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February, 2015

Go Deep

by Webmaster

I read an article about a new subject that touched me. It inspired me to write a song. I knew it would be a powerful song, and I worked hard on it. I found a hook with a clear visual image. I used that in the chorus, and wrote verses to support the chorus. I included a bridge, to add a contrast and push the story along. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote.

Then I sent it to a co-writer, and he worked on the song. We discussed it and changed it and finally declared it ready for a critique session. I took it to a group of songwriters who meet once a month to critique each others songs. They've always liked my songs and poems, and helped me by suggesting ways to make them better.

This time they didn't. They told me something I'd never been told before: throw it out and start over. The song just didn't work.

"When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'" — Chuck Cannon

They weren't being mean. They were right. Somehow I got so caught up with my hook that I didn't realize what effect it had on the song. The hook was a strong visual image. But the way I used it put the emotion of the song at a distance. The narrator of the song, the "I" persona, related the incidents as if he or she was an outsider looking in, rather than someone actually being a part of the story.

They told me to write the song from scratch twice, using a different point of view for each song. The first would be from the point of view of a neighbor. The second, from the point of the mother.

Initially, I was inspired to write the song, but I relied too much on the craft of songwriting to write the song, rather than referring to the emotion of the story.

I reported back to my co-writer. He said he would work with me on the song from the point of view of the neighbor, but couldn't relate to the point of view of the mother. He would let me have that one.

"I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions." — James A. Michener

And I put the song away. I meant to work on it, but I went to a music and poetry festival and came home with a lot of web work and and article to write for a magazine. Then there was Thanksgiving, I got the flu, made a trip to see my family for Mom's 94th birthday, and Christmas. I finished a 4-year project of scanning family photographs and documents before my trip, and went shopping for presents.

Last month, I thought about New Years resolutions, and decided to devote the first hour or two each day to writing. I started that very morning. As I sat at the computer and wondered what to do, I remembered the song and my visual hook.

"Winnow away the stuff around the concept to get to the emotion." — Chuck Cannon

I didn't dig out the old version. I started fresh, writing a poem from the point of view of a neighbor watching the action unfold. When I had it mostly done, I went back to the original song, pulled out the chorus, changed it, and put it in the poem as a verse. And I sent it in a email to my co-writer. We both write songs and poems, so this might stay a poem or get turned into a song. Sometimes poems and songs tell you what they want to be, if you let them.

As soon as I hit the send button on the email, I thought of some images to use for the Mother's version. I wrote them down, and more images came to me. Before I knew it, I'd written another poem. And I had goosebumps.

I looked at the clock and realized I'd spent 2 hours writing pure inspiration, thinking only of the emotion and images that would support the emotion. Best two hours I've spent in a long time.

"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." — William Wordsworth

I put the poems away for a while, to see how I would react to them.

I took them out a few days later, and read them to a friend. He said they were both good, and powerful, and the mother's version gave him goosebumps and brought tears to his eyes. He thought it might possibly be the best poem I've written. Wow.

I double-checked the rhymes (no near rhymes for this poem) and worked on the meter using a new technique. I identified some other technical problems and worked on them, too. This poem deserves to be as well crafted as I can make it. And, I have to be careful to not lose the emotion when making the changes.

I sent it off to a friend for feedback. He doesn't pull any punches. He liked it. I used some of his comments to polish the poem, then took it back to my songwriters group and got their response. They said I hit it out of the ball park. They also made a suggestion which I followed. I got more feedback from friends, poets whose work I admire, and my co-writer. Again, I made changes: nothing major, but improvements. Finally, I read it to a group of poets, singers and songwriters. When I finished, there was a sound of collective gasps followed by words like "wow" and "powerful." Some listeners got tears in their eyes.

I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading it.

"What we see with our eyes isn't always right. Sometimes we need to see with our heart." — Karen Berg

So what point am I trying to make? Well, two of them, actually.

First, don't be afraid of criticism. Use it to help you create something better, more powerful, more effective. Think of your critics as members of your support team, who are trying to help you create the best work of art you can. Honestly, the best advice I got was when my songwriters group told me to throw it out and start over.

Second, craft is important, but not as important as the emotion you are trying to convey. Craft will help you refine your art, but it will not replace emotion. If your listeners can't relate emotionally to what you write or sing or read, the story won't matter.

"Go deep." — Ken Stabler

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