I enjoy writing. It serves some undefinable yearning inside of me to capture the essence of what I am thinking and feeling. I also enjoy country music for the very same reason. A well-written song conveys meaning and understanding about our human condition that touches our hearts and transcends the mere words. This morning I read the article in the New York Times that follows and thought it would be nice to provide it to others who may read this with the same interest and enjoyment that I received.
May 22, 2008, 10:29 pm
The Ear of the Beholder
By Rosanne Cash
I have a friend who has two grown children. She is estranged from her son, who has many egregious complaints about my friend, and vivid tales of childhood neglect and various other appalling maternal offenses. Her daughter, on the other hand, assures my heartbroken friend that the son has an overactive imagination combined with a need to blame everyone else for his own problems and that in fact, the stories of her failings as a parent never occurred. Who owns the truth?
In my own life, there was a Hollywood movie made about my family: my father’s drug addiction, the spectacular dissolution of my parents’ marriage, the genesis of the romantic relationship between my father and stepmother, my birth and the birth of my sisters, and my father’s rise to fame. This was all covered in less than two hours. If you went through this film with a fine-toothed fact-checker, you would emerge safely on the side of a non-litigious wide release.
But is it the truth? Not mine. Certainly not my mother’s, and to some degree, not even my father’s. It’s a pastiche, an impression. An amalgamation of facts strung together, even as a poetic narrative, is not necessarily the same thing as the truth.
In my last column, I wrote about the songwriting workshop I used to teach, and how some students were so attached to the facts that it hindered the quality of their writing. I encouraged them to use poetic license, and give up the facts if they had to, to improve their lyrics. One comment sent in by a reader struck me:
…for those of us interested in becoming more honest with ourselves as we mature, I think it is more important to put away our creative fictions and cut to the soul of the matter when writing. Just because you are more interested in “rhyme scheme errors” than the integrity of the relationship between fact and expression, you shouldn’t extinguish the passion for honesty that lives within your younger, more intuitive students.
— Posted by Geoff Baker
Ouch. I have spent a lifetime in the service of creative fiction, as well as non-fiction ornamented by fiction, so let me elaborate even further. The “truth” (or “honesty”) and the “facts” are not necessarily the same, they are not necessarily equal and one often requires the suspension of the other. This may not be the case in higher math or on Wall Street (or, actually, it may work there as well, but I’m clueless about that) but it is an immutable “truth” in art and music that facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience.
The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels — all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.
The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.
Recently, I wrote a song with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. It was a wild idea I had while I was lying around recovering from surgery this past winter. They are both friends — I’ve known Kris since my childhood — and Elvis and I had just written a song together by email. (He called it “Song With Rose” as a working title, and when it came time to record it on his new record, “Momofuku,” he kept the eponymous title, which delighted me). I asked them separately if they would be interested in recording together, the three of us, and they were both game.
We started talking about this in February. We found that the only day in a six-month window when the three of us would be in New York at the same time, without obligations, was April 5th. I booked the studio, not knowing what we would do. As the date got closer, I started to get a little nervous and thought maybe my initial idea of recording old songs of ours together might not have the fresh energy and originality I was looking for. Elvis and John Leventhal, my husband and frequent collaborator and producer, kept mentioning that they hoped we could write something together that day, but that also made me anxious. It seemed too much pressure for one day.
I had a song that was incomplete, but a great idea, that I had started writing when I was halfway through recording “Black Cadillac.” It never really worked, and last year John picked it up again, streamlined it musically and suggested some lyric changes — actually lyric deletions, as he thought it was too wordy. I pared the first verse down to this:
You want love
But it’s never deep enough
You want life
But it’s never long enough
You want peace
Like it’s something you can buy
You want time
But you’re content to watch it fly
I loved the song, but it was still incomplete and didn’t seem to have a home. John thought this would be a great song to write with the gents, and so I sent the first verse by e-mail to Elvis and to Kris (by way of his wife, Lisa, as Kris doesn’t do e-mail), to see if they would be interested in finishing it with us.
Elvis responded immediately, and within a couple days had e-mailed back a second verse, and some ideas for bridges. I loved his verse (“You want imagination but you cannot pretend…”), and we began a dialogue about where it should go. Nothing from Kris, who was touring in Europe.
On April 4th, the day before the session, Lisa sent an e-mail saying, “Here are his thoughts so far…” and a verse from Kris that raised the hair on the back of my head and brought instant tears to my eyes. I sent it to Elvis, fingers shaking, and he wrote back within minutes, his excitement and exclamation points jumping off the screen. It was perfect.
It all came together seamlessly the next day, in a way that I’ve seldom experienced in 30 years of recording. It was like alchemy. It was eight hours of magic (and I never use that word). Elvis tinkered with his verses a bit, we divided up the vocal parts and the three of us stood in a circle with the three musicians — John, Zev Katz and Joe Bonadio — and recorded the song. It still doesn’t have a proper title, or a home, but it is a thing of beauty. (Regarding the title, I suggested “Free Will,” Kris suggested “Faith and Free Will,” and Elvis was concerned that anything with “free will” would remind people of a movie about a whale; so right now we’re calling it “April 5th,” because that’s when we recorded it.) A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.
We are so deeply limited by language, and so ennobled by it. Songs are the attempt to convey what is under and behind language, and so it is counter-productive, if not counter-intuitive, to clutch at exactitudes of circumstance that retreat further in meaning the more desperate we become to quantify them.
My friend Joe Henry says that songwriting is not about self-expression (ewwww), but about discovery. I am of entirely the same mind, which is why I recoil against the attempt to categorize “personal” songs of mine as diary pages and why I resist that niggling insistence on the facts. Self-expression without craft is for toddlers. Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way. (That is not to say that all songwriting is important and good, just as not all fiction is important or good. I don’t think anyone would put “Like a Rolling Stone” or my dad’s “Big River” (a truly great piece of American poetry wedded to a wicked, swampy backbeat) in the same category as The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” (it is what it is).
But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide. I should approach my writing as if I am meeting someone for the first time, and have no idea what he will say or what kind of mood he is in. If you already know entirely what you want to say, and want to document an “honest” rehash of what happened and why, then I still maintain that you are better off taking up jurisprudence.
I appreciate my readers’ instinct to protect my songwriting students and their attempts to stay honest, but in songwriting, as in painting, photo-realism is only one style; it is not the litmus test for everything else. In many great songs a larger, universal modicum of truth is revealed and resonates on a personal level with the listener, even when the facts make no sense at all. Sometimes especially when the facts make no sense at all. And, if everything goes well, you can also dance to it.