Anne Lamott’s Inadvertent Songwriting Advice

Let me dump a quote on you and let’s hope it benefits your writing. Anne Lamott says I should tell you a story, but I’m going to ignore her for this post.

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In Operating Instructions, Lamott talks about her father, who was a writer.

I think he believed that our job, that of a writer, is not to get up and say, “Tomorrow, in battle, most of you will die…” Instead, a writer must entertain the troops the night before. I think he believed that the best way to entertain the troops is to tell stories, and the ones that they seem to like the best are the ones about themselves. (page 47)

There you go.

Takeaway point: songwriting should involve stories. So go tell a story and don’t just spew information like I’ve done here.

Acronym To Help Your Writing

The following is an acronym that came to me after reading William Zinsser’s very helpful book, On Writing Well. It helps me when I edit my writing — I read my article, blog post, paper, etc. and go through each letter. (I realize this may not work with poetry. That’s its own game).

V.A.A.N.S.

Verbs

Use active verbs and the active voice. Avoid the passive voice (ex. “the door was shut” in contrast with “I shut the door.” The latter gives a much stronger, clearer image).

Adverbs

Many writers use these as decoration and it bugs me. Many times they’re not needed, because there is often a verb that will do the job of both the verb and the adverb (ex. “he sheepishly cowered into the corner” — “sheepishly” is not needed, “cowered” does just fine on its own).

Adjectives

These, also, are often used as decoration. Try to use adjectives only where they’re needed, and use them correctly.

Nouns

Find strong ones. Don’t use “ones.”

Syllables

I try to keep my words at four syllables or fewer unless a longer word is fitting and necessary. More than four is when the brain gets bored.

Write simply, with thought and creativity. Don’t decorate.

Writing Is A Monster

Here’s what I know about writing. It’s a monster.

Every time I sit down at my computer or with my notebook, I enter a battle, a wrestling match against this beast called writing. My sentences are the ropes that I throw to tie this thing down, to lasso it under my control. But far too often I make strings, not ropes, of my sentences — weak strings that fray and snap at the slightest sign of tension. A weak string of words can’t contain a beast, only a strong, active, alive, yet simple rope can make progress in the fight.

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The monster’s best defense, I have found, is my indifference. When that white page stands there, about to swallow me up, and the cursor is blinking at me with malice, I lose the passion to battle. When my writing chair finally becomes comfortable and I’m ready to write, I begin to think of the car and how it’s leaking, the laundry and how I’m out of socks, and how my to-do list gets longer every day.

When 250 seems like such a big number and way too many words to write in one sitting, I imagine myself throwing a hefty rope around the neck of the beast and pulling it to the ground in victory. I imagine myself actually being happy with what I’ve done and not seeing how much left I have in the battle.

I imagine myself meeting my own expectations, not making a single mistake in grammar, character, imagery, voice, tone, or all the rest. I, in this dream, have conquered writing. I’ve taken the beast alive.

That’s when I can begin.

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The Gap

My writing stinks – stinks like garbage sometimes. I’m embarrassed by it.

It’s like when I started playing the guitar — I was really bad. I could see where I wanted to be, what I wanted to be playing. And where I wasn’t was more visible than where I was.

I knew that if I kept playing chords and songs that I would inch my way toward my goal of playing like Nick Drake or Kings of Convenience. And in the same way, I know that if I keep writing, even small amounts every day, I’ll get better. I’ll need to endure the writing calluses.

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This is the gap, the void between where I want my work to be and where it actually is. But this gap is good, it’s great. It gives a reason for improvement. If there’s no gap, there’s no need to find a way to cross it.

I think the closer I get to the other side — where I want my work to be — the more it will evade me. Because my goals will keep changing and getting bigger and harder to achieve.

It’s an unattainable goal.

This is how people get better at their craft – by having giant expectations of their work and trying to make their work meet those expectations.

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“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going to take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass