On Songwriting Part 2: What A Mess I’ve Made

(This is the second in a series of posts about writing a song. Read the first.)

I’ve tried often to fix my handwriting but it’s too far gone at this point to do much about it. My decade as a newspaper journalist — scribbling notes as I interviewed people — ruined my handwriting, which was never great to begin with. Often, I apologize to my students for notes I put on their papers, and interpret what I wrote.

I mention this conundrum with handwritten text because when I am writing a song at my little corner in the house, with my guitar in my hands and a notebook and pencil nearby, I am often scribbling frantically to catch any words or phrases or lines that might be useful, and worth remembering. If I don’t write it down, I am apt to forget it, and often, the first way a phrase has tumbled out of my mouth is the most interesting.

For the most part, I can sort of read what I have written. But not always, and I’ve been frustrated at times when I come back to a lyric sheet in my notebook and can’t make heads or tails of some words or a line. I try to remember before taking a break or quitting for the day to read, and at least try to fix, anything that looks like it might be beyond recognition the next time I read it.

What I find interesting, though, is how the notebook pages are a map of what has happened with a song, as I move parts or change words or scratch out entire sections as the meaning of a song emerges or changes or shifts. I’ll draw arrows, and circle words, and indicate rhythmic emphasis on the start of a sung line.

From the outside, it’s a mess. For me, it’s the thing, the process where everything is made visible to me as a songwriter.

Here, for example, is the paper with my notes for the song that I am currently writing — the song that started me on the creation of this series of posts — which now has a working title of Million Miles Away (From Finding Me). This lyric sheet has more doodles and scratches than most, for I was having lots of problems with some of the ways the lines were ending, and I was working and reworking, and trying to track my ideas as the story of the narrator began to emerge.

Song Lyric Sheet

The following collage shows three versions of the same sheet of paper (wouldn’t it have been cool if I had had the foresight to set up a stop-motion capture of this paper from blank to finished?) where the opening verses and chorus came rather quickly, and then the revision process began with my chicken-scratch of the latest version (see above).

Song Lyric Collage

One I reach a point where I have most of the words and lines in place, I move over to the computer and type up a version to print out, and I put the notebook aside and work with that typed piece of paper. This allows my mind to not worry too much about navigating all the arrows and circles and pencil marks. Once again, I am trying to balance word flow and song rhythm, while staying true to the story of the song (in this case, a narrator grappling with self-doubt and an internal and nocturnal journey to think deep about where life is headed … you know, light stuff.)

Song Lyric sheet typed

Peace (always in revision),

  1. I often go back to notes I’ve taken in the past and have a difficult time figuring out what I was thinking, but after looking at your notes, I’m sure I’d never figure out what was being said.

    Maybe you should have been a doctor. These look like prescriptions!

    Thanks for sharing your process.

    • One practice for me is to highlight with colored gel pen the words and phrases I want to redirect myself to if ever I return to the notes. That one extra, fast pass over it makes a huge cognitive difference without adding more friction to the work.

      antispamiroonie: blurbs as
      Blurbs are like
      in the suburbs.
      They perturb
      and reverb
      our errant
      proverbial tires.

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