For a little while yesterday, while northern New Jersey turned white and my husband and sons ran the snow blower and shoveled, I took a break and cracked open a book I picked up, sort of on a whim – The Art of Writing Great Lyrics by Pamela Phillips Oland.
Did I mention that, when I was 16, my piano teacher asked my mother to let me stop lessons? That my husband – who has a lovely voice and once sang in a major choir – thinks I'm tone deaf? That when I watch American Idol I have no idea weather the contestants are pitchy? (I wait for the judges to weigh in and then just nod sagely.)
And yet, I bought the book. Song lyrics intrigue me. I love the condensed nature of the storytelling. When I hear what I think of as a great narrative lyric, I want to ask, "Hey, how'd they do that?"
I am completely aware that most lyricists have musical gifts; indeed that perhaps the best lyricists are also songwriters and trained musicians.
Halfway through the first chapter, I was excited to learn that there is a means to differentiate poetry from lyrics, that purchasing a rhyming dictionary only sounds childish, that a chunk of what I understand about prose narratives is directly related to lyric writing, while the little I thought I knew about lyric writing is completely off the mark.
If I never write a single line of lyrics, I know already that I'm going to enjoy this book and any lyric "writing" I attempt. I seem, periodically, to need some form of literary craft experience from way outside my writing comfort zone, to shake me up and re-energize my writing – or perhaps I should say my feelings about writing. Last fall, I took a four-week online fiction writing class. Yes, it taught me a lot about setting scenes, building backstory, and dialogue, all of which carries over to nonfiction, but more importantly, it seemed to challenge me: Oh, you think you can write? Well here, try this! I did try. I may never publish a short story, but something shifted.
Now a few chapters into the lyrics book, I'm getting that buzz writers get when we discover something new about words or language or syntax or vocabulary or rhythm (prose-wise, not music-wise!). Plus, I'm coming across some great tips about writing titles, uncovering hidden hooks, and other writing advice that cuts across genres.
Chances are, I'll probably never write lyrics that get set to any music, except maybe for the notes I hear in my head (which are likely out of tune anyway). That's okay. We writers are such a strange species. We persist in places we have no business. We go down dark alleys. We waste time on things which seem to come from nowhere and don't promise any payoff. But something leads us. Lately, I just follow.
What about you? Are you going in any new writing direction lately you never anticipated? How's that working out?
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- The Writers Circle, Fall 2016. I'm teaching Where Do I Begin? (Montclair); Multi-Genre Workshop (Summit)
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