Friday, June 8, 2012

Flowers, Witches

Kill your darlings. ~ Annie Dillard

I was extraordinarily patient with this one. Fifty-one days of bad rhymes in ¾ time, fifty-one nights of alphabets dancing in my head. And twenty-eight days to finally process the whole thing into this write-up. I had the chords and melody for a long time before the words, which is unusual for me. At one point I was sitting in the customer lounge at a Ford dealership, waiting for a repair, and writing verses in time about how hard this song was to write. That did actually yield a seedling of something that ended up in the song, but it is probably unrecognizable by now.

On March 22, coming down off the high of Don’t Wait Til Sunday, I scribbled a note: “When my dinosaur body returns to the earth, I wanna be flowers and not fossil fuels.” For both artistic and scientific reasons, this did not make it past Day 10 of writing this song. But it got me to Day 11, and so on, and so forth.

Author Annie Dillard suggests that a good writer must learn to “kill her darlings,” meaning that some good writing (not to mention a lot of bad writing) gets in the way of other good writing. If you are not willing to cut something—even something good—you cannot move on, and you find yourself at an impasse.

This song is about the place where pacifists are buried (if there is such a place), but unfortunately I had to wage an all-out war on my “darlings” during the writing process. Many great lyrics were casualties of this war. I haven’t shredded all those pieces of notebook paper yet, but I managed to hide them away when I knew they were not going to end up in the song. Still, every bit gets me closer to every other little bit.

My Jimmy Webb songwriting book taught me that, “There is no crossed-out, blotted word on paper or half-croaked note or stumbling, tripping step toward the songwriter’s goal that is unseemly or shameful.” Jimmy recommends that when one is having difficulty crafting an effective lyric, isolating the song idea by writing a sincere letter to it can lead to a breakthrough. Dear Song 9, I wrote on April 19, I have been extraordinarily patient with you. I went on to ask the song what it was about besides pacifism, or beyond pacifism, or within pacifism. It had to be about something bigger or something smaller. I asked the song what my real issue with it was. Courage? Focus?

It turns out it is about something larger—stating one’s position unequivocally in the face of enormous opposition—but it had to be framed in terms of something much more specific. A forest grave. An unceremonious burial. An earthy dirge.

I recently moved from Washington, DC to Colorado, and while the move probably delayed the development of the song, the ubiquitous evergreen trees here pushing their way through the rocky ground is what ultimately brought the song together.

I imagine someday I could be escorted out of a room for saying some of these things, but I will choose my open mics carefully. Also, all of that is in the song: how painful that it, but also why that makes these things so important to say.

“Flowers” kept kicking around, changing in context quite a bit, but I clung to the idea of the beauty and fragility of flowers, and of peace itself. The hardest words came last. In comparing myself to others who may have an unceremonious or secret burial I had to get closer and closer to what was excruciating about writing this song. “Witches” was the final word that came and that day the song was finished.

What Glory is This

In our high school pictures we all look the same
And we were so sure we knew who to blame
Now we are flowers, we open and close
We’re risking our lives here, but nobody knows

Chorus: Bury me next to the sad punks and sailors, next to the mad monks and jailers, out beyond witches and whalers, under an evergreen tree.

We’ll find a good place for peacemakers unknown
We’ll do without caskets, the wreath and the stone
There’s no celebration, no cross in the ground
We’re buried in silence, no trumpets resound


I walk to the forest and I sing this hymn, I steady my path with a fallen tree limb
When makers of battles find out what I think, they’ll mark my grave with indelible ink
They’ll make of this place a new war—what glory is this?

So I give thanks for near misses and I fly my flag, but no son of mine will wear a dog tag
He’ll plant and he’ll weed and he’ll rake—what glory is this!

No comments:

Post a Comment