Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Little Things You Do Together

I’ve been browsing several of the “songwriting” forums and looking at the songs and lyrics that are being posted. What I see is a lot of people reaching for the big things, the big events, and trying to hang a lyric on them.

It is easy to make yourself, or someone else, cry, when imagining (or unfortunately, reliving) the death of a loved one. We all fear death, our own, our family, and the emotion that a ‘death song’ taps is a primal one, an inescapable one. A wedding song, about the joy and hope of a life together, brings to mind one’s own wedding and we shed tears of joy (or bitterness, as the case may be).

But that’s easy. When one writes about death or love, or birth, one can mistake the sincerity – and depth – of the emotion for the quality of the writing. A song describing the death of a parent will almost certainly make me cry – whether or not there is any skill in the writing. And if there is no craft, no skill in the writing, I feel cheated and used.

The hard thing is to write about something small, and find worlds in it. I ran across a group called “The Mountain Goats” and was struck by the minimalism of the writing. The first song on “The Sunset Tree” album is “You or Your Memory.” All that happens in this lyric is a guy checks into a cheap motel, goes down to the store to buy aspirin and wine coolers and goes back to the room. But it’s incredibly evocative. You can feel the room, feel the singer’s desperation and loss, with the simplest possible arrangement of music and words.

I admire that. It’s something to aspire to. (My own stab at writing in the style of this group is called “Hesitant Elegy”

When I can write about something small, and normal, and everyday, yet describe a person’s entire worldview in that moment, I know I’ve done something difficult.

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