Guest Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: On Sondheim and Whether Lyrics Are Poetry

Joy Lanzendorfer bio pictureEvery so often, I like to listen to Stephen Sondheim’s thoughts on writing. This isn’t because I want to write musicals. And while some people may herald Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as the long overdue blurring of songwriting and literature, I’m not one of them. As much as I like Dylan, I don’t believe a songwriter is also a poet. In fact, one reason I seek out Sondheim’s thoughts on language is because lyric writing is different enough from what I do to make his observations feel fresh.

For example, in one interview, Sondheim said that “words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher.” It’s true! Rhyming differently spelled words adds extra interest to the lines. What does that suggest, other than we’re unconsciously spelling words while we’re listening to certain kinds of language? That makes me, a prose writer, wonder about my own work, and how the spelling of words can subvert a reader’s expectations.

Sondheim is an excellent wordsmith. His songs are full of intelligent, character-driven storytelling that illuminate larger issues, whether it’s female misogyny in Ladies Who Lunch, the creative process in Finishing the Hat, or the pre-wedding freak-out in Getting Married Today. His songs are sharp, funny, and self-contained. They just aren’t poetry.

Sondheim would agree with me on that. Unlike the Nobel Prize committee, he doesn’t consider poetry and lyrics to be the same. Because of the richness of music, he says, lyrics must be economical and spare. Complex ideas are pared down to simpler language so that the audience can follow along.

“That’s why poets generally make poor lyric writers,” he said. “Not always, but generally they do, because the language is too rich. … I firmly believe that lyrics have to breathe and give the audience’s ear a chance to understand what’s going on. Particularly in the theater, where you not only have the music, but you’ve got costume, story, acting, orchestra. There’s a lot to take in. The whole idea of poetry is denseness, is concision, is abutment of images, and that sort of thing. You can’t do that when you’ve got music going, and expect the audience to take it in.”

When people equate lyric writing with poetry, they’re often trying to express how meaningful they found a song. The word “poetry” is associated with depth, so to call something poetic is to say it’s beautiful, eloquent, or profound. Thus, songwriters who are adept at language are called poets despite the fact that they aren’t actually writing poetry.

But to say that lyrics and poetry are the same is to discount the role music plays in a song. Song lyrics, no matter how lovely, are meant to work with music. When you separate one from the other, you’re getting only part of a whole. On the other hand, a poem, as poet Paul Muldoon said, “brings its own music with it.”

Perhaps the solution isn’t to give songwriters prizes meant for writers, but to acknowledge the skill and eloquence that goes into writing a successful song. In one interview, Sondheim said it took him seven-and-a-half hours to come up with the line, If I must leave tomorrow / One thing before I go / You’ve made me see the passion of love / And I thought you should know. He added that he wouldn’t recommend lyric writing to anyone.

“It’s very difficult work,” he said in another interview. “And it’s not often rewarding work because I find that I almost make it, almost make it, if only there were a two-syllable work that began with a “B”, it would be a perfect line. And you can’t find it, and it’s very frustrating.”

Whether you’re a musician or a writer, if you’ve ever agonized to find the exact word, you know what he means.

Guest Blog Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: Stuck

joy lanzendorferLately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?

This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?

The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.

I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?

Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.

George Saunders recently told The New Yorker:

Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.

This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.

And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.

And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.