“Your responsibility is to tell the truth.”
Rosanne had said this more than once and it really struck me because of a problem with the song I’d chosen to play for the group. I had rewritten How Long ‘Til It’s Over so many times that it had little to do with its original subject: my frustration and sadness over a friend’s mental illness. I wanted to know if it was wrong to abandon the original subject and the feeling tone that inspired it. I suspected the song was now dishonest whereas in its original state it was just too painful. I also wondered if there was too little “furniture” in it, as Rosanne put it, things like the empty coffee cup, the flowers that were stepped on as he walked out the door, the scratch of her wool sweater. On the other hand I knew the song had potential with its memorable hook and singable chorus.
Rosanne’s Essence of Songwriting class in 2000. John Leventhal took this. Some of the people in the photo, from left to right: me, Barney Miller, Anne Carley, Denise Moser, Bob Dawson, Patty Ocfemia, Mimi Cross, Rosanne Cash, Barbara Blaisdell, Suzanne Jackson Henry, Steve Kunzman and Reisa Conde.
When my turn came my heart raced, my voice fled and I was unable to tear my eyes away from the fingerboard of my guitar!
No one questioned the song’s subject or meaning, but Rosanne pointed out a soft rhyme and a phrase in the first verse that tended toward cliché. She suggested deleting the bridge altogether, not because it was bad but because it was unnecessary. The practical function of a bridge is to build tension in the song so that the chorus following it provides an emotional payoff. Rosanne suggested that when the first verse reprised at the end, I cut it in half and go directly to the final chorus. It would have the same function as a bridge (or a pre-chorus) plus I could save some better lines from the unnecessary bridge and use them to replace the weaker lines in the first verse.
Violà, problems solved. I explained how I had rewritten it many times and asked if it was wrong to abandon the original feeling tone and subject. No, said Rosanne, think of this song as a gift from your friend. Violà, no guilt.
“The feeling tone releases the material.”
In one of several copies of articles Rosanne handed out to us, author V.S. Naipaul is quoted: “There was a moment, almost an hour in which I began to be a writer. Somehow I found the right tone, and the tone released the material, and it all came together, and I could see my way clear.” Finding the right feeling tone might be a way to end a dry period or to dislodge a block, and a way to do that is to mine dreams for material.
When we finished going through each person’s songs we began a free association writing exercise to do just that. Rosanne’s letter had also asked us to jot down a few dreams. The exercise wasn’t going to focus on events or feelings but on a significant object that appeared in the dream: a building, a piece of clothing, an animal, etc. We wrote our objects down on blank paper and quickly wrote words and phrases without stopping, referring to the object whenever we got stuck. “Just write!” Rosanne said, “Keep writing until you reach a point where you feel ‘Ah-ha!’ Don’t think. Just write.”
Each person described their dream image and their “Ah-ha” moment. Mine was a wedding veil that seemed to be turned inside out, and my “Ah-ha” was in realizing that the veil was not inside out, it was falling away from me. I began to cry as I described it, great wracking, heaving, snorting, noisy sobs — quite embarrasing. I hated doing this but Rosanne said, “It makes us love you more.” Violà, no armor.
I wasn’t the only songwriter to discover emotionally charged territory during this exercise. Before we ended for the day, Rosanne made certain that no one left the room overly distraught. “It’s no wonder this business has it’s share of drug addicts and alcoholics, artists who lose themselves and can’t come back,” she said. “Pat Pattison, poetry and lyric writing teacher at Berklee College of Music, has said that our job as writers is to go where the images are, get one, and show it to our listeners.” Rosanne continued, “But we need to be able to come back safely from frightening or sad territory because, as the Buddhists say, our hearts break a little more with each step along the path.”
Our homework that night was to write at least two verses and a chorus from our dream exercise. I was eager to discover my song. While I was walking back to my room a rhythmic and melodic phrase came to me, giving me something to work from. I used that and several phrases from the free association, completing my dream song, Here Comes the Bride, in about four hours. More than half of that time was spent doggedly searching for it both lyrically and musically, finding the right tone and staying with it. When I played it for the group the following day some people were moved to tears. Rosanne said, “you’ve been given a kind of miracle.” That’s how I felt, too.
The songs that we wrote from our dreams were amazing! Stunning, scary, funny, stark and tender, some staying close to the free association images, others veering off in new directions.
Listen to Here Comes the Bride
Go to Part 3
© Patti Witten