Sunday, March 6, 2011

Don't Forget the Lyrics

Music is my poetry. Some people have Frost and Browning—I have Foreigner and Bon Jovi. For decades, I’ve turned to songs by my favorite singers to give me inspiration, understanding and sometimes even guidance as I’ve faced situations new to me but, perhaps, old hat to the musicians. I was recently on a Dennis DeYoung (of Styx) kick in anticipation of seeing him in concert last month, and I wrote about following our writing dreams, using a few insights from his 1984 single “Don’t Wait for Heroes.”

I remember that song well when it first came out. I was a senior in high school and had no real idea what I was going to do with my life. I had all kinds of big, unrealistic (at the time) dreams I held in secret, but no way of achieving them because I just didn’t know myself that well back then—like a writer who hasn’t written enough words to know his or her own voice yet. But DeYoung’s lyrics stuck with me and, as simple as they were, they were there to give me a helpful perspective on pursuing a passion when I was ready to draw wisdom from them.

This month, another song has been spinning on the LP turntable inside my brain, and it speaks to my writing resolution for the year—one of our current Girlfriend topics. The truth is that my resolution doesn’t, actually, have anything to do with drafting a novel. It has to do with the world outside of the stories in my head. Being naturally Type A, my fantasy is to achieve that elusive sense of peace and balance, so I can participate fully in this writing life, but not cross the line into the realm of unhealthy obsession. Not let the characteristic chaos of the industry consume me, create an unending loop of self doubt or throw off my internal compass. It took a long time to find my writing voice, but it seems to be taking even longer to find my unshakable author center. And, sadly, I suck at that whole Zen thing.

For those of you who remember the big hits of 1976, the song I've been humming lately hasn't been Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” or even Aerosmith’s “Dream On” but, rather, Boston’s classic “Peace of Mind.”

“Now if you’re feelin’ kinda low ‘bout the dues you’ve been paying, future’s coming much too slow, and you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin’, can’t decide on which way to go…”

Yeah. “I understand about indecision,” all right. The publishing industry is one where many of us are left second-guessing every professional choice we’ve ever made—weekly, daily, hourly sometimes. Where hurry-up-and-wait may not always be the name of the game, but it’s often the subtitle. We work our tails off to follow up on a requested submission or a great writing opportunity and, then, are stuck in limbo while the person with acquisition power tries to juggle everything on his or her desk so they can (eventually) get back to us. And while we wait, we worry and wonder: Did I do enough? Was it good? Will they like it? Would it have been better if I’d changed___? How long will it take before I know?

As for the line in the song’s chorus, “People livin’ in competition,” well, I hardly need to address that here. Any aspiring or published writer knows just how tough it is to both break in and stay in. I’m in awe of authors who’ve been doing this since the ‘70s and ‘80s and have asked a few how they stay balanced. How they manage not to live in a near-constant state of anxiety over the ever-changing industry, the stunningly heavy writing/promoting workload and the emotional rollercoaster of professional reviews/critique partner feedback/agent suggestions/editorial revision notes, all while trying to have a life outside of this. How they've learned to calm their minds amidst the mayhem and uncertainty and find a sense of peace...

One wonderful NYT-bestselling author, who sold her first novel almost 30 years ago and is still actively publishing today, told me she just removes herself from as many stressors as possible. Refuses to read reviews—ever. Doesn’t engage with any person or group that strikes her as crazy-making. Follows her own writing process and ignores anyone who tries to tell her that she should try to tailor her style to anything other than what works best for her. And she reminds herself of this inherent irony in publishing: that it’s an industry in which nobody really has any control, but just about everyone involved with it—from editors to agents to writers, etc.—are, as she phrased it, “overachieving control freaks.” That struck me as very funny, but painfully accurate.

So, being an unapologetic quoter of song lyrics, I bow to the genius of Boston's songwriter Tom Scholz, who managed to capture a feeling so human and so universal that it rings true for me now, and it's applicable to my life in ways I never could have imagined when I first heard it on the radio. Granted, I was in 4th grade at the time but, for a future writer and an incurable observer, the line “Lots of people out to make-believe they're livin', can't decide who they should be” was a warning that made sense even then.

Today, I'm taking a deep breath, getting myself outside for a brisk walk and making time to talk with a few people I care about—basically, remembering to live a little in the 3D world. Peace of mind, for me, anyway, is not dwelling in the past so much or fretting endlessly about things that can't be changed. Realizing I did the best I could with whatever resources, skills and time I had available to me. And just focusing on what I can do right now to make tomorrow a bit better.

Or, as Scholz once urged, “Take a look ahead...look ahead.”

Is there a popular song that you've found to be brimming with unexpected wisdom? An era of music or a particular musical genre that speaks to you most?

Marilyn Brant is a chocolate addict, a music junkie and the award-winning women's fiction author of According to Jane (2009), Friday Mornings at Nine (2010) and A Summer in Europe (coming November 29, 2011), all from Kensington Books. When no one's watching, she pretends she's in a rock-n-roll band and sings (very badly) in the car.


  1. Music lyrics are my poetry, too. I have been a folk music lover since way before it became popular again. Some of my favorite lyricists these days are David Wilcox, Glen Hansard, Josh Ritter, and The Weepies. All "writer's musicians," if that makes sense.

    But one of the songs that has inspired me most in recent years comes from the former lead singer of Men at Work (yes, really!)--Colin Hay. The song "Waiting for my real life to begin" encourages me to stop waiting around for something bigger and better to happen and start living my real life NOW.

    Enjoyed your post!

  2. Not to sound too morose, but John Meyer's "Why Georgia" always resonates with me and makes me cry. Not sure why! Maybe one day I'll find out in therapy or something;)

    Great post, Marilyn!!!

  3. Marilyn, yet another reminder of why I adore you! While treadmilling yesterday, Van Halen's "Jump" got stuck in my head, and I even posted on my FB page: "Yeah, I know, baby, just how you've got to ro-o-oll with the punches, to get to what's real." Because I'm feeling all those stresses of having a new book in the pipeline (and I think coming out earlier than I thought--yes, again!). So rolling with the punches and not getting freaked out by changes I can't control is something I understand all too well. "Peace of Mind" resonates perfectly with that idea, too. Funny how anxious we all are to find our own peace of mind...and why does it have to be so danged elusive? I must sign up for yoga again (and keep listening to my fave '80s music). ;-)

  4. I loved this post, Marilyn. Great music memories and that remark about the over-achieving control freaks made laugh out loud .

    I love this song by Cat Stevens called "I Listen to the Wind of My sou." Have no idea what it means but it resonates with me.

  5. Oh, Marilyn, apparently we were born the same year!! I also find that my biggest inspiration comes from music, some old, some new... There's actually a list of music that inspired BD on my webpage! Music always encourages a story, but can be dangerous while driving! Great post!!

  6. I love this post, soul sister of mine! No surprise that I also find inspiration in music. As of late personally, I've been contemplating the quickly approaching high school graduation of my eldest daughter and the one-and-only Bon Jovi's words have been echoing in my brain. "You wanna steal a piece of time..." Professionally, I've been working on a totally new piece I feel is really special.. which is both wonderful and terrifying...and have found sage wisdom from my favorite modern band, THE KILLERS. "And sometimes I get nervous when I see an open door; close your eyes...clear your heart...cut the chord"

  7. Good morning, everyone!! So nice to see you all here today ;).

    Julie~I know *exactly* what you mean by writer's musicians, and I love them, too! I was in a dance group back in college, and the band that toured with us were folk musicians. I still find myself singing lines from those songs, even 20+ years later...

    Maria~I have to be really careful at the gym for that reason, LOL. There are some songs that make me cry (including about 1/3 of the country music I have on my iPod), and I can only pretend that "sweat got in my eye" so many times before it gets embarrassing ;).

    Susan~I Heart U!! I have to tell you, back in the '80s, I never would have thought Van Halen to be a source of wisdom, but they've surprised me more than once! I'm pretty sure I'll never understand what "Panama" is about, LOL, but I always liked "Jump," too, and I *loved* "Dreams"...

    Karin~thank you! I like a lot of Cat Stevens's songs, especially "Moonshadow" (although I'm not quite sure what it means :). I'll look up the song you mentioned today -- it sounds like a good one.

    Laura~you're right! We have to be careful while driving with the music blaring -- it's too, too easy to exceed the speed limit, zipping along in time to a great song. (I did, actually, get pulled over for that once...the officer was very nice to me, though, when I explained the reason. I only got a warning. ;)

    Jill, "hey, soul sister..." (!!), you have me convinced that I have to listen to more by The Killers. That line is fabulous -- I need to hear it in context! As for Bon Jovi...sigh. The lyrics to their songs may not be considered highbrow, but I've found a gems in so many of their lines, too. xo

    Heading off on various errands/appointments this morning but will be back this afternoon!

  8. I turn to Stairway to Heaven for peace of mind and I can't tell you how many times I've listened to it in this stressful time of lead up to launch. (Embarrassing!!) I love Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, etc. They never lose their appeal.

  9. Great post! I'm planning to go for a walk and clear my mind, then come back and write. Lately I've been listening to The Road Less Traveled CD by Melissa Etheridge, and the song I Run For Life. I think I write for life.

  10. My new theme song is "Que Sera, Sera." But the version by Sly & the Family Stone. Somehow the funkiness and groove allows you to just relax as you wait for whatever will be to be.

  11. Cindy~the beginning of "Stairway to Heaven" is one of the few pieces I insisted on being taught when I tried to learn guitar. It's haunting -- musically and lyrically. I totally understand why you love it! As for the release -- all will go well!! Keep taking those necessary deep breaths... ;-)

    Edie, oooh, I don't know that song yet -- thank you for telling me about it! And I love what you said...that you write for life. That's very fitting and beautifully phrased. xo

    Tart and Soul~I loved the old version of that song (Doris Day, I think) and haven't heard the one you mentioned -- I will find it!! I could use a little funkiness to groove to today :). Thanks so much for telling me about it.

  12. Boston??? Man, that brings back memories!

  13. LOL, Lauren! Hope they were good memories... ;)

  14. Great Post. Oh, don't get me started! I have so many songs that bring back immediate memories - or bring instant laughter or tears. And I definitely have my writing anthems.

    One thing I learned, though, is DON'T use lyrics in your books. The publisher (or at least mine) dumps the job of getting permission on you - mine didn't even give me approval forms until I asked. And it is a pain in the patooty. One co. gives you just American, one North American, and each has different terms, prices lengths etc. Have some of you had similar experiences?

  15. Amy,
    I used song lyrics and no one said anything to me because (i assume) that I used less than 2 lines.

  16. Excellent post Marilyn! Song lyrics inspire me and sometimes provide framework for the scenes I write, so I totally know how you feel. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  17. Amy and Karin~
    I was really paranoid about this myself, Amy, because I wanted to reference certain phrases in a song but didn't want to violate any copyrights. I asked my editor and my publisher's legal department and they basically said what Karin did -- that I could use a line or two without a problem. In the end, I only used about 4 or 5 words -- just enough so that the reader would know the verse that I was talking about -- but it was critical to the scene so I really needed them. I can imagine getting permissions is a LOT of work, though! Probably easier to just write our own songs to fit our scenes instead ;).

    Pamala, thank you! I know you're a huge music lover, too -- and I definitely remember a very well placed Nickelback reference in one of your drafts!

  18. I feel a little young with my music choices, but lately Fall Out Boy has been inspiring my writing. They have such tricky/trippy lyrics! I love it! I find myself putting together "soundtracks" when I write so I can put myself in the right frame of mind. :)

  19. Roxie, Fall Out Boy is great! I was listening to "Dead on Arrival" not long ago and it actually made me feel like *running*... Believe me, that almost never happens, LOL. I haven't seen them live, but they're from Wilmette, IL, which is about 45 minutes from where I live -- love that edge of punk sound they have ;). And I do the "soundtracks" thing for all my books, too, for the same reason as you -- it really gets me in the right mood for the story...

  20. Love this post, Marilyn! That song is totally going to be in my head all day now. :)

  21. Thanks, Brenda!! See, that was part of my we can have a GBC singalong, LOL. Hope your day is wonderful. ;)