Different Writing Muscles

Different kinds of writing require different brain muscles. I’ve been reminded of this recently as I’ve started exercising my prose muscles for the first time in a while. My first ambition, as I remember, was to be a professional novelist, back when I was small and green and the world could grow such things. I wrote stories as a kid, and the occasional song lyric here or there, and noticed even then that my prose and poetry bore a strong resemblance. That made the lyrics a lot harder for me. It always seemed like I was trying to squeeze the prosaic ingredients inside my head into a poetic mold that didn’t want to accommodate them.

But, you know, practice practice practice.

Then I started writing for screens, where individual spaces, let alone words, are unimaginably valuable. Your feature script must be less than 120 pages, and really, it should be less than 116 or so. Turning “The bar was dark and looked like the inside of a toilet” to “Dark. Shitty.” saves 43 spaces, and if you do that enough through a script, you find out how many pages you can cut without actually cutting any pages.

I’ve come to appreciate that the thing I need to do, no matter what medium, is to say everything as simply as I can. Not “as simply as possible,” but as simply as I can. I think, in the end, this is what defines an author’s “voice.” We all have unique and individual thoughts, and will find different ways to express them in simplest terms. Elements of Style has a fantastic comparison of a passage from Faulkner and a passage from Hemingway, both describing lethargy. You can guess which one is more florid. I don’t think those guys wrote in their respective styles because they were posturing. I think they did it because that’s who they were.

I respect Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy a lot as lyricists, and looking at the different ways they tackle verses really helped me find some peace of mind when I realized I was never going to write song lyrics that are terse and poetic. I think in paragraphs.

Here’s Ben Gibbard, from the Death Cab for Cutie song Crooked Teeth:

I braved treacherous streets and kids strung out on homemade speed
And we shared a bed in which I could not sleep at all
‘Cause at night the sun in retreat made the skyline look like crooked teeth in the mouth of a man who was devouring us both

Here’s Colin Meloy, from The Decemberists‘ song This is Why We Fight:

Come the war
Come the avarice
Come the war
Come hell
Come attrition
Come the reek of bones
Come attrition
Come hell

One, as you can see, is not like the other. Both are representative samples of both writers’ styles. After discovering Ben Gibbard years ago, I never felt so bad about writing song lyrics in complete sentences, which I’d never seemed able to stop myself from doing, despite all the teachers who told me poetry really should look more like what Colin Meloy’s able to do.

My advice for writers, then, if I have any, is to say what’s in your head as simply as you can, and trust in your own individuality. Figuring out exactly how simply you really can say something takes a lot of hard work, and that’s where craft comes in. When we whittle away all the other stuff, the imitation and the showing-off of the big words we know, stuff like that, what we’re left with are our own voices.

So, practice practice practice. You know, brain muscles.

Thinking About the Album as Art Form

As we gear up to head into the studio to record the next album, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about albums. Everybody knows that the album as we generally understand it — a coherent collection of songs by an artist — is pretty much dwindled to a niche preoccupation.  Bands like Radiohead get some press for their dedication to crafting albums, and theirs are albums that are united mostly by atmosphere or “sound.”  You recognize a song off of “Kid A” as being different from a song on “OK Computer” as different from a song on “The King of Limbs.”

The alternative is to make a couple of singles and wrap them up in filler and call it an album.  This practice was widespread, and totally never fooled anybody, so that’s why you see digital single sales/downloads FAR outstripping the pace of album sales/downloads.  Nobody even needs to bother making albums anymore if they are a big deal pop star and don’t want to.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot more concept albums coming out and getting attention.  A concept album is one united by a single topic or narrative that binds all of the songs together.  This is, of course, basically an opera.  “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is probably the most famous early example everybody points to.  It’s the Beatles, pretending to be a different band, playing a show.  Not much of a concept, but you can’t expect everything to be perfect right out of the gate.  The concept album was huge in the 1970s, with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and tons others releasing often several of them.

But in the last few years, we’ve seen “Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists, “Hadestown” (which is stunning) by Anais Mitchell, “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” about a messiah who keeps getting distracted from saving the world by meeting pretty girls, NIN’s “Year Zero,” stuff by Coheed & Cambria, Mastodon, Green Day, and Aimee Mann’s wonderful “The Forgotten Arm.”

I think the reason why we’re seeing this, and maybe one of the reasons why I even tackled a concept album, is that if you want listeners to experience your work in context, with the dominance of the singles market, you have to give it an explicit context.  Bon Iver basically did this with “…for emma forever ago,” which wasn’t strictly a concept album, but is always described alongside it’s context (“Bad breakup, dude goes to cabin, makes sad record.”).

Me, I like it.  Between their concept work and song cycles (Crane Wife, parts 1-3), The Decemberists have become one of my favorite bands.  It gives people a reason to keep buying albums, and in a way, with the art form beset by decline, it has fostered invention.  I can only hope that someday the John Henry project we’re working on now might be mentioned in the same breath with some of these wonderful, wonderful albums.

Anais Mitchell – Wedding Song by BlurbPR