How to Write a Song - Part 1

I’ve been working on a song lately called “This Too Shall Pass.” The process has been good — normal, typical. I thought it would be interesting to write about it and define the writing process for myself, and to open it up to others to share how your projects come to life. (Maybe there are wondrous new ways that could help us all! I hope!)

First — The Idea:
This song, called “This Too Shall Pass”, started out awhile ago during the Sundance Film Festival, a time when creators are rapidly called upon to step up to their highest possibilities and glory, or alternately, to sink low into the realities that their latest piece is not capturing the public imagination in the ways that they’d hoped. I watched a dear friend skillfully navigate the wicked and wonderful waters of the fest with his first feature film, bringing as many people along for the ride as he could, experiencing the swells and occasional retreats of favor with so much grace and dignity.

I was inspired to consider more deeply the sense of permanence that we emotional, creative types seem to attach to everything. When we’re selling 10,000 records a week, we somehow imagine we will now continue selling 10,000 albums a week forever. And we start adding up the fun we’ll have with all that money and all those opportunities! Excellent!! (we think, only to be shattered when the numbers begin dropping, and the phone is ringing less or the royalty checks are dwindling down…). Or on the other side, when nothing’s gone right for months and no one seems particularly interested in our latest projects, it’s throw-ourselves-off-the-ledge time. Oh, the drama! “I’m quitting this f**ked up business,” we tell ourselves. It’s over for me. I can’t deal with this anymore. (we think, only to find ourselves surprised by an out-of-the-blue opportunity that gets the sun shining again in an unimaginable way).

Being in demand is so fleeting. Being a decent human being should not be. Creative work (especially when it joins up with the commercial world of a film fest or music conference, etc) with its highs and lows and thrills and frustrations makes me think about how quick — in a “snap!” really — we can go from one place to another. An empowered, ready, jammin’ mood to one of weepy, cranky, mad silences — or the other way around — in a moment! So this thought was in my mind, rankling around in the back somewhere as I went about my days.

Next — A Phrase.
I read a really fun and interesting book in February called “The Know-It-All : One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” by A.J. Jacobs. A.J. is a former editor at Esquire who decided to read the whole Encyclopedia Brittanica in a year. His life story mirrors a lot of us wordy/creative types, I imagine. Straight A’s in gradeschool without too much effort, lots of affirmation and more good grades in high school, and kind of shanking it in college. (Too many distractions, that’s my story.) In his quest to recover the feeling of being the “smartest kid in the world,” he begins reading every single passage in the EB, and summarizes the highlights for the reader. One of these passages highlights the story of a king sending out the wisest counselors he had to find the greatest truth. They came back with the phrase “This Too Shall Pass.” And then they talked about why this was the greatest truth known to man. (I am paraphrasing REALLY badly here, but I already leant the book to a friend and can’t look it up — sorry.) The phrase stuck with me, and I kept thinking about it. It has a lot of religious connotations for me (in a grand “Moses on the hilltop” kind of way) and an almost gospelly sense about it, in that it seems like a phrase I’ve heard used in one paraphrase or another by older African-American women as they counselled younger generations and prayed for patience.

Thirdly, the kicker:
I usually need a little kick to jolt me out of my to-do lists and occasional bouts of creative A.D.D. for long enough to get to the piano and focus. The kicker is almost always the “Three” in the “things come in threes” wisdom. When something crosses my path or mind three times, I’ve learned to pay a little more attention. And so when I read the “Just Plain Folks” newsletter a couple months ago, right after the A.J. Jacobs book, and it was all about the phrase “This Too Shall Pass,” I knew there was something to work with here. There were three, four, five and six, in this article too, in case I needed them too.

Fourth-ly? the writing:
So I sat down, caffeinated and quiet, and let my hands find a chord that felt like a good starting place. It was a D chord, and without really knowing why or how (although I’ll try to describe it a little better later), the words came out of my mouth, singing:

“Baby, don’t you look so sad…
(ooh! feels good so far. . . now I’ll do a gospelly chord change for a minute and see if it works)
Everything good must end
(it does! hmm. that’s a little more negative than what I’m really trying to say hear. might come back to that thought, but just keep going)
Everything you’ve ever had
(back to the root chord feels good. I guess I’m not going to rhyme the last line. that’s ok.)
Someday will go
(just trying to remember it all now so I can write it down in a minute. feels true. feels real.)

But freedom, baby, lays her gifts
(what does that mean? I don’t know but I’m going to keep going)
Opens up the window, lets the fresh air in
(personifying freedom…will that make sense? too much ‘baby’ for this early in the song?)

And that’s where the connection got lost. Right near the end of the stanza/verse. Crap! Come on! I swear, sometimes — the best times — it is like there’s a little direct line to something/someone else that is transmitting the music and words to be dictated down. And it’s right there. But then it’s not, and it’s your job to keep working the bit you have until it’s whole somehow.

So I take a moment to write it all down on my pad of lined blank paper. And start looking for that last phrase. I try several. As it turns out, “pass” which I know will be the last word of the verse, is a tricky rhyme. Aside from “Ass” which I sense will not be my rhyme, or class, which doesn’t feel like it either, nothing is coming to me. Let’s do a soft rhyme here, and use ‘cast’ and ‘pass’.

The last bit becomes:
“You can’t turn back time, no that die is cast
But baby this, too, shall pass”
(Okay I like it, but there are A LOT of “babys” happening here. Pull back.
And find something a little less heavy for the second line)

That’s how the proceses begins for me. An idea that stays with me, a turn of phrase (that will probably be the title), the kicker into action, and the starting to write. Not all songs get this far for me. Not every one starts this way — sometimes there’s a melody that seems really promising that I have to sing into my voicemail to not forget — and some songs will never find an end at all . . . there are certainly lots of orphaned little song embryos floating around notebooks throughout this writer’s house (and many other houses, I imagine).

I’ll continue with the expanding and editing parts of the song next.
Thanks for reading and sharing this process with me.

5 Things I’m Thankful For Today:
1. The great ski day we had on Friday and that I didn’t get really hurt when I biffed
2. Leather and down couches
3. Law and Order Criminal Intent, Sopranos, and Big Love on HBO tonight…! Hat trick tv on Sunday night!
4. For our nice walk in Old Town today even though I was a little cranky
5. Possibilities

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