason why a person might not be the fulcrum on which our creativity rests but I can only really think of one woman who I might be willing to call a muse. Mostly the love poems I wrote haven’t been up to much. This is why I don’t include a poem with my anniversary card because I know it’ll sound contrived. But every now and then one comes out of the blue and I’m content with that. You write, “Art-making is my response to life experience” but you have to agree that some experiences work better than others. You walk down a beach, see a nice sunset, go home and write a poem. Good. So the next day you head off down the beach at sunset and nothing, bugger all. I think of the difference between natural and artificial pearls here: they’re not the same. They may look the same but they’re not the same.

As for rewriting. I agree, don’t rewrite too soon. But, for me, writing under inspiration and rewriting are two very different processes. The book I’ve just read talks about two different kinds of creativity and that makes perfect sense to me and it’s perfectly possibly to write a book or a poem or a song by graft and many people do. Sometimes I get a second burst of inspiration whilst doing my writing chores but it’s a bonus if I do and not something I expect. It’s the difference between passions and rationale. My good ideas, although often complete in themselves, always have rough edges that need to be filed down once the work has cooled.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, obviously I think inspiration is a bit more than just a good idea, but I don't argue with the idea that a lot of work on craft is needed to follow the inspiration. What I argue with is the total dismissal of inspiration as unimportant—which is where we end up with a writer's workshops producing lots of new writers with lots of craft but nothing to write ABOUT. A lot of them haven't even lived long enough to have made enough of life's mistakes to be written about. I compare that to, say, an artist who has lived and loved and learned enough to have some depth to what they write (poet Jim Harrison comes to mind here, so does the breat jazz bassist Charlie Haden).

Not every artist gets a muse. Some say they don't need one, and maybe they don't. But whether the writer is William Carlos WIlliams, Walt Whitman, or Bob Dylan, one does note that the writings they produced, when inspired by whatever or whoever serves as muse for them, have a greater depth and resonance to them than otherwise. So while I think the whole Romantic notion of the muse is one I'd like to see go away, I don't think the process of inspiration should be thrown away. A lot of uninspired poetry is just philosophical musing, or journalistic what-I-had-for-breakfast-since-my-baby-left-me lyricism. That can be good, but it needs to be done really well, or it sinks like a stone.

While it's perfectly possible to write a book or poem using only craft and no inspiration, I fully admit that I often find such works to be dull and lifeless. I've written before about how poems written only from the head ultimately fail, and I haven't seen anything lately to contradict that view.

I've said before that I think you need both, inspiration AND craft, to have a fully-realized work. Craft exists to serve inspiration, not to dictate to it, and craft alone is often dry. Inspiration alone, without the grounding in craft, can by contrast be so scattered that it's chaotic and formless. It's when you have a balance between both that the magic happens.

12:28 PM  

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