Sunday, June 13, 2010

The song filter

I was a notorious punster in high school.

Nobody was safe from me. Unless I was comforting you over the death of your dog, I'd take any opportunity to play with whatever words you used in conversation, twist them into something a little more fun.

Reactions were mixed. Some friends would groan and roll their eyes. Others gleefully jumped in, resulting in a bit of dorky verbal fencing. (Friend has a hard-boiled egg for lunch. "That looks eggsalent." "Yeah, and I didn't have to shell out too much for it." "If you did, the yolk would be on you." Egg cetera.)

This continued up through the end of my freshman year in college, at which point I had an epiphany: most of my puns were terrible.

OK, maybe epiphany is the wrong word. I already knew that of all the puns I made, maybe 5 percent were any good. The sudden revelation was that I didn't want to do the other 95 percent anymore. I decided that I would hold off unless I thought of something that was actually clever or funny.

Sometime after my firm resolution, I noticed something. I wasn't making any puns at all.

When I'd punned on a regular basis, you see, I had a process in my brain reserved just for wordplay. Absolutely everything I heard went through the pun filter. Can I do something with this word? With this sentence? How about this one? In becoming more discriminating, I'd effectively turned the filter off. As the bad 95 percent fell away, so did the good 5 percent.

* * *

Years later, my punning days far behind me, I discovered songwriting.

It was a whole new playground for my brain to romp around in. I was fascinated by how I could use this incredibly constrained format to express things more clearly and powerfully than I ever could in prose. After writing 13 songs in the space of a year, I set a goal to write at least 12 the next year—one per month.

That worked out for a couple of years, until new responsibilities piled on. I decided I'd go easy on myself when I took my current job. Goals are wonderful, but no sense in driving myself insane. These days I write about four songs a year.

But here's the thing. The count hasn't dropped so much because I'm busier. I mean, that's part of it. I am busier. But a bigger part is that, without the incentive to be constantly producing, the song filter is weak and intermittent. I'm less apt to encounter a phrase or experience or idea and go, Can that be a song?

So I've been thinking about kicking up my output again. I don't know if I need to set a specific quota. I just want the filter up and running full-time.


DeppityBob said...

If you figure out how to up that output, send me a manual.

Jeff Shattuck said...

My guess is your song output will go up, possibly by a lot. From everything I've read and from my own experiences, your antenna has to be at all times and you need to be listening for things -- otherwise, you will just hear white noise.

John Wenger said...

What a fascinating look at the creative process.

The great thing about being a writer is that you can turn the process on, try out every pun or idea you have, and discard the bad ones without embarrassing yourself. That way, you can keep the enthusiasm up without penalty.

"Use it or lose it," is more than a folk saying; there is a lot of wisdom in it.

cinderkeys said...

Dep: I suspect it's easier for 3-to-4-minute songs.

Jeff: Vee shall see. Preliminary results are encouraging, but it's the long-term I'm looking at.

Dad: Oh, sure. Nobody can tell how much a song or an essay was edited. That doesn't mean there won't be any flaws, of course, or that what you did will hit people the way you thought it would.