Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Writer’s Tips from the 30A Songwriter Festival

Ahh, I just got back from a beautiful five days in south Walton County, Florida.  My toes still have sand between them.

I went to research the setting of my draft novel Blown Away. And Jason Isbell, Graham Nash and many more amazing songwriters were scheduled to perform at the 30A festival.  Since the panhandle of Florida is where I grew up,  I decided it was time for a visit. 

I’m so glad I went.  I compiled some great notes. I saw old friends. My traveling companion was amazing, and the music was inspiring.

As I thought about the advice the performers shared with fellow songwriters, I realized it was great writing advice, no matter the genre.  I’ll share some of it here.

Jason Isbell shared the funniest writing advice.   At 21, when he started writing songs, not much had happened to him. He said that instead of writing about his life, he wrote about the lives of family members who had pulled him aside at reunions and told him stories with the caveat that he should never tell anyone. Isbell’s songs--dramatic monologues in the voices of the deep south--are a testament to the success of his advice to write other people’s stories when your own aren’t interesting enough.

The Grahams, a husband-wife duo out of Nashville, shared inadvertent writing advice during their set when they talked about the genesis of their last two albums.  Last year, the Grahams spent time travelling the Mississippi, living part of the time on a houseboat and listening to the stories of locals up and down the river.  Their album Riverman’s Daughter was culled from those travels.  This year, they're headed out on the rails. Their nomadic nature appeals to me, and their songs are beautiful. Using locations and faces as inspiration for songs, poems, and stories is great writing advice, you can find more discussion of using places as inspiration in Richard Hugo's brilliant book of essays The Triggering Town.

Graham Nash’s set was full of great writing inspiration.  Unlike Isbell and The Grahams, Nash’s songs come from small everyday moments of intense attention—whether that small moment is a bet with someone about writing a song before he leaves or shopping for a vase with Joni Mitchell. Nash’s songs crystalize the everyday into moments of beauty. 

Though it could be taken as pedantic in the worst way, the artwork at the top of the post also contains good advice, especially since the genre fiction I’m working on has very particular sets of expections or “wants” from publishers and readers.  I’d like to remember to tell true, authentic stories that will meet my reader’s need instead of writing stories based on formulas and perceived expectations.

I think my one-off book set in Grayton Beach is about to become a series. That way I'll have a reason to travel to NW Florida every year for inspiration at the 30A Songwriter's Festival. 

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