This week (chapters 10-11) Andrew’s getting into some real nuts-and-bolts writerly advice, which I suspect we’ve all been waiting for. Today we’ll focus on chapter 10, since there’s a built-in creative prompt in chapter 11 that’ll be perfect for Friday.
A song is like a spell. You learn to say it exactly right, inflect the words just so, play the thing at the perfect tempo, and then sometimes you’re truly wielding a mysterious power. The spell can then be repeated by others. You don’t even have to be there. By God’s grace, a good song can inject beauty into some unsuspecting passerby and lead them to the truth. At a concert you can see it happen: people holding still as statues, arrested by the chord progression, the musical hook, the unfolding of a story or idea, the slight modifications to each verse or chorus to keep their attention. Something as real as a tectonic shift may be happening in their magnificent souls, like the mechanism of a primal clock ticking closer and closer to the triumphant sounding of the bell in the tower, a revelation, a scattering of birds that gives them an apocalyptic glimpse of something more, something lofty and grand that reminds them how small they are, or perhaps something miniscule and profoundly intricate that reminds them of the grand mystery of their selfhood. The song is a tightrope, and the listener is inching along, enraptured by the hope and light raveling in the middle distance. Don’t, for goodness sake, distract them. Hold your breath. They’re lost in another world, peeking through the fur coats at the wintry glory of Lantern Waste. They’re holding still while a butterfly lights on an outstretched forearm. When that happens, the world falls away and you’re both a channel for and a recipient of grace.
That’s what it means to serve the work and to serve the listener. Proceed with utmost care. Whatever you do, don’t let their glasses fall off. Don’t break the spell.
“Write it like you would say it.”
I can’t tell you how many times over the years that maxim has snapped me out of whatever florid garbage I was writing. It’s a good idea to emulate your heroes, to ask yourself when you get to the bridge, “What would Paul Simon do?” Or when you’re writing a sermon, “What would Spurgeon do?” Or when you happen upon a guitar part which, miracle of miracles, sounds unique enough to try and build a song upon, to ask, “How does James Taylor get into a part like this?” Steal boldly, I say.
But most often, when I’m scribbling in a notebook the nonsense that I hope will become a not-unbearable song, when it’s late and I’m sleepy and I’m stuck, stuck, stuck, I remember those words: “Write it like you would say it.” It usually opens the door to the lyric I was looking for. It keeps me from putting on airs, which we’re all prone to do. People can spot a fake a mile away. It’s the difference between reading a speech from a podium and looking someone in the eye and telling them, “I love you.” It communicates to the listener that you’re not pulling any punches but you’re not blocking any either. “Trust me,” it says. “This might hurt, but if we make it out alive we’ll be better for it.”
Discussion: When you’re casting about for a hero to emulate, what is it about your their work that speaks to you? How can emulating them help you grow? How can it keep you from growing?
Come on over to the forum for more conversation—including how you would say it.