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 Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: On Eugene O’Neill’s Love Of Silence

Joy LanzendorferI’m standing in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s office when the tour guide says he wants to show us how quiet the room can get. “For the next 60 seconds, no one say anything,” he says. “Just listen.”

The silence is indeed engulfing. Out the window I can see the freeway across the California hills, but I can’t even hear a bird singing. When O’Neill built this house in 1937—now part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site—his office was designed for quiet. To even enter it, you have to walk through two empty rooms first. The house is located on top of a mountain that at the time was only accessible by private road. O’Neill was not exactly a people person.

I’m relieved when the tour guide begins talking again. Being in this room for too long would make me nervous. Like many people who grew up immersed in technology, I’m uncomfortable with silence. For years, I’ve struggled with the fact that writing requires concentration, patience, and contemplation, things that work best in a quiet room. This office, with the plays written in it—most notably Long Day’s Journey Into The Night—can attest to that fact easily enough.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of O’Neill’s death. Today it’s easy to forget how he revolutionized American theater in the early 20th century. Before him, theater was all melodrama and vaudeville. O’Neill presented the first American tragedies, plays with realistic characters dealing with social issues and grappling with forces beyond their control. His work sobered the American theater in the 1920s, a decade not without similarities to today’s obsession with celebrity and money. He challenged the theater of his day to grow up, and over time, it did.

Even his furniture indicates a devotion to focus and work. The office has two large oak desks, each designated for a different work-in-progress. O’Neill would sit between the desks so that if he got stuck on one play, he could swing around to work on the other. When he moved to this house, he planned to write an 11-play cycle that would follow an American family through 175 years of history. He had the plays mapped out and had even written some drafts when he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hand that made it difficult to put pen to paper. Soon it became clear that O’Neill was losing his ability to write.

When he realized he was running out of time, O’Neill abruptly abandoned the 11-play project and turned his attention to a different subject: his past. In this house, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, about his dissipated youth, A Moon for the Misbegotten, about his alcoholic brother, and Long Day’s Journey into the Night, based on his dysfunctional childhood. The play follows the Tyrone family through a day in the life, exploring issues of alcoholism, illness, and cruelty against the ominous background of the mother’s morphine addiction. It’s a remarkable play, laying equal blame and forgiveness on all the Tyrones, including Edmund, O’Neill’s stand-in for himself.

The tour guide shows us a Xeroxed page from one of O’Neill’s drafts. It’s a testament to determination: hundreds of tiny words are jammed on the page, the lines of each letter crooked from a shaking hand. It would take a magnifying glass to decipher it all. There was emotional toll in writing this highly personal work, too. Carlotta, O’Neill’s wife, said of that period, “He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”

For the last decade of his life, O’Neill was unable to write. His mind was sharp, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. For a man who built everything, even his house, around writing, this must have been devastating.

As the shuttle takes me away from the park, I find myself envying O’Neill’s focus and creative confidence. He said in an interview in 1930: “The playwright must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it–the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new [answer] for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort one’s fears of death.” This is surely the root of O’Neill’s monastic creative life: he had a spiritual seriousness toward art that feels refreshing to me, a writer working today, as it was when it was new.

And I’m sobered too. While I have been conditioned to distrust and avoid silence, O’Neill sought it out at all costs. It provided the peace that allowed him to work despite health problems, mental illness, and alcoholism. Most strikingly, it was silence that helped him push the last plays out before he was forced to stop writing altogether. Compared to that, my difficulty focusing seems childish by comparison. The truth is, it’s too easy to blame my perpetual distraction on technology. It’s simply more comfortable to flail along the surface of ideas with a lot of noise to distract me than it is to summon the rigor necessary to take on issues like the ones O’Neill was talking about. And what, I think as the gate of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site closes behind me, would be different for me as a writer if I learned to love silence the way O’Neill did?

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.