‘Four Tracks and Typewriters’
When I was very young, I fancied myself a writer. It was silly. I was a six year old, weighted down with bird books and half finished ‘novels’ written in colorful spiral notebooks. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I truly began to write. I worked as a sportswriter and columnist for the local paper. I also played in a punk rock band with my best friend, Pat. The newspaper fed my ego and gave me money for cigarettes and beer. The band did the same and gave me an outlet I truly needed and a friendship that has survived many years. The articles were OK. Some of the songs were actually pretty ingenious in hindsight, but we were not talented enough musically to make it beyond the local club scene. I did not start seriously writing fiction until I was in college. I did not stop sounding like someone doing a seriously bad impression of Kerouac until I was out of college.
Morgen asked me to write this piece comparing my “writing” writing to writing music, and I am glad she did. As strange as this sounds, I have never really given it much thought before. Considering I have been writing pretty seriously for over half my lifetime, you’d think I would have tried to analyze it more. Go figure.
When I was young and first playing in bands, I wrote the lyrics and Pat wrote the music. (I later played in a few bands without Pat, too, but I still generally wrote the lyrics). That was the arrangement and it worked pretty well. I would spend all day at school (and later college / work) writing lyrics and produce a stack of notebook paper at the end of the day from which to pick and choose. For whatever reason, writing lyrics has always come easily to me. I stopped playing live a decade ago, but Pat and I still write and record music for fun all the time (‘The Flying Black Hats’ on last.fm or bandcamp). I write some of the music now, and Pat writes some lyrics, but our original arrangement hasn’t changed much.
As I walked to the park with my daughter today, part of my mind was dancing over the similarities and differences between writing prose and writing music (I do not write poetry). As I said, writing lyrics has always come pretty easily to me. Writing in general has, I guess. But the most striking difference is that, when it comes to fiction, I am obsessive about revision and I’ll spend ages on a story. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than five minutes writing the lyrics to a song and I never change them. And I am not sure exactly why this is.
Part of it, I believe, is that I don’t consider writing music to be as ‘serious’ an undertaking. It is fun. I have never tried to make legitimate money from it. I do it because I enjoy it. I don’t like playing shows… never had stage presence… but I love the act of writing a song. But it is something I do, record, and then forget about unless I am playing it in my living room. There is no endless tweaking to get things just right. I wouldn’t even consider it.
I have written hundreds of songs with Pat and he has always been amazed that the lyrics just come. Oftentimes, he will have an idea for a song, tell me, and I will sit down for five minutes and then hand him a page of lyrics and wait for him to do the hard part.
When I write fiction….well, there is really nothing I take as seriously as my fiction. It is the most important non-breathing thing in my life. My first drafts are generally pretty clean because I “write” in my head before I start with the typing, but I edit and edit, and I ask for help, and then I edit some more. I would never consider doing this with a song.
Part of it has to do with rhyming. The rhyme makes it easier. It limits your choices. It narrows the playing field. For example, one of my favorite lyrics is “Feeling like a vacant lot, my cars are up on blocks / I got so sick of sitting there through all your morbid talks / I hear your voice in whispers like a pinball in my brain / I woke up from a nightmare with my lips around your name.”:
I like it. I feel like it is one of the better chunks of lyricism I have come up with – I like the lyrics to the whole song, but that part especially. It is interesting metaphorically. It incorporates some intriguing personification. I don’t like the last line much, but what are you gonna do…it rhymes.
There is a freedom in that… the restrictions of rhyme. With prose, everything is open. I am not stuck with keeping the fourth line because I like the first three so much. The sentences relate, but they relate like comrades in a common cause, not like inbred cousins.
Maybe if I was a better musician (I can play guitar, harmonica, and bass passably), things would be different. When I do write music, it is simple, and a vehicle for the lyrics. Maybe it is because there is music… rhythm is important to me in my fiction, too, but there is no drum track.
Maybe music is the writing I allow myself to play with… to not take too seriously. But that’s not right either, because there are times, and especially when I was playing in bands as a teenager, that I took it all pretty damn seriously. Maybe there is no making sense of it.
If I had to guess, however, I would guess this: I don’t consider myself a great musician, so there is not as much ego wrapped up in it. I have worked damn hard to become a good fiction writer, so I don’t let myself off the hook nearly as easily. Both extremes are probably unhealthy. I should strive for the middle ground. But I don’t, and I won’t. And I have eight words left. And I still don’t have a good answer.
As I have been doing for the past 18 years, I sent this to Pat after I pounded out the last sentence. I think his reply is interesting. And his ending is better:
Interesting topic. I think the freedom in restriction concept is very true. That coupled with writing about a certain topic produces good results. I also think when you write lyrics you seem to tap into the subconscious realm more rawly (at the risk of sounding pretentious). I’m sure the same thing happens in prose, but probably less so. The lyrics just pour out stream-of-consciousness style (and in rhyme) and are more concentrated.
By the way, I’ve also lifted lyrics from your stories before. “The Trucker Song” was mostly lifted from one of your stories. Back in the day, I went fumbling through your other lyrics and ended up picking those out. I guess that song was the exception. One more thing, it’s true that you don’t edit the lyrics much, but it’s also true that you’ve written a shitload over the years and only used about 50% (or less). So, even though I’m sure you edit the stories / novels much more, there has still been some filter with the lyrics.
For two interviews about music I did, do click the links below (and support Oded, who cares about music enough to track people like me down):
Morgen: Fiction doesn’t breathe? Really? That would be like saying that Santa Clause doesn’t exist. 🙂 Thank you JD! I look forward to reading your next posts. Oh, and the last line from ‘Standing waiting in the rain’ was my favourite of the excerpt – go figure. And how cute is the picture at the top of this page. 🙂
JD Mader is a teacher and writer / musician based in San Francisco. He has been fortunate enough to encounter many giving and inspiring people in his life. He hopes to repay the debt. And to make enough money with his writing to buy a house. Please do visit JD’s website, perhaps ‘like’ his Facebook author page, follow him on Twitter and it would be fantastic if you’d pop along and buy his book. 🙂
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me at email@example.com with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).