Writer and singer-songwriter Sarah Pinsker blogs about the different instruments of her craft.
There’s a bird nesting in the holly outside my window that sings “start again, start again” at me all day long. It’s disconcerting. I prefer the others, the one who repeats “cheeseburger” or the one who says “birdie.” I don’t know anything about birds, so I have to take them seriously. Start again, and birdie, and possibly cheeseburger. What kind of bird says “start again” anyway? And while they do have nice voices, what do birds know about songwriting?
For starters, birds know that you have to play the song you know before you can write a new one. When I write fiction, I sit down in front of a blank computer screen. The blank page is agony, but it isn’t there for long. It’s me against the blank page. All I need is an idea, or the idea of an idea, and I know I’ll get there eventually.
To write a song, I have to attack multiple fronts at once: lyrics, chord progression, rhythm, melody. There’s no such thing as starting with a blank page in songwriting. Before I can write anything new, my hands form chords they already know. There is no rhythm that I can invent that hasn’t been played before. Chord progressions can be reduced to numbers, proving that what I’ve come up with not only isn’t new, it’s formulaic. It has to be formulaic. As listeners, we crave certain patterns and resolutions. So I pick up the guitar, but before I can write anything new I have to play something familiar.
The only thing that I have to offer music is me. The thing that I can write that will be original is my own combination of the elements mentioned above. The trick is to have the patience to get past all the old songs to where the new ones are waiting. I have to play the things my hands want to play before I can look for the new things hidden between the familiar ones: the inversions, the syncopations, the unique chord phrasings and, of course, the lyrics.
Leonard Cohen has also heard the “start again” bird if his song Anthem is to be believed. He has spoken very eloquently about the different tempos of poetry and songs and how that internal tempo dictates whether a work becomes a poem or a song. I think it’s the same for fiction and songwriting. Most ideas naturally want to be one or the other. I consider myself lucky to have multiple options. Some ideas won’t bear up under the weight of a story while others are too complex to convey in a song. My recent story “Broken Stones” never had any interest in being a song. My story “Smashing Bottles” started with some kids breaking glass in my old West Baltimore neighborhood. I began building a song around the lines “sometimes I’m the bottle/sometimes I’m the hand,” but I quickly realized that as a song it was going to either wind up preachy or maudlin. Those lines made it into the story, but the narrator had more space to earn them.
Looking at it from the other side, I have a song called “Waterwings” that will be on my new album. It’s a story about a Victorian couple who took a rowboat out on a lake and ended up at sea and beset by all kinds of trouble. It’s essentially a short story in song form, but the truth is it would be absolutely ridiculous as a piece of fiction. I would need to explain how they got to sea when that doesn’t really matter. I would have to describe the things they encounter when those things are better left undescribed. The mood and the moment and their reactions to adversity are what matter.
Sometimes when songwriters need to break through a rut, we rewire our brains by picking up an instrument that isn’t our primary writing tool. If you play guitar, you’ll find a banjo or a piano invites different voicings and different progressions. For me, fiction writing is the different instrument. I love the freedom of words without the strictures of meter and verse. After writing in a confined space, I enjoy letting my fingers fly. Then the bird outside my window says “start again!” and I wonder what kind of bird is stuck with that as a catchphrase and whether it wants to be a story or a song.
Sarah Pinsker is a singer/songwriter based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her fiction has been published in the Emprise Review, Every Day Fiction, and the City Paper among others. She has released two solo albums (Charmed and Wingspan) and This is Your Signal with her band, The Stalking Horses, on various indie labels. All three albums are available on iTunes and at CDBaby. A fourth album is due out later in 2012. Her website at www.sarahpinsker.com is in a sorry state of disrepair but you can visit it anyway; otherwise, like her page at www.facebook.com/sarahpinsker to get the word on new stories, new songs and more.