Until recently, I was pretty sure that I knew everything or most everything about communicating effectively. Then in the spring of 2012, I was caught completely off guard, and without any preparation for what I think was the single greatest lesson I have ever learned about communication. And it came from a songwriting experience, of all places.
Just think about it. A songwriter typically has three minutes to say everything. And the best of these artisans make it look easy and effortless, but as I was about to discover, it is anything but.
Every week, I get an email notice from the Nashville recording community called the RowFax. The RowFax is an alert to songwriters and publishers about who is recording and what kind of material they might be looking for. Sometimes they even go so far as to tell you what tempos they are looking for, or even what subject matter they're interested in.
In this case, a young couple -- independent recording artists in Nashville -- were looking for material and, as I recall, they were not very specific. Their query said something like, "great songs." Well, no kidding. Who in the recording business is looking for not great songs? So, in response, I submitted a song of mine written years ago called, "Worth My Time," a ballad with an Irish feel: a sad song about a bad relationship with somebody who just keeps coming into your life and then going out. It's about an unstable lover, one who is maybe even a bit abusive.
I thought the song was pretty good and most likely a finished song. My mom liked it. My friends liked it. In fact, the thought of ever rewriting it had never crossed my mind.
But after submitting it, I got a long note from the singers and their team about how much they loved the song and how they thought that it could be a truly great song, but... it needed a rewrite to tell the story a bit better. They compared it to a well-known standard, and said they believed that it could stand up to that great song if the rewrite worked well.
I have to say that when I read their response, I had mixed emotions. At first I was a little put off, but then, I thought... wait a minute. There are some positives here. They are comparing my song's potential upside to a standard, a song that other writers admire for its emotional depth and musical and lyrical beauty. And in fact, I have a good friend who actually co-wrote the song they are comparing it to. So I just simply forwarded the note to my songwriter friend and asked him a simple question:
Should I pay any attention at all to this request to re-write my song?
His response to my query was one of those moments in my life that I will never forget. It was a Sunday afternoon when he called from Nashville, and he kindly asked if I had a few minutes to discuss the song -- a rhetorical question. Think about it. How often do you get this kind of opportunity? This is a professional communicator at the top of his game and he's about to offer me advice because I'm his friend and because he cares.
He began by saying that he had listened to the song in its current form, and he believed that these people were right on all counts. It is a terrific song as it is and he wasn't surprised that they had been drawn to it, but he believed that it could be one of THOSE songs with a little work.
Then, it happened. You know how when you're watching a movie where everybody is shooting pool for fun and then somebody throws a hundred bucks on the table and suddenly one of the contestants steps away and opens up a nice leather case and takes out two halves of a beautiful pearl inlaid cue stick and starts powdering their hands? You quickly realize in that moment that they don't shoot pool like you. They get paid for it, and their approach is going to be completely different than we hobbyists. My conversation with this world-class songwriter was exactly like that. I suddenly felt like a rank amateur, and not because he did it on purpose. In spite of his significant accomplishments, he is one of the most humble people that I know. But as I listened intently to his critique and suggestions, I realized that I still had a lot to learn about songwriting, even after having done it for almost 35 years.
This was his offer at the end of that stunning conversation: he would be my editor, he would help me think through the process, we would deconstruct the song and start from ground zero to rebuild it. He compared it to coal mining and he said that over the next undetermined time period (I was thinking maybe a couple of weeks, tops) he and I would be "inside the mountain," and we would study every square inch of the rock walls until we found exactly the right place to dig for musical gold.
Over the next four to six months, we spoke almost every day and my friend was diligent and creative beyond anything I had ever seen. Eventually, we finished the first two verses and the bridge and we began a several month quest to write the last verse. While writing the bridge, I got another shining example of my friend's remarkable and unflagging attention to detail. One day he called me up and he said, "You know, Dennis. The bridge uses the word, 'seen,' and I think that's the wrong word. When people are really troubled or angry, they sometimes talk to themselves. So, I think the word should be 'said.' Before, the bridge was:
"I've seen it all a thousand times before. What I would do if you walked through that door.
Now here you are and all that I can do is wait for your goodbye."
As per my friend's suggestion, we changed that opening line to, "I've said it all a thousand times before," and it helped the bridge to be so much more descriptive of this person in this troubled relationship with a lover who keeps coming into and going out of his or her life.
One word made that much difference?
But we weren't nearly done just yet. It seemed like we got the first 80 percent of the song written fairly quickly but then we stalled on the last verse. Or, should I say, I stalled. Over those next few months I wrote 50 or more last verses to this song, and alas, none of them worked. "You have written a beautiful first 80 percent, Dennis," he said. "You have the listener in a trance. You want to keep them in a trance. Don't write a single word to take them out of that trance. "
I tried so hard and after many, many versions of the final verse, I wound up one day at my songwriter friend's farm outside of Nashville. After a glass or two of sweet tea and a barbeque lunch, he invited me into his writing room and asked me to play the current last verse to see if it was trance-worthy.
And... it was not. Heaving a sigh of frustration, I asked him if he ever wrote songs like that with so many versions of verses and choruses, etc. He didn't say a single word. He simply reached under his writing table and produced a one-inch thick stack of yellow legal paper, all covered in handwritten words and scribbles and lines, and then he calmly slid it across the table to me with this single comment: "That, my friend... is one song."
Suddenly, it began to dawn on me why we only occasionally see greatness. It's a lot of work, and most people stop long before they have something exceptional. The people we revere, those who create those unforgettable standards in any field, are the ones who have taken the time to try and try again and are never satisfied until they have just the right word. And, that may take several legal pads and a box or two of pens to accomplish, metaphorically speaking.
I understand why people stop along the way, because after literally months of effort, I was exhausted with the song and tired of looking at it and singing it everywhere, including in my dreams, in my car, in the shower, etc.
One night, right when I was dangling at or very near the end of my rope, my friend called me, and I asked him (pleaded, actually), "Do you have any idea what this last verse should be?" His answer made my heart leap.
He said, "How about this for the last verse?" And then he proceeded to produce the perfect last verse for this song. And that's the beauty of having a capable co-writer. He or she can do things you cannot. And vice versa. But you have to stay humble, and you have to be willing to take direction. Even if you decide not to use it, you still need the input because it's valuable and it's different than what you would have chosen.
Someone has well said that no writing is wasted. This may be surprising for some of you to hear, but you don't know everything, and two heads really are better than one. I guarantee it. But, take note -- everybody shouldn't be your co-writer. You may have to work with a few before you find the one or two that you work best with. But when you do, you can create some magic, something truly great.
So, what is your song? What one thing are you trying to communicate that really matters when you sit down to write?
How often have you settled for good when great was possible?