Drunk in the day – and other tips on writing well

Writes William Zinsser in, “On Writing Well”:

…you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practising a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.

For songwriters, we are tasked with building mansions in the mind of a listener on limited real estate. Each word must be necessary, otherwise it’s a loose nail. Often the right choice of an image, expressed simply and clearly, is so much more charged with emotion than verbal ornament.

As Jeff Tweedy says in “How to Write One Song”,

An “impatient red fiery orb loomed in the whiskey-blurred, cottony-blue sky” is rarely going to hit me anywhere near as hard as “I was drunk in the day.”


Banner image: Noah Van Sciver, from ‘Fante Bukowksi’.

Songwriters on songwriting

I’ve been baffled lately that there aren’t more songwriters in the world who write about writing. Luckily, there are centuries worth of novelists, essayists, and other author types who have written so lucidly and honestly about the craft of writing, its messiness, its need for discipline. (Some of my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)

There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.

With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.

One is ‘How to Write One Song’, by Jeff Tweedy (which I discovered reading Austin Kleon’s blog, one of my faves).

I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:

“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

My go at the word ladder!

The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:

“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”

What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.

The other book that came out this year is Anais Mitchell’s ‘Working On a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown’, but more about that later…!