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Beth DeSombre: Blog

Writing in Different Forms (Writing Retreat Post #1)

Posted on March 1, 2011
I’m just back from a fantastic writing workshop, led by Nerissa Nields. I hesitated to sign on for this retreat for a number of reasons, but primary among them was that it was a retreat for writers (of all sorts), rather than for songwriters. I’ve done workshops before, with other songwriters, and I get how they work; I know how to comment on new songs, and I’m used to the way we write. I couldn’t quite imagine the way I could write in a quiet house filled with other writers, and I didn’t know what writers in other forms had to teach me.

I won’t overstate the case: the experience didn’t make me say “wow; how foolish I’ve been to spend my time with songwriters; I should have been hanging out with writers of other forms all along.” But I did come away with an appreciation for, and curiosity about, other forms of writing, and enjoyed the experience of being a songwriter among writers in other forms.

There were two other songwriters there (which makes for four, total, if you count Nerissa), and part of what made it work for songwriters was that we each were given a room in a different part of the house – good thing there weren’t more of us! – to go to when we had writing sessions. So I had the ability to make whatever noise I needed to – I need to play and sing when writing – without worrying about disturbing others or being disturbed by others. Most of the rest of the writers all sat with computers or notebooks in one big room (or spread out a bit on the first floor of the house).

When we presented the results of a given writing session the songwriters got to go first – that’s where having Nerissa as host made a difference, because she was sympathetic to the possibility that songwriters would forget melodies, and so wanted to give us the chance to play first. A person would present, others would comment, and then we’d move onto the next person.

One aspect I’ll probably take up in a different post was the way feedback worked – we were only allowed to give positive feedback. Which has some disadvantages (from my perspective), but the primary advantage was that people who don’t write songs (or someone like me, who doesn’t write novels) can talk about what worked for them in someone’s writing, whether or not they had a deep understanding of why. It made it easier to comment on a form you don’t practice. I don’t write novels or memoirs, but I read them, and those who don’t write songs probably listen to them. (The best compliment I received over the weekend was from a fantastic novelist who told me that my songs reminded her of Richard Shindell’s songs.)

In between writing sessions we had conversations across forms, marveling at how each other write. The aforementioned great novelist asked me how I could get myself to sit down and write a song, since each one is a completely new thing you have to start from scratch, which is pretty different from writing the next section of the novel when you know what has to happen to advance the plot or develop a new character. It was interesting to see how what I do appears to someone who writes a different sort of thing, and articulating how or why I do something helped me understand a little more about my own process.

And, as I suspected, my songwriting does have parallels to other kinds of writing, in ways I found instructive. I write characters. I write plots and scenes (even if they’re sometimes quite small), and sometimes my songs are memoirs. Songwriting is also poetry. Watching what works when people writing in other forms accomplish those things helps me think about what to pay attention to in my own writing. Nerissa wrote and shared a blog post that I thought worked well because she took up one detail from a description and then used it later as a metaphor for the bigger point. A poet wrote the most dramatic and detailed (and nuanced) story of the weekend in a poem no longer than a song. Turns of phrases that turned my head appeared in songs, poems, personal essays, and pieces of novels. Good writing is good writing, across genre. And it was a joy to get to be in the presence of the creation of so much good writing.