originally written for www.writingbettersongs.com
”The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory,” began my sixth-grade humanities teacher, emphatically. It seemed more like a humble request than a statement or fact. What the preteen version of myself didn’t realize (or care), is that he was speaking directly to the future songwriter in me. It took years of failed quizzes, botched tests, missed appointments, and forgotten birthdays for me to truly understand his plea.
A journal should match the man…
I stumbled upon my current type of journal at a flea market in Portland, Oregon. Now, I have trouble settling for a store-bought, hard-bound, tree-killing journal; one that simply sits on a shelf in a drug store, waiting for any 10 year old girl or soccer mom to grab along with some plastic toy or hair product. I did not choose my journal, my journal choose me!
An oil-tanned leather binding weathers as the year marches on, all the while protecting its contents. Natural-toned hemp, cotton and jute fiber paper takes the ink as if it were drawing blood-soaked ideas directly from my brain.
My thoughts flow through a black felt-tipped pen. I use blue to highlight titles, drawings, or other pertinent points. Every minute detail spills on the page for its most important critic, the writer.
My horrific penmanship, somewhere between a doctor’s script and an epileptic’s scribble, provides a lock to the words. The indecipherable code of personal handwriting ensures privacy. Surprisingly enough, it is a rare occurrence when I am unable to unlock the cypher.
The leather strap holds the pages together and keeps my words from spilling out on the hard sidewalk, grassy field, or any other locale I may inhabit; in body if not mind.
The organic nature of my journal matches the goal of my writing, be it songwriting, poetry, random vents, or combination of the three. While it suits my soul, it is not the only one available to capture thoughts on a page. Different styles match different users. While I try to keep mine with me wherever I may roam, its immeasurable value dictates its need for protection.
I have been known to scribble lyrics on airline cocktail napkins, folded printer paper, and good-old college ruled notebooks. My arm has even served as the vessel. Good thing, too, as those lyrics serve as the chorus to one of my favorite self-penned tunes. I am relatively certain it would not have turned out the same had I relied on my memory.
It starts with an idea…
I once heard an interview with Chris Robinson (Black Crowes, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood) explaining the creative process between him and his songwriting partner and brother, Rich Robinson. I was pleasantly surprised by how Chris takes the parts of songs Rich has written and mixes them up. He swaps verses with chorus and changes riffs to accommodate his singing style. I remember thinking, I do that, too! But, I do it as part of the editing process. Organizationally speaking, I could not begin to rearrange without visualizing the parts in my journal.
When the idea comes, it comes…
While I may be able to sit down and finish ideas in a songwriting session, they rarely start there. Usually, it’s humming a melody in my car, hearing a funny group of words while at the bar, or creative lightning striking while in an airport. These days, my iphone may serve as the riff-catcher, but nothing explains a thought like words on a page.
I recall driving from Bend to Sisters one day, when all of a sudden, creativity sparked. I was elated to look over and see my journal riding shotgun. I ended up pulling off on a side street and writing 90% of the lyrics to a song that is still in constant rotation in my setlist.
Not so long memory…
As I gracefully grow older, I realize my memory is not growing along with my teeth. It’s this realization that allows me to appreciate, and ironically remember, the words from almost three decades ago. I recently ran across those words etched in a notebook my parents had saved. The shortest pencil is truly better than the longest memory. And if those words are important enough to write down, then they are important enough to store in your journal.