Part 3: Writing a song: the words person and the music person

Yesterday afternoon, Mary Shepherd and I sat in a music practice room with a slightly off-tune piano, my lyrics, and her notes. In a small room with cinderblock painted glossy beige,  I sat down with her as she explained how she had gone about writing the lyrics. She also explained that she hadn’t played piano since eighth grade nor did she play guitar, but as a music major in her undergrad years, she did understand a bit about writing music.

“You said it was a folk song, and it was definitely a folk song. I decided to go with ballad style instead of rhythmic,” she explained as she pulled out her composition book.

“You understand it then,” I chirped, “because that’s the spirit I wrote it in.” Folk music was a subversive part of my childhood, a gift by my Aunt Peggy, who would play and sing folksongs on a ’70s small boxy white keyboard sort of thing which looked like this:

So, we set to work, and — she captured it. Folk ballad style, with musical emphasis at the right places. I was happy weepy by the end of the session.  It’s now with her to note the slightly different rhythms in the verses because it’s folk music and that means that my rhythm is not necessarily straight iambic tetramater (four feet/measures per line, four accented beats per line, second syllable accented as in duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH) .  Folk music tends to get its interest by being mathematically loose; I tend to not care about the number of feet/measures as much as I care about four accents per line.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the session is that I learned about mathematics and creativity after we’d corroborated on the song. I had not seen mathematics as creative at all, thinking it was just analytical left-brain stuff. Not at all, Mary assured me — she used mathematics to create quilt block patterns, find problems that needed to be solved, and even understand music. Music is very mathematical, Mary tells me — John Cage’s compositions come to mind, as does traditional Balinese Gamelan music and even the basic concepts of measures, beats, and chords. Certain mathematic progressions sound better than others.Mathematics and music composition live in a different world than I do, but it was a fascinating world to visit.

Now, on the whole left brain/right brain thing, I’m supposedly equally proficient in both (left brain – math/analytical; right brain — creative) but I prefer to live in my right brain because the scenery’s prettier to me, and I wander to the other side when needed (like editing and my job). I think Mary’s the same way — balanced in the right brain/left brain processing, but she lives in both hemispheres at once. What a wonderful place to be!

Dancing with Words

Writing involves the desire to dance with words.

Novel/essay writing resembles choreographed dance, with steps defined. The writer hones her ability to hit the steps just so, so that she doesn’t detract from the feeling the dance is supposed to convey.

Poetry writing looks more like interpretive dance, where there’s less direction yet even more need for precision, as poetry and interpretive dance both seek to convey impressions that crawl into the subconscious and affect the reader from the inside.

Lyrics derive their power from their deep roots in the chants of the oldest peoples. Through rhythms and melodies, they become a common prayer to God or nature or life itself, one shared from mitochondrial Eve.

Technical writing has the most regimented steps, seeking as it does the utmost clarity of thought. Its structure of “tell the reader what you’re going to say, say it, summarize by telling the reader what you said” thoughtfully takes the reader through a journey of education and provides signposts to where they can find the information again quickly.

In all of these, the words are important. There’s a difference between dancing the nae-nae, slam dancing, grapevining through a Jewish folkdance,  or mincing through a minuet. The differences in written forms comes from the words chosen. The words present the music for the dance. A thought exercise: imagine a couple making love through Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”, or Ed Sheerhan’s “Shape of You”, or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, or “Latcho Drom” by Tony Gatlif (if you don’t know some of these, listen to a preview on iTunes). Different moods, different feels, right? In writing, the words chosen represent the music.

Choices made in active vs. passive verb forms, length of sentences, point of view (omniscient, limited omniscient, or first-person) change the steps of the dance. Some of these things, like passive verb form and sentences all the same length, put stumbles in the step.

In conclusion, writers dance with words — and invite their readers to the dance.