Bramble Patch: More Wisdom in Songwriting



“The truth is like a rabbit in a patch of brambles. You can’t get your hands on it.
All you do is walk around and point your finger and say, “It’s somewhere in there.”

– Pete Seeger

Welcome to another installation of American songwriterBramble Patch, our ongoing series designed to share true wisdom about the art, craft and songwriting process. As in Pete Seeger’s explanation above, the truth about songwriting isn’t definitive. But if you turn around without getting your hands on it, you can gain a lot of wisdom from those who did.

There is a lot of wisdom relevant to songwriting offered by many great writers and poets over the years. Today’s features Ernest Hemingway, who has not subscribed to the use of unnecessarily flowery Hisquipedian prose for his fiction when simpler words have a more direct impact.*

He also used this approach in his advice: “First drafts are always crap,” he said, and then he explained this truth brilliantly. All of this applies directly to songwriting.

Also included are authors Elmore Leonard, Rachel Carson, Eecummings Poets, William Blake, Seamus Heaney and composer Aaron Copland.

Ernest Hemingway

ERNEST HEMINGWAY:: You have to work on it. The first draft of anything is crap. When you start to write you get all the bang and the reader doesn’t, but after you learn how to work your goal is to convey everything to the reader so that they remember it not as a story that he had read, but about something that happened to him. . This is the real test of writing. When you can do that the reader gets the kick out and you don’t get it.

RACHEL CARSON: Considering the initial talent… writing is largely a matter of application and hard work, of writing and rewriting over and over again, until you are convinced that you have said what you want to say so clearly and simply as possible. To me that usually means lots and lots of revisions.

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

AARON COPLAND: I used to harbor a secret sense of pity for poets… trying to make music with nothing but words at their disposal… words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones… I gradually understood that beyond the music of the two arts, there is an essence that connects them – an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from a source common.

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

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: If a man writes clearly enough, anyone can see if he’s faking it. If he mystifies to avoid a direct statement, which is very different from breaking the so-called rules of syntax or grammar to have an effect that cannot be achieved in any other way, the writer takes longer to to be known as a forgery and other writers afflicted with the same necessity will praise it in their own defense.

SEAMUS HEANEY:…Unless this subterranean level of self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your constitution, you risk settling into the profile that the world is preparing for you and accepting the profile that the world offers you. You run the risk of molding yourself according to 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 time can you capture the musical experience and retain it. Unlike that moment in a film where a still shot suddenly immobilizes an entire scene, a single immobilized musical moment only makes audible a single chord, which in itself is relatively meaningless. This endless stream of music forces let us use our imagination, because the music is in perpetual becoming.

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

RACHEL CARSON: If you write down what you sincerely think and feel and what interests you, you will be of interest to other people.

Rachel Carson

SEAMUS HEANEY: The true and lasting path to and through experience involves being true to the real facts of your life. True to your own loneliness, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is this intimate and deeply personal knowledge that most vitally connects us and keeps us connected to each other in the most reliable way.

No one can build for you the bridge over which you, and you alone, must cross the river of life.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: If a prose writer knows enough about what he writes, he can omit things he does know, and the reader, if the writer really writes enough really, will feel these things as strongly as if the writer. had set out. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to the fact that only one eighth of it is above the water. A writer who leaves things out because he does not know them only leaves hollows in his writing.

EE CUMMING: To be no one other than yourself – in a world that tries its best, night and day, to make you everyone – means fighting the toughest battle any human being can fight.

AARON COPLAND: The poetry of music… is the largest part of our emotional life – the part that sung.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he wants to make people see that he is formally educated, cultured or well brought up is nothing but a popinjay. A serious writer may be a hawk or a hawk or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.

EE CUMMING: As for expressing no one other than yourself in words, that means working a little harder than anyone who isn’t a poet can imagine. Why? Because nothing is as easy as using words like someone else. We all do just that almost all the time – and every time we do it, we are not poets.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: As a writer you shouldn’t be judging. You should understand.

WILLIAM BLAKE: The tree that moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way … Such is man, 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 – his teamedalian – in his book The songwriter incomplete.

It means using too many long and complex words. He gave us an example of its use, which is a bit of an inverted Hemingway, to say that using long words is confusing:

Sesquipedalian terminology obscures rumination. ”

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



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