Thursday, December 23, 2010


Most people who dispense advice about songwriting—about any kind of writing, really—tell you to silence your inner critic while you create your first draft. Early criticism paralyzes you, they say. Get something down first. Edit later.

I don't work that way. I can't work that way. The Editor will not be repressed.

To be honest, I don't mind so much. It used to annoy me that I wrote more slowly than everyone else, but now I'm just thankful that the Editor exists. If I try out a terrible line, it jumps in to tell me how bad it is, keeping me from running down a dead end. If I I think up something innovative, something that expresses my idea perfectly, I hear it crow Yes! Bravo!

The Editor's nemesis is adequacy.

See, not every syllable can be brilliant. Sometimes you really do just need filler, a few words to get you from point A to point B. Don't get me wrong—even those words need to be held to a certain standard. My Editor will still protect me from producing work that isn't good enough. It only becomes confused when I present it with something that's ... good enough.

It rhymes, the Editor muses. It feels good to sing and listen to. It expresses the basic idea we're trying to get across. But is this really the best we can do?

That's where I stand with my latest. I've filled in all the blanks. I could sing it in public, and people wouldn't point and laugh. But there are one or two spots where I wonder, is this good, or just good enough?

I can't decide whether to declare it finished.


John Wenger said...

This is a fascinating post. I don't write lyrics, but I certainly write a lot of e-mails, and I wrote grievances for about sixteen years as the grievance chairman of a fairly large teacher's union. Polemical writing is not the same as writing lyrics, and yet there are similarities between all writing.

For me, words come easily, but I find myself editing as I go along, just as you do. Perhaps there is a genetic connection here.

Having said this, I wonder if you should try an experiment: force yourself to write lyrics without editing, i.e. free associate, just to see where it gets you. If it results in junk, so be it. It will probably seem like jumping out of airplane in the dark without a parachute, except that you don't get hurt when you hit ground.

DeppityBob said...

I dunno...telling a compulsive self-editor to write stream-of-consciousness is like telling Monk not to count lampposts. That is one of the reasons why I'm paralyzed in my writing: I can't move on unless it's perfect, and nothing is ever perfect enough in my head. It's a gift and a curse.

cinderkeys said...

Dep: Now that you mention it, my tendency to edit as I go has hurt my ability to write prose. With songs, you can jump back and forth when you're stuck. I wouldn't do as well writing fiction out of order.

Dad: I did try this once, and it didn't shift the way I normally do things. Maybe I'll post about that one of these days ...

Fireblossom said...

I edit a little as I go...I mean, if a phrase makes my Inner Editor roll her eyes, then out it goes immediately, or if I think of a better word as soon as I've written the first. But mostly, I am one of those who likes to get it down, then make it brilliant after.

A very Merry Christmas to you, Cinder. :-)

cinderkeys said...

Fireblossom: I'm a fan of people working the way they work best, without other people telling them it's wrong. Merry Christmas back atcha. :)

Jeff Shattuck said...

Cool post. My take, though, is that something about the song you're working on is coming up short for you. I'd suggest making a rough demo without any singing and playing it your car as as you drive, playing while you stare at your lyrics, playing it in your head... do this for awhile and the right words will come. The worst thing is to settle -- at least for me -- when you know it's not quite right. I've spent a small fortune redoing things I knew in my heart weren't done.

cinderkeys said...

Hey, Jeff, I was hoping I'd hear from you, because I keep thinking of the Tom Petty line you always quote: Every part needs to be as good as every other part, or kill it. (Can tell me where to find that quote? I haven't been able to locate the exact words.)

Anyway, I've been leaning toward thinking you're right. The only trouble is that the line as I have it says exactly what I want it to say. It's just kinda prosaic, a little more tell than show.

Jeff Shattuck said...

Susan, I'll try to find the Petty quote.

As an exercise, maybe just try writing your line at the top a page and then writing it ten different ways. If the rhyme scheme doesn't fit, go back and look at the line it needs to work with. I do this all them time and almost always end up happy -- well, happy for me.