I’ve always had a way with words but, since I am now addressing an audience of fellow writers and poets (who would likely see through any cheap attempt to impress with dazzling wordplay and clever literary devices), I will speak very plainly about what the creative process and the gift of language means to me. In doing so, I hope that I may impart some tidbit of wisdom or inspiration to help you along on your own creative journey. Or not. Let’s see how we do.
Yes, I’ve always had a way with words. Ask my mother. Ask any of my teachers who are still around. Everyone was sure that I would grow up to be an author or writer of some sort from the day I was able to scribble my thoughts on paper. Soon I was convinced of this as well.
My first attempt at a full blown novel was undertaken at the tender age of 10. Inspired by the new movie “Jaws”, which my parents had just taken me to see at the local drive-in, I envisioned a sequel of sorts called “Claws”...about a giant killer lobster terrorizing the New Jersey shore. No kidding. I was originally going to go with a monster crab but then I recalled that there was already a movie about giant radioactive crabs and I did not wish to be derivative. I got as far as sketching the front cover (first things first) and writing about half of Chapter One before giving up in disgust. Damn it! Lobsters are not even indigenous to Jersey. I quickly realized that I was not yet ready for a task of such Melvilleian proportions and it would be better to start small instead. A short story seemed to be the answer.
That realization prompted my first completed work; a feverishly handwritten, five page science fiction shocker entitled “Sprouts”! In this nightmarish body horror tale, an astronaut returns from a trip to Venus and gradually discovers little brussel sprout-like vegetation erupting on his body. The more his plucks them, the more they grow back in increasing numbers and heartiness. In one harrowing scene he douses himself with weed spray and only succeeds in landing himself in the hospital with a compounding case of herbicide poisoning (yes when all else fails go to the hospital ...or more likely he would have already been in NASA quarantine from the minute he landed). What did I know? All I wanted to do was set up the shocker ending and get to it quickly. Spoiler alert. His wife goes to visit him in the hospital and after some suspicious resistance from the staff and military brass...a nurse finally lets her through, advising her first to bring poor hubby a glass of water. There in the room, she finds her beloved husband transformed into a giant writhing cabbage-like plant. She douses him with the water in a heart-wrenching act of sympathy and love before crumbling to the ground in grief. Take that Rod Serling! Only David Cronenberg and I were doing edgy sh@t like this in 1977.
All three reviews of “Sprouts” were positive but I suspect that one’s parents and grandfather don’t really count. Besides, “Oh that’s nice” wasn’t exactly the reaction I was going for.
Eventually, my writing got better. It helped that I also developed a knack for guitar and writing catchy melodies. By my late teens, I could suddenly redirect my way with words into the writing of song lyrics. To me, a good lyric should also be a good poem. I have some rules.
- It should be able to stand on its own without the accompanying music.
- It should be deceptively simple in that the words can be immediately digestible and taken at face value yet, at the same time, evocative and mysterious enough that multiple alternative interpretations are possible. Certainly you can pepper your song with tantalizing clues that all may not be as obvious as it seems.
- A song lyric need not be a story per se, but it should have a beginning, a middle and a big finish or final thought. In other words, it should have a logic and take a listener from one place or state of mind to another.
- It should avoid cliches at all costs unless almost every line is a cliche (like a Bon Jovi song for example) in which case you are letting the listener know up front to pay little mind to what you have to say and focus on the music instead.
- Lastly, presuming that you actually want the listener to hear what you have to say, your lyric should say as much as possible in as few words as possible.
Granted, there are no real rules for poetry and songwriting. These are self-imposed rules that have guided me into a style that I feel I have more or less perfected after writing literally hundreds of songs over a 30+ year span. In fact, I have become rather obsessed with how much information I can fit into a tight space. I have also learned to adapt when these rules clash with the natural constraints of songwriting (lyrics should follow some sort of pattern that can be adapted to music and usually you want them to rhyme). For example, sometimes I will hit a mechanical problem where I can’t say exactly what I want to say because I can’t find the right rhyme or get the syllables to fit my pattern. Hacks will force it anyway and it will sound clumsy. A real writer will let the problem guide them into saying something similar...or altogether different and often more interesting. To illustrate this, allow me to paraphrase a recent popular song lyric;
“We’ve got a lot of problems
And we’re never gonna solve them”
This is an awful lyric. Never mind the fact that it doesn’t really rhyme. It’s lazy and dull.
But let’s assume that I really needed to express this exact sentiment in a song. How would I handle it? “Problems” is a hard word to rhyme but I would try like hell. What about this...
“We’ve got a lot of problems
And they’re haunting me like goblins”
More interesting right? It’s still not a great lyric but the rhyme is technically a little better, more unexpected, more attention-grabbing AND it conveys the same thought PLUS more unspoken information than the original example. Goblins are hard to pin down right? Supernatural even...hence a difficult problem to solve. In the original example, you can presume the narrator is bothered about not being able to solve these problems. In my example, I am telling you they are more than bothering me. They are haunting me. Like friggin goblins for crying out loud. Why goblins? Listen to the rest of the song. Maybe I’ll drop another clue that there is something else lurking beneath this seemingly straightforward relationship lament. See what I mean?
Anyway, with talk of killer crustaceans, bodily mutations, and goblins, you might have gotten the impression that I am some kind of horror and sci-fi aficionado. That may have been true when I was a boy. Not so much these days although I am obsessive about the films of David Cronenberg, who I mentioned earlier. But it is not because his gory and kinky early films earned him the nickname “Baron of Blood”. I am obsessive about Cronenberg for the same reason I am obsessed with Scorsese. Both are masters of their craft, obsessed with their own trademark styles and the relentless pursuit of understanding the human condition. Cronenberg, the atheist, is obsessed with the intersection of technology with the physical body and mind and what that means to society. Scorsese, the guilt-ridden Catholic, is obsessed with the intersection of the spiritual with the physical and what that means to society. I am obsessed with ALL of that and so, realistically, I should never run out of things to write about. But I do from time to time. We all do don’t we? That is the writer’s greatest problem. The dreaded block. If only I had an idea and could get started...woe is me.
Allow me to share a simple solution to the problem of getting started. Never stop. Write something every day. Try to say something interesting. See what your antenna picks up. Most of it will suck but that’s what panning for gold is all about. The skill is in knowing how to read the currents and where to pan. Turning that gold into fair price currency is another matter. I can’t help you with that. Just write every day. Even if, like me, it’s not what you actually do for a living.
Well...there I’ve done it. I’ve been trying to give you all of this grand advice and just admitted that I, myself, have never made a dime off of my creative endeavors. Why should you listen to me?
Allow me to make one final confession. I am a genius. That’s right. One of the greatest songwriters of my generation. A poet for the ages. One day archeologists will unearth my body of work, marvel at this unheralded treasure trove of writing and reveal it to the world. Hopefully, they’ll also track down my great, great grandchildren and bestow the appropriate royalties upon them. That’s what it’s all about after all isn’t it? I mean that’s why we write. Immortality. Leaving something of ourselves behind to prove we were here...to teach something about ourselves and our time to some distant inhabitants of a future world. To not be forgotten.
In the meantime, do not be disheartened if nobody pays you for your art. Do not be angered if nobody reads or listens to it. Just keep at it. Perfect your own way with words and, if nothing else, learn something about yourself. Find out if you’re a genius like me. On that note, I’ll leave you with an appropriate little poem to close this lesson.
Genius rewarded - a blessing
Genius ignored is a curse
Genius amiss is depressing
Genius insisted is worse