Sunday, September 16, 2012

Songwriting: Polishing and Revision

I woke this morning with the urge to write. I wasn't feeling very verbal, though; having spent time late last night laying down tracks in the recording studio, that's not a big surprise; I've known for a long time that when the music is flowing, the poetry tends to be quiescent. Still, I felt like writing. So I pulled out my song lyrics workbook and my journal and poetry sketchbooks, and worked on revising some sketches into a coherent song lyric.

That's the process that works for me: write it down while the images and words are coming. Revise later. I know some poets and other writers who revise as they write, but that has never worked for me. In fact, it can even block the flow, and make what comes out all too cerebral. For me, it's "Spew now, edit later" that works best.

Sometimes a poem comes out almost fully-formed, and needs only a few changes to polish it up. For me that's actually fairly common. That's partly because I don't push the river, I let it flow however it will. My writing discipline is not to try to force myself to write every day, to meet some workshop-defined ideal of productivity or daily practice. My discipline is to always be listening, always be ready, always have my tools at hand, so that when something does come forward to be written down, I'm always ready to do so. I don't write every day, and I don't try to. Experience has taught me that my writing discipline achieves more or less the same quantity and quality of good results as poets I know whose discipline is to write a couple hours every day; so which is the better practice? Neither. It's just different means to similar ends. I've met a few poets who seem baffled that their writing discipline isn't what everyone else does, or should do, and they particularly have a hard time understanding why I can write a good poem in a first or second draft when I don't write every day.

So, sometimes a poem comes out fully-formed. Sometimes a poem, or a song lyric, comes out in very rough form, with good images, but the words are all over the place, incoherent, and unformed. It's like throwing paint at the wall: sometimes you get the outline of an image, but it's not yet fully-formed. In such cases what often works for me is to revise by writing-through the words again. The cinematic flow of the images may be the same, even in the same order, although not always, but the words might be completely new and different, or assembled from the scraps in your sketch, in your journal. Sometimes I come back to things I wrote months or years ago, on these mornings when I want to write but don't feel very verbal. Every writer probably has a file of random ideas written down that were never developed, to dip into when the urge to write is there, but words aren't coming into one's mind the way they usually do.

This morning I went back in my journal and found some scraps of poem and image that I had written months ago, and re-formed them into a provisional song lyric. It probably needs more polishing, another revision or two, still.

I thought the process might be interesting, by way of example.



On a roadtrip through the Southwest last winter, I spent the night in Winnemucca, NV, which is a truck stop town on Hwy. 80 in a desert region of the Basin & Range. It's a good place to stop if you're driving across country, and there are hotels and restaurants there to support the custom. I spent the night there at the end of February 2012, on my way back home from California; the next day I got as far as Salt Lake City, then up to Jackson, WY, for a couple of days spent photographing in the Grand Tetons.

That night in Winnemucca a desert windstorm came through. The wind howled at the doorsill all night long. I stuffed towels around the edges of the window and door, but the room still smelled of alkaline desert dust, triggering my allergies. A couple of rain troughs were torn off the eaves during the night, and the trash cans were knocked over and blown down the line. Everyone in the hotel was on edge all night long, alert in our rooms to every sound, occasionally peering out between our window curtains to make sure our vehicles were okay.

In the morning, it was still window, but no longer howling. Puffy dark clouds filled the skies all day, making light and shadow patterns on the land all around, a mottled, piebald look. I wrote what follows in my journal the morning after the night-long storm; you can see how it's unformed, not really even a poem, just some impressions and phrases, ideas and images. So here's a good example of a bad poem from my own journal. I present it, unedited, for the purpose of demonstrating how a little revision and polishing can make a huge difference.

howling wind outside door
begging to get in
long night terrors
in morning's light dispelled
but hiding still behind
low swift-groaning clouds

raven in the dead grass
hovers wind-whipped and inarticulate
silent this morning
all thought drowned in wind

picture mountains
mottled by day and cloud-shadow
gray, tan and dun
snow-crowned, isolate
red side-walls canyoned with ice
picture them groaning
with pines bent over
giving birth to wind



sage winter white
palest aqua
solitary tree gold branched
against darker brown hills

raven hovers in swift wind
floating above sea of grass



last night I feared the wind
would trap me, the snow keep me
locked into a dream of sterile
hotel room, frozen, unable to venture out

now midday wind robs
the day of heat, freezing
but the mountains and clouded clay
are beautiful, and all moves as it would



trails of light
written by wind on stone


I wince to read that now. Not a few lines are pretentious and puerile, the language removed from the experience and fond of its own smartness—which is exactly the sort of crap I produce when I try to force myself to write, rather than go with the flow. (Which is why I don't write that way.) Words I'd never actually use in a finished piece. There are a few turns of phrase that show promise, but more that don't.

This is why we ought to leave such things in our journals, and never present them as finished poems. I do agree with some poetry critics that a lot of poems presented these days aren't finished, aren't revised enough, and are basically just journal-poems. The Beatific advice to write "first thought, best thought" actually only works if you're already an experienced bard, long-trained in poetics, and long-practiced in poetic improvisation.

Although this excerpt from my journal isn't good on its own, I see a kernel of something that could be good buried in it, if I can just tease it out, rework it, and make it something a little more focused and concise.

When I'm writing a song lyric, a key emotion or image is what makes the refrain, the image or phrase you come back to between verses. It needs to anchor the entire song. Sometimes the anchor can be the music, but when the song has a refrain, rather than just a recurring structure, you need to make sure the refrain has some of the strongest words or images in the entire lyric. This morning, I read through this material from my journal, and saw that the image that kept recurring was a raven hovering in the wind over a patch of dead brown grass. That was something I'd seen during the high winds, an image that stayed with me. So, let's take that and make it into the key image of the revised song lyric.

Also, on purely technical grounds, when I am writing a song lyric rather than a poem, I tend to count syllables-per-line, usually in a pattern of longer line followed by shorter. That pattern of variation also fits with much of melody I hear in my mind when writing song lyrics. It's mostly intuitive, not planned out far in advance. (I'm reporting here on what I observe of my own tendencies, not dictating music-theoretical rules.) Whether or not there is an end-rhyme, whether or not you are using meter of one kind or another, counting syllables gives you a framework to hang the imagery on. I prefer counting syllables to using formal metrics, as I think it's more flexible and fluid, and allows you to occasionally vary the count and stress of a line, and be able to throw in an extra syllable where needed. I strongly dislike iambic pentameter because few modern poets do it without making it sound sing-song and clichéd, so I avoid pentameter in my song lyrics. Yet since the English language is built on stressed and unstressed words, you can't really avoid using iambs per se; but you don't have to use them in rigid forms, you can be loose and improvisatory wherever possible. Especially when combing words with melody. Setting words to music changes all the rules—something poets ought to remember, although few get past their internalized formal prejudices to be able to do so.

Song lyrics tend to be more formal than "pure" poetry, especially in this age of free verse and organically-emerging poetic form, and by necessity: repetitive pattern assists memorization. There's reason the ballad form is so common in folk music: the pattern of word-stress and melody makes ballads memorable. So when I am writing a song lyric, or in this case polishing up some otherwise loose material into a song lyric, I tend to find ways to say it within the syllabic form. You can't always shoehorn a long poetic line into a form, sometimes you have to sacrifice it. When you're revising and polishing, you need to let go of what you've written in order to make better what you're about to write. You can't afford to cling to even your own words; you sometimes have to be brutal.

With all that in mind, this morning I produced what follows, which is a more structured and formal, and I think better, piece of writing: a song lyric which I will eventually set to music. It still needs some more revision, I think, and some individual word-choices haven't been settled yet, but overall I hope this can serve as an example of the revising and polishing process.

raven floats in morning wind
above a sea of grass

howling wind outside my door
begging to get in
long night terrors, fury's call
gone in morning light
linger still behind these clouds
moving fast and tight

raven silent in the sky
all sound drowned in wind

picture mountains gray and dun
bare tree on the ridge
piebald sun and shadow cloud
red side-wall canyons iced
picture groaning pines bent down
giving birth to wind

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