When someone finds out you’re a writer, people seem to want to know what you’re reading. I suppose what they’re really asking is, “Which authors inspire you?”
There were many years when I was an avid reader. I don’t know if I should admit this, but for some time, the truth is I’ve found the moments that jolt a creative nerve in me have darted out from lyrics rather than from words on a written page.
“Regrets collect like old friends, here to relive your darkest moments.” – “Shake It Out”, Florence & The Machine
Really, I can listen to that song on repeat for longer than I want to admit. The thing about lyrics is they have to shape a strong emotion using so few words. Songwriters don’t have the luxury of a 110 page script or a 200+ page novel. They basically have to get it all down on one page. And make every line count.
“I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame, and every time I pass that way, I always hear my name.” – “Every Grain of Sand”, Bob Dylan
Show, don’t tell. Songwriters, the good ones, follow the rule out of necessity. I tend to realize during my second or third drafts that there’s too much exposition or scenes don’t flow because I’m telling too much.
“I took my love and took it down, I climbed a mountain and I turned around; And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills, til the landslide brought me down.” – “Landslide”, Fleetwood Mac
Mystery. Sometimes, you can sing along with a song countless times and then suddenly ask yourself, “What’s this about?” Not that it’s incoherent, but there’s a message that has an ability to mean different things to different people. And there are songs that carry separate meanings at different times in one’s life.
“Let it out, let me in, take a hold of my hand; There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same.” – “Handwritten”, Gaslight Anthem
Action. Lyrics by their nature keep the narrative moving, they push to make things happen. Of course, not always. My favorite song by The Beatles is “In My Life”, which is entirely contemplative. Even in that case, the words are concise and evocative. There’s no time for stream of consciousness ramblings.
“Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good.” – “Perfect Day”, Lou Reed
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lou Reed was asked what he was most proud of. “The thing I’m proudest of from a career point of view is writing. When I can write a really good line, I get enormous pleasure from that.” Later, he added, “When you put simple words together, you can generate a great deal of emotion.”
Exactly. And sometimes, it can be one well-written lyric that serves as a catalyst for a bigger writing project to launch.