A Writing Life 

You may notice that I have changed the title of this infrequent blog, from Thoughts About Songwriting, to "Thoughts about a Writing Life".  I haven't stopped writing songs -- far from it. But I have been writing a number of other things: short stories, a musical (in progress), and long fiction. I've been writing novels, albeit, unpublished novels, so far. Three of them, and a fourth underway.

It's been an interesting process. 

To begin with, there's a real gap between writing a song lyric that averages 18 lines in length, and then shifting gears to write a story that needs to exceed 70,000 words before one feels there might be an ending in sight. That's just the first draft... with all the rewriting and workshopping to follow. The sense of creative pacing, the development of a narrative voice, the use of dialogue -- those were just some of the elements that a long-fiction form demands. I'm getting better at it. I think. 

All this to say, going forward. I might occasionally write about other kinds of writing. Or even, to share some news.  For instance: this past Saturday evening, I won the John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award for 2017, for a short crime story called "How To Make a BLT". I'd had three stories in the semi-finalist list, and two of them made the final three, It was an honour to win, and an unexpected pleasure. Somehow, despite a lifetime spent writing a wide variety of things, and working professionally as a wordsmith, I felt just that little bit more vindicated for the hours spent staring off into space, with words and thoughts swirling around and trying to take some kind of useful shape. 

So if anyone reading this has been entertaining thoughts of a writing life, my advice is: tell your stories. Write your songs, if that's how the muse leads you. Life is short, and it's too short to waste time doubting your own dreams.

Cheers for now, from The Confused Muse.

Bruce   


 

Pow.  

There is a moment, in the life of a great song, when the world gets to hear it for the first time.  I've witnessed it a few times, and read about it too.  Picture this:  a songwriter (or an artist, in service of the song), with an instrument, and a microphone, and an audience.  It could be a small room or an intimate club, or a circle of musical peers sitting cross-legged in the lobby of a hotel at 3 am in the morning, doing a little song-swap and guitar pull. Every audience everywhere has expectations ... but mostly, they've got hope. Hope they'll hear something truly special.  Most of the time, that's all it is, hope.  

And then it happens. The singer sings, the song lives, and whole room just gets breathless and quiet. "Holy Bleep" they're thinking. "Did you HEAR that?" For a roomful of people,  the world just wobbled on its axis, just a tiny bit. Lives are altered. 

There's the silence, after. It can feel like forever. Like the silence I've read about, the very first time after Billie Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" in a club in New York City. We can probably all point to songs that did that for us, and to us. It could be Sunday Morning Comin' Down, or The Song Remembers When, or The House That Built Me, or Where've You Been, or Atlantic Blue  It could be He Stopped Lovin Her Today, or Jubilee, or Go Rest High On That Mountain. It could be Perfect, or Red Dirt Girl. Whatever great song did that to you, in the first moment of its flight, you will remember it. Great songs, all different genres, essentially the same. Pow. 

Refocus and restart ... Getting to progress 

Wow !   Turns out, it's been months since I had anything new to say in this space. Well that isn't going to continue. In the intervening time, I've finished the first draft of a first novel, and gotten two thirds of the way, approximately, toward the end of another first draft for another novel..  All that, and I wrote some poetry, finished some short fiction, and managed to reach the semifinalist stage for the John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award.  Oh, and I managed to write a new song or two.  

That's the life outside of work. One of the reasons I'm pleased about it is that both of the novels in progress were started off around 2001.  So while that fact might make the eventual completion of a draft look less like an accomplishment, it still feels great to be finishing this stage of a long process.  And I can tell myself .... You didn't give up.  Patience and persistence, even from the impatient.  I managed to refocus, restart, and progress.  Only time will tell if the result will endure ... Will I find a publisher? But meanwhile, I feel pleased that I didn't give up.  
 

Songwriting workshop - moving ahead on March 21 

I can't put it off any longer: I'm going ahead with the first of my own songwriting workshops.  It's not the one I thought I would offer first, and for which I wrote a nifty little workbook -- currently sitting at around 70 pages or so. Because that version of the workshop, like the little book that keeps on growing, has outgrown my ability to deliver it in a weekend session, much less a one-day version.  So with urging from my better half, I decided to tackle a related topic: I've called it  Finding Your Inner Songwriter . 

When:  One day: March 21, 2015. In the Glen Williams Town Hall, where we usually hold our Source of the Song concerts. From 12-5 pm.

It's about the things that drive us, and the knack for discovering where our true strengths and uniqueness lie! 

For anyone who's interested, full details are listed under the Events page on my website. However, I suppose my point is that I decided to just do it, because I grew tired of making excuses, or saying that I would do one "someday".  When the time was right. It may not be perfect, perfectly timed, or perfectly delivered ... but never starting at all was beginning to feel like a great big FAIL. An opportunity to meet with my fellow writers, just thrown away and wasted. So I'll have no more of that.  I'm looking forward to the dialogue, to sharing thoughts and experience with others who are trying to make their way forward in this strange craft.

There's room in the hall.  Let's talk. Let's talk songs. Let's talk about you.   

 

Time to Get Moving  

I had two poems included in an art exhibition this weekend -- they'll be hanging in the gallery and hallway for another week or two -- and that's fine with me. It felt good to be doing something with those aspects of my creative abilities. 

I've realised that my love of songwriting does not mean that the rest of my creative life has to remain on permanent pause. There's only so much energy, so much daylight, so many evenings, so many weekends... but if I do nothing with that time, there might as well not be any.

I am more conscious than ever that time slips away from me while I'm agonising about what to do with it.  If the water we craved evaporated before we could drink it, well we'd be dreadfully thirsty ... and terribly upset.  But not so much when it's life itself that slips away? Well, maybe that's just me. I'm not preaching here, just sharing.

I wrote a song earlier last year, titled Beyond His Reach, about this very subject.

Someday ain't today, that's all I'm saying. So today, I'm planning to take one small step further toward another dream of mine.  It's time to get moving. 

 

A Poem - Out Loud (Title: For Colleen Peterson)  

So ... long before I was a lyricist, I wrote poetry.  For most of my years in high school and university, that was what I expected to be: a poet.  

This particular poem, titled For Colleen Peterson, with Thanks, I wrote about a singer/songwriter whom I greatly admired, and who died too soon. I've decided to include a reading of it today as a kind of experiment.  In a way, it's me saying that this too is what I do, and who I am. For whatever that's worth.

Life is short, and too damned short to spend it pretending to be something you aren't, or hiding the creative spark God gave you. 

I hope you enjoy the poem -- I plan on sharing more of these, as time permits. 


 
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  1. For Colleen Peterson, With Thanks

Narrowing the Funnel  

The point of a funnel is ... the point.  It's a big, wide (-ish) catching basin that narrows down to something that fits into the tiny bottle, or whatever.  Funnels are about focus. 

Oddly enough, so is songwriting.  Big, long-reaching stories, grand emotions, history, lust, angst, rage -- all brought down to two or three verses probably, and a chorus, and a hook.  Focus, focus, focus.  Oh - and repetition.  Because you need room to repeat the really important stuff, like the hook. 

Writing songs is like staging a ballet in a phone booth:  there's such a lot to be done in not so much room. 

So ... the funnel. 

I have a few other thoughts about that.  For starters, despite the broad catch-basin at the top, it doesn't take that much to fill a funnel. The little channel at the bottom backs everything up, and it spills. So you have to be careful how much you put into the funnel, in the first place. You have to pre-select how much you put into the funnel, even before you start narrowing things down.  And when you think about it, it could be said the funnel is the ultimate symbol of the music business -- which seems always to be about narrowing the many down to the few, at every turn.  But I digress. 

Our task as songwriters is to narrow down whatever big thing we're trying to write about, and reduce it to a careful distillation of song elements -- images, device, plot, story, character, words, words, words -- that you will use to construct your story in a very small space. If you have excess -- use it in another song.  Before you start filling the funnel you have pre-filter and pre-focus what you want to work with.  That's the point.

Many times, I have found myself in a state of "ready to write" without knowing the slightest detail of what I would like to say. (The inarticulate grappling with the inexpressible. Just perfect.) What I do then, always, besides procrastinate, is to search for some kind of a focus:  a story focus, a character, a situation or a plot, in which those feelings align.  Maybe I'll play an instrument for a while, and look for some music to flow, like lava, from the inner ferment.  

I look for focus. Though I don't always find it.  Focus is, for me, the start of everything that separates a song from a bad mood. (Ladies and gentlemen, start your funnels.)  But once you have focused on something, and you have something to write about, you still have to filter and funnel.  I've found that too. Filter and funnel and focus. And get to the point. On occasion, it has taken me years to get there, with a particular song.  It's funny how that happens: feels like driving to the West Coast, just to get directions for Halifax. 

Happy Thanksgiving, all! 

So ... what? - The Verse-Chorus pairing 

There's a funny kind of relationship between a verse and a chorus, in my opinion.   The idea is that a verse leads to the chorus, or alternatively, to the hook line at the end of the verse, in an AABA song. So the verse doesn't really stand entirely on its own. Think,  the Zen of verses -- one hand clapping. You need the chorus, or the hook for verse to really make its full impact.  Which also makes verse one uniquely vulnerable, because you haven't heard anything about the chorus and the hook yet.

For every verse that follows the first use of the hook, you have that chorus in the back of your mind, which provides a little extra seasoning for the meaning of the verses. Before that?  Those initial lines carry a lot of extra weight and responsibility, because they have to hold your listener's ear and lead them to the chorus and the hook, to sweep them along, like an unexpectedly strong river current, as you move from "So..." to "What?" As in "So What?" Why should I care? What are you saying to me?

Sound of two hands clapping.  Or many hands ... if we're lucky.

Every verse in this little model carries the So. As in ...So?  (What happens next?)  So? (What are you gonna do?)  So? (Why should I care?)  And the chorus slams the meaning of the verse and song home.

So ... what? So ... (That's) What! ! Like that. Every time we work through a verse-chorus pairing, it's like pounding in a nail:  the meaning gets clearer, and the message sinks deeper.  By the time we reach the end of the song, we've said what needed saying, repeated what needed repeating, and shed fresh perspective (or provided a musical palate-cleanser) via a bridge.  Bang. Bang. Bang. So-what? So-what?. So-what?  

My theory? At the end of the day, everything in your song has to have a purpose. It serves the "So?" Or it serves ... What ?

 

Get Yer Silly On !  

I take songwriting seriously.  Very seriously.  Really, I do. But sometimes, you just have to get yer silly on. Or your whimsy. Cut loose. Sometimes, it's important to just ... lighten the heck up!  A lot! 

There we are, industriously scribbling away, trying to write a song that will change the world. (I know I've even said that! What a pretentious twit!) But sometimes, the world is just in need of a really good laugh. Or a snicker. Or a sly smile and (with tip of hat to Monty Python), a "nudge, nudge, wink, wink".  Ya know?

In fact, the world of blues music pretty much thrives on double entendres, in addition to the merely explicit.  Even though our world has now pretty much pushed all of its acceptable boundaries way way past that (would they have even understood what "twerking" was?), there's still something amusing and fundamentally human about the Itsy, Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini ... if only as a piece of musical history.  Or Jerry Reed's "When You Hot, You Hot" .  And it might be worth reflecting on the fact that Chuck Berry's greatest single of his career was not, as you might expect, Maybelline, or Johnny B Good.  It was his cover of a novelty song, My Ding-A-Ling, with a full cargo of double-entendres.

How many people know Lyle Lovett more for his songs like "She's No Lady, She's My Wife" or "Ugly", than for "Walk Through the Bottomland" or "Nobody Knows Me Like My Baby".  Even the Beatles managed to fit in "Yellow Submarine" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".  And the list goes on. Think Harry Nilsson's "Lime In The Coconut" (which will make you feel better, if you can get it out of your head).  Or Maria Muldaur, who had a couple of classics in "Midnight At The Oasis", and "Don't You Feel My Leg".  Sometimes you just gotta write what you gotta write, and it doesn't have to make sense to anybody else. Although it likely will!

And by the way, I believe that if you don't write them, if you suppress your silly song ideas, they will burst through where they're not wanted, like water into a mineshaft, right in the middle of a perfectly serious song.  

But there, too, is the proof positive that I'm definitely not in a publishing deal, with a publisher to satisfy, and commercial considerations (like a level of investment) challenging me to think about what radio might play. Though, as we've seen ... radio might play a little bit more than we're currently giving them credit for. (Or not.)  

But I stand by my heresy: Get yer silly on, and be proud of it.  Among other things, music is meant to be fun!   

Moving from Mood to Music  

So. You're moody. That's strange. And you call yourself a musician.  What kind of a mood is it? A songwriting mood? Well, most of them are. 

What to do?  Play something. Sing something. Write something. Listen to something. Any of the above.  All of the above. Try to impart a little "forward motion" to your mood by engaging your own active, personal musicality.

Momentum applies, in particular, to boats and to songwriters. The more you get something moving, the easier it gets to do something worthwhile.

Sometimes a mood is just a mood.  But sometimes ... it's an opportunity.  It's the voice of your muse, prompting you to "Rise up out of Egypt (or the couch) and go -- NOW."  (Or translated into songwriting terms: grab a pad, and a pen, and a guitar, and GIT!!! )  

You will learn with time and experience when and how to be attentive to those inner creative promptings. When and how to find some peace and quiet so you can cultivate the opportunity to listen to the voices in your imagination. But you can plug into another dimension, the world of possibilities, in which stories are lurking like fossils buried in a rock, and there's you, with a hammer and chisel. Or pen and paper.

You might forget the pen, or the paper, or the instrument.  But the one thing you -- the one vital, irreplaceable thing -- that you always have with you is ... YOU.  You are the centre of your music.  Go for a walk. Sing to yourself. Talk to yourself. (That's normal, for musicians.) Pray, even. But if you're in a mood, "git on up, get outta Egypt" (unless you happen to be, you know, in Egypt), and listen to your muse.  

See what you find.