How to Write a Novel in Three Verses and a Chorus
You think you’re a pretty good writer? Try writing a song.
A good friend just shared the news about John Prine’s death. The last thing I read about John’s condition was that he’d been stricken with COVID-19, and was in intensive care. A couple of days ago he was upgraded to “stable,” which allowed his fans to breathe a sigh of relief. Then came word tonight that he’d died.
I’m a musician, a writer, an entertainer and a songwriter. Not necessarily in that order. There is no order, because these things overlap constantly. And yet, they are distinct disciplines. As a writer, composing fiction, nonfiction, prose, tweets, emails, whatever—is a wrestling match between economy and endless choice. How do we pack the greatest amount of information into the smallest amount of words? Strike that. How do we say the most with the least? Which is not to say we should all aspire to the hammer-and-nail sawhorses of an Ernest Hemingway. I kind of like having my buttons pushed. The writing I enjoy the most is the stuff that stops me in my tracks. A sentence that makes me go back to the top of the article and clock the byline. The turn of a phrase or a mind-boggling simile that makes me flip a book over in my lap, take a deep breath, and marvel at the utter brilliance of a seemingly offhanded lightning bolt of wordplay, and then consider my own feeble efforts while wondering if the hardware store is hiring because I have just officially quit the writing game.
But of course, like you, I don’t quit. I have stories to tell and I always have ideas to express. With fiction, nonfiction, feature articles or anything that gives me room to stretch out, I’m afforded the luxury of space, indulgent flights of fancy, party tricks of syntax, and the complete indulgence of the reader, not to mention a complete lack of math. To write prose is to play jazz. It’s freeform. Tight-loose-tight-loose-endless-to-the-point-of-disinterest-then-BAM! An acrobatic scoodly-boo of notes that knocks you out of your chair or makes you drive straight into a phone pole (I don’t know where you’re listening to your jazz).
Songwriting is a much tougher proposition. To write a song is to boil down a story to its bones and broth. And you don’t want it to taste like that soup they have every day at Cracker Barrel. You want your song to move mountains, but you also want it to move just one person. Jason Isbell, one of the greatest songwriters of the last decade or so, answered an interview question recently with this: If you can cause the listener to make some kind of unexpected sound, then you’re doing your job as a songwriter.
John Prine did exactly that from his first album on. His last album had a song called “When I Get to Heaven,” and it included the line, “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” In eight words (I’m calling “gonna” a word), he managed to plant a smile on every smoker that ever was. Who can do that? I certainly can’t.
Another thing I can’t do is play “Sam Stone.” That song, along with “Hello In There,” (both on his first album!) are enough to punch John Prine’s ticket to any songwriter hall of fame in any genre, and maybe a wing in the Smithsonian. Okay, I’m a little prone to exaggeration, maybe, but in my defense, I’ve been drinking and crying since I got the news tonight.
Actually, before I cracked my first of many, I balanced my phone on the couch armrest and attempted record myself playing “Sam Stone,” which I’ve tried many times to learn over the years but could never play all the way through without collapsing in tears. Tonight was no exception. Musically, it's simple. Lyrically, though, it is devastating. That’s one reason so many musicians love John Prine—he doesn’t drop a Neil Young chord in the middle of his songs. John’s songs follow the math of popular folk and country music. Even a non-musician has a pretty good idea of where it’s going next. While that kind of songwriting might seem musically facile to most, it is actually a genius move. The music doesn’t take the focus off of the words, although he had a gift for wedding the two factors perfectly. Another recent interview I read alludes to this idea. Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s songwriting partner and lead guitarist since forever put it this way: “Tom would tell the rhythm section (bass, drums, keyboards) to keep it simple, to not get in the way of these chords and lyrics.”
That was John Prine’s strength. When it came to knowing what it’s like to be human, he was superhuman. He was able to use everyday words in the most perfect combination to not just fit the music and rhythm, the way Chuck Berry could, but could pierce your breastplate and seize your heart in ways that could make you wonder if he’d been eavesdropping on your inner dialogue. He could put himself not just in another’s shoes, but in another’s shoes that had mismatched laces and a split in the toe but were worn proudly and stubbornly by someone who spent their paycheck on more immediate needs like rent and a used trombone.
Empathy and imagination are just a couple of things that it takes to be a good songwriter. The other things include prosody, which is choosing the right word to fit the melody as well as the emotion, and a chorus you can sing around the campfire. A good song also needs an arc—a beginning, a middle and an end. A great song will let the listener do a lot of the heavy lifting, making connections and providing their own imagery without being hit over the head with a sledgehammer of detail. It helps if the story is universal. We all need stories to relate to, and it’s nice if the words also create a rhythm that can have you bobbing your head and tapping your feet as much as the rhythm section does.
I guess when you come right down to it, if you’re able to tell a compelling story, whether it’s in six hundred pages or in three verses and a chorus, you are an essential person to humanity. And John Prine, to this lover of good music and good writing, was as crucial as oxygen.
Thanks for the music, John. You will be missed.