Poetic Champions Compose

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In her November 22 blog, Gayla Drake Paul writes: “OK, this is SO strange...I can no longer write songs on paper. Can't do it. My brain has been completely rewired so I now think in keyboard...there used to be something so satisfying about the feel of a pencil moving across paper...but now a pencil on paper just feels like balancing the accounts...the ticka ticka of a keyboard is the opposite of sensual, but somehow it's the only way I can get any words onto anything like paper.

I truly don't mind - it doesn't matter to me how the words get down, just that they do. But it seems so curious. When I write with paper it's CRAP. Total crap. I move to the keyboard and suddenly it's all ok. I guess I am evolving into the new info age whether I like it or not. Well, mostly I like it...”

I think it’s so interesting the way our creative minds adjust and disadjust (which my word processor tells me isn’t even a word, but it should be in my opinion) to the tools we use. We spend so much time on keyboards nowadays doing email, blogs, games and poking around on the Internet. Gayla makes part of her living writing for Premiere Guitar Magazine, so she spends even more time tapping away on a keyboard than she used to.

I like lyric writing on a keyboard. I like the ease with which I can change things and move them around. I often don’t write songs in a linear way. I write in phrases. Sometimes one phrase suggests another which leads to another from the beginning of a song-in-the-making to its end, but usually what I have is a jumble of phrases that catch my ear and my imagination. I don’t know what goes where, what stays, what gets added and what gets axed, until those phrases tell me their story and explain to me what the song is about. I don’t always know to start with. The notion of needing to know what a song is about before beginning keeps a lot of people from writing. For me, it’s sometimes better if I don’t know. I can get in the way of my own creative process if I know too much too soon.

If you had told me when I first got a computer that someday I would write lyrics on a keyboard, you would have stretched your credibility with me. I was very resistant to keyboard lyrics at first.

“No, I’m not doing that! It’s ridiculous to even consider.”

I had a friend years ago whose daughter, we’ll call her Blossom, was an angel child; sweet, cooperative, good natured. Then Blossom turned thirteen. Overnight, it seemed, she became a sulking, complaining, stubborn contrarian. Every time her mother spoke to her, Blossom rolled her eyes with a big, dramatic sigh of exasperation, the universal sign for “you are SO stupid!” My mind has a gatekeeper at the “try something new” door: thirteen-year-old Blossom.

This is what I usually think before I try something new in my process of songwriting: I would NEVER use that, it couldn’t possibly work, it’s distasteful and something only a hack would do and I’m better than that, much, much better and I will never, never, never change my mind about this. Yeah, right.

I’ve changed my mind about writing lyrics on a keyboard. Now it makes perfect sense to me. I’m lazy and unmotivated and I like puzzle games. I play lots of games with keyboard and mouse. Puzzle games intrigue me for hours at a time mostly as a way to avoid chores I don’t like very much. Vacuuming comes to mind. Maybe I’ll play just one more round of Scrabble on the computer before I vacuum the living room. Maybe I’ll wait until tomorrow to vacuum the living room, it’s not like I’m expecting guests or anything and I’m learning all these important new words by playing Scrabble, words like “qat” (an evergreen shrub) and “ilex” (a type of holly), I’d better keep playing. Then several hours pass and it’s time to fix dinner. That’s how it works for me.

I’ve noticed that, for me, songwriting is very much like a puzzle game. My mind comes up with phrases then figures out how to put them together. I like to think that all of those hours spent playing computer puzzle games were training for my creative process rather than a huge waste of time. This is what I tell myself.

I got a tremendously useful songwriting tip from a workshop that Gayla Drake Paul did at the Guitar House in North Liberty, IA a couple of years ago. She said, Don’t sit down to write a song, sit down to write a line. One line. Sit down to write for ten minutes.

Just one line or just ten minutes will often give my mind a puzzle to work. Maybe I’ll write just one more line before I go vacuum the living room. Then several hours pass and it’s time to fix dinner. That’s how it works for me.

I still write lyrics on paper sometimes. It’s an old habit. Occasionally, when I have an idea for a phrase, without thinking much about it I’ll just jot it down on a piece of paper. Those lyrics often lose their way, not because I can’t write with pencil on paper, but because I can’t find what I wrote with pencil on paper. Paper tends to get shuffled and lost among all the other stacks of paper on my desk. I don’t even know what’s in those stacks. I don’t even care. I know it’s mostly stuff I didn’t want to make a decision about. “Do I keep this or throw this away? Oh, I don’t know, I’ll decide later …” Only I don’t decide later. I just let a stack sit there for a year or so then assume I must not need whatever’s in it anymore. I keep all those pieces of paper long enough that throwing them away without looking at them seems like a safe thing to do. I’m better at tidying up when there are no decisions involved. Sometimes I get confused and throw away a new stack instead of an old one, but that hardly ever seems to matter. Nothing really terrible happens when I throw away the wrong stack but, I wish I had those snatches of lyrics back. That’s how I am. I always want what I don’t have, but not enough to keep it. There is a significant responsibility and obligation in both keeping track of things and throwing things away. I don’t do much of either.

Sometimes paper lyrics go through the wash and end up shredded all over a load of clothes, especially lyrics written on cocktail napkins and receipts and such. Lyrics come off of clothes pretty easily, which is more than I can say for lip balm. I swear I try to check all my pockets, but once or twice a year a tube of lip balm gets by me and ruins a whole load of laundry.

I should write all my lyrics with a keyboard (and stop using lip balm). At least I’d have a better chance of being able to find them again. But, sometimes, like when I’m waiting for a flight at an airport or waiting for the band to start in a bar, I might not have a keyboard handy. I have a Blackberry … Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I don’t seem like the Blackberry type. You’re right, I’m not, but Jackie is most definitely the Blackberry type and this is one of her hand-me-downs. So, I have a Blackberry, but I can’t imagine writing lyrics with my thumbs. It just wouldn’t be right and, besides, my thumbs aren’t smart enough yet to write lyrics. Perhaps in time they’ll come around, but right now sometimes it’s paper or nothing … and I can do it, I can still write lyrics the old fashion way. There’s a good chance I’ll never see those lyrics again, but at least I look busy and sometimes that’s enough in an airport or a bar. And every once in a while I run across one of those scraps of lyrics long after I’ve forgotten what I meant by them. They’re often even more useful then. I’m usually better off if I’m not in the throes of whatever I meant.

Now, if only I could come up with riffs using my computer. There are programs that do that, but I would NEVER use one. (That’s what Blossom tells me.)

“Poetic Champions Compose,” by the way, is a late-eighties recording by Van Morrison. The line comes from the song “Queen of the Slipstream,” a song that I learned way back then and preformed a few times. I don’t remember many lines from that song, but I do remember this one: “There’s a dream where the contents are visible, where the poetic champions compose …” It’s hard to tell exactly what Van meant by that. Not many writers could get away with lyrics like that with me, but somehow, I can’t explain how, Van does. You can say anything if you figure out how to say it like you mean it. Van has always known that. Van can make nearly anything sound convincing.

I can imagine Gayla Drake Paul right now sitting at her keyboard, composing like a poetic champion, ticka, ticka, ticka … Try to work in the words “qua” and “ilex,” Gayla. I’ll feel so much better about how I spend my time if you do.