Thursday, November 7, 2013

Leap: Lords and Lessons in Editing

Last post, I mentioned the importance of letting your songs stew. Today's post is about the importance of editing and revising.

A couple of years ago during the holidays, I had a "brilliant" idea. Given my previously mentioned love of taking familiar songs and twisting, poking and reinterpreting them into new forms, starting on Christmas Day and for each of the following eleven days, I planned to write a song featuring the corresponding gift sung about in the classic carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." So, on Christmas, I would write about a partridge in a pear tree, the next day I would write about turtle doves, the next day French hens, etc., until I was writing about drummers drumming.

I don't know if you've ever tried to write a song a day for any extended period of time, but let me tell you, it's not easy--especially if the period of time overlaps Christmas, New Years, and all of the festivities in between and after. Anyway, with some struggle and delay, I got pretty much through the twelve days successfully (I might have dropped the geese a-laying...) and found myself with a handful of new songs.

Some of these songs were good. Some of them had good parts. Some of them were just good efforts. But I let all of them slip from the forefront of my mind as classes started up again. It wasn't until the following year when I was flipping through old works did it strike me that I actually kind of liked my song for the Tenth Day of Christmas--"Leaping Lords."

Or, I liked things about it. I liked the melodies, the choruses and the seed of the idea behind it. Other things, made me cringe. See, when you try to write a song based on "lords a-leaping", you tend to want to mention lords or how they leap even if it makes no sense to do so otherwise. My original first draft illustrated this beautifully. The first verse went like this:
First attempt at "Leap"...Utter nonsense.

Light swords and leaping lords
Mushrooms and magic doors
Go play so far away
Stardust and flooded dreams
Soak into reality and we hope
And we hope we are really seeing

Second attempt at "Leap"...Still kind of out there.
Yeah...I guess at the time I imagined these lords leaping into Alice's Wonderland or some alternate universe. I am happy to say that this wasn't the version I settled on during my holiday writing spree. No. That version looked more like this:

Go on and leap, my lord
This is as far as the world goes
So take a moment's break
Then plant your left foot and push
With all force over the darkness
And stretch into the land you hope is

As part of the project I guess it kind of worked. Kind of. As a song I would want to perform for regular people it didn't work at all. Who was I, the singer of this song? Who is "my lord" and what is trying to do? Where is he going? Why? I think while I was writing this version, I had Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in my head. The lord was like Lord Asriel, and I was...his assistant, I guess. Whatever the logic, it felt too much like being dumped into a story with nothing to hang onto.

I still liked the choruses though. And I liked the re-write's second verse. From these, I came to the conclusion that this song was not about jumping through holes in the universe, but about jumping from the comfortable world that we know to the mysterious world of the way things could be given enough courage. Additionally, I decided to drop all the things about "my lord"--it was no longer Christmas and who needs unnecessary constraints?

With the new freedom and sense of direction, I was able to shape a first verse and streamline the rest of the song. After lots of prodding, rearranging and thinking (TANGENT! I highly recommend thinking in the shower--your circulation is great, the acoustics are as wet as the tub you're standing in, and no one's there to judge your *shower safe* happy dance when inspiration strikes), this is what I had (the production came later):

By Rachel Oto

Stories are how we know
This is as far as the world goes
Let’s make a grand escape
Let’s plant our left feet and push with
All force over the darkness
Step into the land we hope is

Beyond the rules
Beyond the rules they lay
Nothing like fools
Nothing like fools
To push the boundaries
And sing as they go

They’re standing at the brink we’re
Further than the world thinks exists
Oh, I insist we are
Out of their earthly reach
Here comes eternity
And all we've dreamed and all we've seen by

Breaking the rules
Breaking the rules they lay
I’ll be a fool
I’ll be a fool
And push the boundaries

Oh, how they fear the leap
Between the warmth of safety
And the sting of maybe, yeah
Oh, how they fear the deep
Dark abyss that keeps you and me
Far from everything they seem to see

Stories are how we know
Stories are how we know
Stories are how we know

Stories are all they know

Amazingly, throughout the entire writing process, the choruses changed very little. The tricky part was figuring out how to support them. Songs are very much like essays. Choruses tend to be like thesis statements (there are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking this is the case) and thus verses, at least in my head, are like the pieces of evidence supporting the chorus.

But, just like when you write an essay, though you may know where you want to go, sometimes it's not clear what words you need to say to get there. You might get lucky, find a flow and simply follow it to your destination, but more likely, you will find it necessary to stop, go back, revise and rewrite, at which point the key becomes not getting discouraged. Making revisions does not mean that you are stupid or incapable of writing. We must remember that writing is a process. Each layer of edits is like a wave wearing down a rock, slowly exposing the gold within.

Thanks for reading and/or listening! Next song coming Tuesday. In the meantime, get excited and...

Be bold.


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