Monday, September 5, 2011

Intentional Writing Part 1

We all have them. Big overwhelming experiences that are at times incomprehensible;
Death of a loved one, illness, accidents, career changes, moves, falling in love...etc.

As songwriters we have a built in coping mechanism. We turn to writing to process what we can’t understand..... when we are faced with “things that I will never know why they happened” things.

Eventually these “things” becomes songs we share with others. Usually ending up with profound effect.

It’s hard to live through these experiences and even harder to write about them but our listeners are forever grateful because the songs end up being huge gifts.

In workshops I usually bring up the subject of “feeling your pain”, only to be followed with groans and sighs. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Sometimes we can disengage. But sometimes, God has whacked us with something so huge, we sit there numb and the only choice left is to pick up the pieces and make order of the chaos.

Because in a short definition, that is what songwriting is; making order from chaos. 

In some ways the chaos in itself makes everything sharp and clear. Silly things that bog us down in daily life dissipate in the dust as some new whirlwind comes and clears them away.

So where do you start. How do you take a life changing event and make it into a 3 minute song.

My advice;  don’t think big, think small. Just start with where you are. “I am unpacking boxes.....”, “I sit holding your hand.....”, etc.  Just tell us where you are and what is going on. What do you see around you. Start with the facts. Often times we think we have to make some grand sweeping statement. We don’t have to. The story can tell itself.

Example; “Where Have You Been” by Jon Vezner and Don Henry.

Claire had all but giving up
when she and Edwin fell in love
He was home each night at 8
one stormy evening he was late
her frightened tears fell to the floor
when his key turned in the door

Where have you been
I’ve looked for you forever and a day
where have you been
I’m just not myself when your away

Refrain from telling the listener how or what to feel, if you state the facts, we’ll figure it out.

 Exapmle; “From His Window” by John Smith, a song dealing with his fathers alzheimer’s disease:

I come to visit and take him out on drives
He wants to go home with me every time
But the nurses come to take him
Back to his room that's waiting
I fight to keep my tears inside
From his window, he waves good-bye

Pierce Pettis, walks us step by step through a breakup in his song “Jim Brown”. The chorus says “Everything matters if anything matters at all”. It’s a devastatingly beautiful song about knowing when to walk away. Only Pierce could figure out how to get Football into a break up song.

Again, it’s just the facts;

She walked away just like Jim Brown
When he laid that football down
and walked away because he could
all the way to Hollywood
she walked away so sure and fast
into her future into my past
just like I should have known she would
it was just too true to be good.

Jackson Browne has advised asking the question; what do I want? Ultimately that is the question to ask yourself. What do you want?

In my song “Let The Wind Chase You”, I wanted to let go and move on. I had learned that love should not have to be so hard.

Let The Wind Chase You
I can’t do it anymore
let the road run after you
like I’ve always done before
let the stars catch your eyes
cause I’ve tried and tried and tried
but I won’t do
so let the wind chase you

Whatever it is, you’ve lived through, you’ve earned the right to tell it how you see it. Or should I say-how you feel it.. Chances are, it’s going to fall into your lap. I think one of God’s many mercies is the gift of songs, especially the songs that help us heal.

It may take writing many songs to get to ‘the one”. So to sum it up, just start writing!

Cheers, Sally


  1. The "start where you are" advice really works. Thanks, Sally!

  2. Here's a quote by W.H. Auden:

    Music can be made anywhere, is invisible and does not smell.