Bramble Patch: More Songwriting Wisdom

“The truth is like a rabbit in a bramble patch. You can’t lay your hand on it.
All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”

– Pete Seeger

Welcome to another installation of American Songwriter’s  Bramble Patch, our ongoing series designed to share real wisdom about the art, craft and process of songwriting. As in Pete Seeger’s explanation above, the truth about songwriting isn’t definitive. But if you circle around it, without laying a hand on it, you can gain a lot of wisdom from those who have done it.

There’s much wisdom relevant to songwriting offered from many great authors and poets through the years. Today’s features Ernest Hemingway, who famously didn’t subscribe to the use of unnecessarily florid, sesquipedalian prose for his fiction when simpler words make a more direct impact.*

He used that approach in his advice, as well: “First drafts are always shit,” he said, and then expounded brilliantly on that truth. All of which applies directly to songwriting.

Also included are authors Elmore Leonard, Rachel Carson, poets e.e.cummings, William Blake, Seamus Heaney, and composer Aaron Copland.  

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Ernest Hemingway

You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any.

RACHEL CARSON: Given the initial talent … writing is largely a matter of application and hard work, of writing and rewriting endlessly, until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible. For me, that usually means many, many revisions.

WILLIAM BLAKE: The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.

AARON COPLAND: I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets… trying to make music with nothing but words at their command… words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones…I came gradually to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them — an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source.

ELMORE LEONARD: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: If a man writes clearly enough,  any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. 

SEAMUS HEANEY: …unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.

American composer Aaron Copland. (Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images)
Aaron Copland

AARON COPLAND:: At no point can you seize the musical experience and hold it. Unlike that moment in a film when a still shot suddenly immobilizes a complete scene, a single musical moment immobilized makes audible only one chord, which in itself is comparatively meaningless. This never-ending flow of music forces us to use our imaginations, for music is in a continual state of becoming.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. 

RACHEL CARSON: If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, you will interest other people.

Rachel Carson

SEAMUS HEANEY: The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another.

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY:  If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. 

E.E. CUMMINGS: To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.

AARON COPLAND:The poetry of music… signifies the largest part of our emotive life — the part that sings.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured or well-bred is merely a popinjay. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.

E.E. CUMMINGS:  As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

WILLIAM BLAKE: The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.

*Thanks to Pete Seeger, who in addition to giving us this title for our series on wisdom, also taught us this funny word – sesquipedalian – in his book The Incompleat Songwriter.

It means the use of too many long, complex words. He gave us an example of its use, which is somewhat of a reverse Hemingway, to say that use of long words is confusing:

Sesquipedalian terminology obfuscates the rumination.”

“America’s Tuning Fork,” the anti-sesquipedalian Pete Seeger

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