Tools of the Trade

When I was growing up, I learned very quickly that I didn’t quite have whatever gifting it takes to fix things. However, my Dad was pretty confident and savvy in that area. For years I used to joke in concert (as I was introducing “A Song About Baseball” in which he had a starring role) that my brothers and I would challenge Dad with theoretical tasks. “Hey Dad, could you rewire the house this afternoon before the game?” “Sure, son. Get me my tool kit, tie one hand behind my back and I’ll get right to it!” Of course that was a product of my imagination, but the exaggeration was in service to the truism that my father really seemed to know what he was doing most of the time. As I found out much later, Dads seeming to know what they’re doing is an important part of the job.

As part of that same story, I used to observe that men, in particular, have a mystical relationship with tools. Almost every guy has a set somewhere. Even Mr. Hammer-My-Thumb keeps an array of tools around in case I run into somebody who actually knows how to use them and might need them for a fix-it emergency.

Which now brings me, and you, to my job as a songwriter. Although there are always wonderful intangibles at work in the creative process, some of the work is unglamorous, try-this-and-then-that “grunt labor”. At some point, my inner-editor (who I envision as an old-school newspaper typesetter) has to get involved in the writing process. Mechanics of words and melody must, in my view, be attended to at some point. For me it’s usually near the end of the sequence, but everybody’s scenario is different. Sometimes keeping that inner-editor quiet long enough to get everything on the table is really a challenge. But after all the good feelings have magically ushered you through the door of creating something, there comes a time to hold your idea up to the bright, and for our purposes, cold light of day.

As unpopular and unromantic as it might be to say so, these days I do an awful lot of writing via keyboard and a device display. I know it’s not as “artistic” as a leather journal, cocktail napkin, legal pad, or offering envelope, but that’s the story. As I write, I almost always have an open browser with an array of online helps bookmarked. Most are self-evident when you think about them, but still great to have close at hand. Instead of a table full of reference books, it’s all there in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.

Before I list some of these helps, I thought I’d preface it with a very incomplete list of a few basic principles that guide my work. When these “rules” have to be broken I certainly do it, but I try to do it with intention. Sometimes when lyrics are flashed on a screen in a church service, I feel as if I can almost read the difference between purposeful eschewing of craft versus a songwriter who simply settled for too little too soon. I try to always know what I’m jettisoning in terms of structure and convention to get the job done and, importantly, why.

  1. I come from what I affectionately call the Jimmy Webb School of Songwriting. He’s a well-known stickler for perfect rhymes and I try to be as well. Not always, but that’s my first instinct. I joke that you’ll “have to pry the rhyme scheme out of my cold, dead fingers!”
  2. Every last word and syllable needs to “earn its keep”. If there’s a “just” anywhere in sight, it’s because I deliberately decided to leave it there. Contractions like “there’s” instead of “there is” are also thoroughly thought through.
  3. I need to convince myself that each word chosen and the forward movement of meaning are the absolute best I can manage. I obsessively look at alternatives, even for my favorite turns of phrase. Due diligence in this area can yield the satisfaction of knowing that it really is your best effort.
  4. Nothing is sacred. By that I mean that although the genesis of a song may be a very inspirational or emotional, perhaps even the outgrowth of a sacred moment, it doesn’t mean that the thing you created is also sacred or untouchable. How many times have you watched the “Deleted Scenes with Commentary” for a favorite movie and heard the director say, “This was my very favorite scene but I had to lose it because of pacing, duplication of plot points, etc.” Arthur Quiller-Couch, in writing about controlling your writing style, famously quipped, “Murder your darlings.” Don’t ever be afraid to lose or cut something in service to the greater good of the overall song.
  5. Never throw anything away. I’ve written more than one song where I “raided the boneyard” of past writing sessions to complete the new creature. Sometimes extra verses that were afield of the main point of one song might suggest other songs entirely or serve you well when you revisit a similar subject down the line.

Now, some tools:

  1. When my sleeves are rolled up and I’m fussing over each word and syllable of a line, this is an absolute must. Sometimes I’m looking for an alternate word. It can be a matter of finding a synonym for alliteration, looking for more or fewer syllables, wanting to avoiding the obvious word, or absolutely looking for the most obvious word.
  1. RhymeZone: Self-evident if you still care about rhyming. Please keep in mind that I know I am hopelessly old-fashioned here. I’ve run into some songwriters, who’ve lost track of more sales than I’ll ever accrue, tell me that for them rhyme is of little importance “if it feels good”. I still insist that if you learn how to do this well, it will make you a better songwriter even if you decide it’s too old-hat for you. Listen to the geniuses of craft: Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Mercer, Ellington, etc. Before we were born, these guys were literally inventing the wheels we’re all driving around on now. Don’t be discouraged if you listen closely and begin to feel, “Geesh, who I am fooling here?” It’ll pass and these great songwriters should make you even better at what you do.
  1. BrainyQuote: It’s never a bad idea to consult quotations about a particular subject you’re chasing after. Don’t wholesale lift the quote, of course. But someone else may prompt you to elaborate on their succinctly stated thought. Quotations, for me, are a short-attention-span version of the admonition to read, read, and then read some more. In my estimation, you have to be a constant consumer of good ideas and artistic works. Although some very famous creative people have insisted that they must work alone without outside influence, I think the rest of us mere mortals need to be good and appreciative observers (as readers, listeners, and viewers).
  1. Bookmark your favorite online Dictionaries., Merriam-Webster, Oxford English Dictionary. It never hurts to check an entry to discover or confirm the meanings of words that have spilled out of you.
  1. OneLook Thesaurus: This is a reverse dictionary of sorts. You describe a concept and it suggests words. This seems a lot like an online resource in the same wheelhouse as the indispensable volume “Random House Webster’s Word Menu” (Stephen Glazier). If you’re writing a song about a hardware store, you can find your way to a “laundry list” of terms related to that very thing. Ingenious, really.
  1. Bookmark your favorite online Bible site. Mine is generally BibleGateway. To put in keywords and concepts makes for a pretty snappy and instantaneous concordance of sorts. To compare translations may give you variations in wording that might be useful.
  1. You can easily Google lyrics of a similar topic when you’re working on something. Sometimes knowing what’s already been written can help you to avoid unnecessarily reinventing the wheel. Or you might see a “hole” or “blank spot” that you can fill-in with your song. (I’ve only written one song that was, essentially, a rejoinder to another artist’s song I’m very fond of. But, of course, that secret is safe with me!)

So, there you have it for this month. I hope some of this has been helpful.


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