Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking a writing cue from...songwriters

Picture a driver at a stoplight. She's tapping out a rhythm on the dashboard. She's belting out the words to the song on the radio. She doesn't care who notices. She's in the moment. The song is THE thing.

That's what I love about great songs. They're transportive. There are gems of wisdom in the lyrics, which makes listening to the radio a kind of research for a writer. The songwriter has only a few minutes to convey a mood and story. I write down great song lyrics I hear all the time. I think, "I want to write like THAT."

I like this one for its powerful spiritual vibe:

The dust to which this flesh shall return
It is the ancient, dreaming dust of god

John Mellencamp, Human Wheels

I like this one for the sheer sensory images it calls up:

Sweet desert rose
Whose shadow bears the secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume that would torture you more than this

Sting, Desert Rose

Wow, this one pretty much sums it up for me:

I'm so happy now that I'm older
And I've learned what needs to be done
I wish I could've been older back when I was young.
I was dumb in life's springtime
And now I'm smarter in November
How come you lose memory capacity just as you've got so much more to remember?

Garrison Keillor, The Lives of the Cowboys

I like this one for the way it conveys life changes:

Remember when old ones died and new were born
And life was changed, disassembled, rearranged
We came together, fell apart
And broke each other's hearts

Alan Jackson, Remember When

I like this one for its cinematic heft. You can see it as well as hear it:

Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

I like this one because it sounds like something a young man would write about his crush:

She acts like summer and walks like rain

Train, Drops of Jupiter

I like the sheer WHAT factor of this verse (plus the fact that my writing prof said NEVER to write the word "thing' if you can help it):

"There were plants
And birds
And rocks
And things"
--America's 'Horse With No Name'

And apropos of nothing, Do innocent feet have rhythm?

"I'm never gonna
Dance again
Guilty feet have
Got no rhythm"

--Wham's 'Careless Whisper'

So next time you're in your car, belting out that tune (you know who you are), let the lyrics train your writing voice. Feel the poetry as it crosses your lips. Maybe try and write some lyrics of your own to describe a setting, mood or feeling.
K. Harrington
author, Janeology


  1. LOVE this post. LOve it. love. it. .. horse with no name...

  2. Interesting post. The way the words express a mood and must also fit with the music reminds me of writing picture books, where the illustrations and the text must work together to tell the story.

  3. I love the opening lines from John Mayer's song Half of My Heart from his Battle Studies CD:

    I was born in the arms of imaginary friends. Free to roam, made a home out of everywhere I've been.

    How cool to think of entering this crazy world with friends already intact!


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