Songwriting Tips: Build a Backstory
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: I love this, because I’m also an actor, I love the fact that you are a fan of the Actor’s studio. I think that the amount of work that goes into creating a character for a play or for a film, even for one line in a television show, requires pages and pages and pages and pages of writing backstory for this person so that one line can come out naturally and in an informed way. It seems that writing a song would be similar in that way in that you probably have to write pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of just getting to the point or just getting the story out. Is that true? I mean it doesn’t just come out all in one page.
Gretchen: No, or at least it rarely does. I have a couple thoughts about that. I’ve been reading a wonderful book: ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo and I read the Leonard Cohen entry just recently. He has, in fact, notebooks of verses on one song sometimes. He does an incredible amount of work. I have some songs, of late I’ve been going back and coalescing my worksheets on songs, and I came across the worksheets for some songs. One song that I had written years ago I had at least twenty-five pages written on that song. And part of this is sort of you’re telling yourself the story and it’s becoming real as you tell it. There’s a point for me oftentimes in the writing process when I have been in this phase of coalescing ideas for the song. I almost feel like I’m transcribing rather than writing and then there comes a point where the story becomes sort of apparent to me and I will oftentimes need to go and just write prose about the story. Just to sort of solidify in my mind, ‘Ok here’s what’s happening and here’s what the characters feel and what they have done and what their lives were like and who they are.’ The background and all of that sort of stuff and that’s exactly what you’re talking about. That’s why I think people think that actor’s just show up and they happen to be really good at sort of making believe but really they have to do more than that. They have to inhabit the character and in order to do that they need to know all sorts of things about them. It’s much the same process. I have definitely written scores and scores of verses and sometimes just prose about a backstory just to make that scenario and characters real to me. When I say this, this is not something that you do that is forced, to where you’re thinking, ‘Well, let’s see, I need to figure out where this person grew up, whether they went to elementary school, so I’ll just….” It’s not a forced, an arbitrary kind of thing, it’s something that’s informed from, back to the intuition, from your intuitive knowledge from the character. It’s a detail that when you hit on it you know it’s right. Something in your body almost says, ‘Yep, I see who that person is”. Maybe he stole a car when he was 18 years old and he went to jail for a short time. It’s that kind of detail where you just go, ‘That’s who that person is.” That informs the way they are, they informs everything they do from that point on. But it’s not a forced kind of issue. None of these things are. The editing process is much more beating your head against the wall kind of thing but all of the stuff that we’ve been talking about is really very much fluid and flowing and if it’s not you need to back off and get away from it for a while because that’s really important to keep that flow going.
Viv: Do you ever find other songs or the beginnings of other songs in the, say, twenty-five pages of worksheets that you have for a song that’s completed?
Gretchen: Oftentimes. I think part of this is because writers tend to pick at old wounds. They tend to have themes that they go back to over and over again. So what I will find oftentimes is there’ll be the beginning of a new song kind of in the germ of the idea of the old one. Because there are certain themes that I seem to gravitate towards all the time, there might be a line or an idea that doesn’t fit. As I said before, you have to kill your darlings, but that I love and that might spark a new song on the same theme possibly. That’s often the case. And, of course, having said that, ideas come from everywhere and you shouldn’t be shut down any possibility. That’s one of the prime things about being a writer. And it’s one of the most difficult things which is staying open. Staying open to the universe. Keeping your heart open. Keeping your ears open. Because these creative impulses come from anywhere and at any given time and you can’t control when and where they’re coming and 90% of the art of capturing this lightning in a jar is just being open to it. That’s not an easy thing to do in this world, but it’s essential if you’re going to write.
Hi, I’m enjoying this discussion so much. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.
Gretchen: Thanks, Katie.
Katie: Thank you. When you were talking about creativity or intuition, did you have any specific ways that you might suggest on building the intuition? Is there anything external or any ways we can build it? Or is it just something that you just have to trust it as your confidence grows, that kind of thing?
Gretchen: Well I think it’s both. I think your confidence and your own intuition does grow the more you use it. It’s like any other muscle, really. You have to use it. But I think that there are people who are so afraid of trusting it that they tend to sort of lock themselves down before they even give themselves a chance and I think that some of the things that can help if that’s one of the problems that you’re having is making what I would call a ‘safe place’ for it. And by place I mean a time and a place actually. One of the best things you can do is remove expectations. Go into your writing place and say, for one hour, or fifteen minutes even, I’m going to free associate and there are no expectations. I’m not going to come out of here with a song. I’m not going to come out of here with anything. I’m going to free associate. I’m just going to write things on a page and I’m not trying to make anything. That can be an incredibly powerful exercise because you remove those expectations and therefore you remove the fear. The fear is really based in our sense that we have to accomplish or create something. The fear is all performance-based really. If you remove that, and do it as a daily exercise, you can really really strengthen your belief in your intuition because what’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with some stuff that you don’t even know where it came from. Some really, really creative and interesting stuff because you don’t have those expectations and you’re not sort of standing over yourself with your whip saying, ‘I will write a song’. You’re just free-associating. It’ll be gobbledygook some of the time but I’ll bet you anything that there will be some real creative and wonderful ideas that come out of that if you do it as an exercise and you’ll start to realize, ‘I have these ideas, I don’t know where they come from, but they’re there and I’m going to trust in that”.
Katie: Great, thank you!
Gretchen: You’re welcome!
Viv: I think that’s one of things is, is when we’re sort of diving deep and shaking and allowing ourselves to be taken over by the muse or whatever, it’s learning to trust that the intuition is good and right.
Gretchen: Absolutely, and it’s like I said, it’s not something that we’re really encouraged in our schooling or anything so I think we really have to sort of take charge where that’s concerned.
Viv: Well this has just been a wonderful hour. Gretchen, is there anything that you’d like to leave us with as a parting thought?
Gretchen: Well I guess I always feel like it’s reassuring for writers to know that all the other writers in the world feel like they don’t know what they’re doing too. I just want to reemphasize the fact that there’s nobody standing high on a mountain. Perhaps Leonard Cohen. But I don’t even think he’d say so. There’s no one standing high on a mountain handing down the wisdom from a position of always being able to do it right and always being able to do it perfectly. So just keep that in your mind because it’s really important to know that we’re all in the same river. Just some of us a little further downstream than others.
Viv: Thank you so much.
Gretchen: You are so welcome. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.