My Uncle Oran, who died after a long life of refusing to discuss his experience serving under Patton, would have dismissed everything from Ernie Pyle’s dispatches and Studs Terkel’s interviews to Saving Private Ryan and Brokaw’s Greatest Generation for initiating a conversation about acts that were, for him, literally unspeakable.
War is a difficult topic. As friend or nephew to a number of veterans, I say that with direct secondhand knowledge.
People taking lives, knowingly risking theirs for other people—damn, it’s so easy for deskbound writer-types to offend or wound someone if they attempt Writing About War.
One day I started writing about the war.
This was while W was still in office. Listening to NPR one evening on the commute, I heard a piece on how the war affects families, the people left behind—especially the difficulty of long deployments. I have to say, the report bloomed into one of those songs that “wrote itself,” to use a phrase that always comes off either doofily pompous or mystical.
Yet sometimes it does seem the verse and chorus come together with a sort of inevitability. If you say this, you have to say that. If you start here, you have to move there.
Of course, it helps when you clearly understand who is talking, to whom they’re talking, what they need to say to whomever they’re talking, and how they feel about it. In this case, I was writing from the perspective of a wife trying to hold a household together with her husband overseas.
In one of her darker hours.
I tried to keep her from being whiny, or hopeless, or selfish. Or unpatriotic.
After I finished a version, I paid for a couple professional critiques. Took some of their advice. I think it’s working.
So this was the song I presented one fall evening to a panel of publishers who appeared before ten or twelve of us Writer Hopefuls. We were all part of a “Roundtable.”
We Hopefuls had paid for three influential Nashville men to listen to demo recordings of our songs, to comment on them, and, oh, please Lord, possibly (sigh) to buy the one we brought in.
It’s a view to the interior of Music Row. Like one of those clear-faced alarm clocks with its gears exposed that shows you just how unfathomably complicated the mechanism is.
This particular Roundtable was a lovely affair with a catered dinner and free drinks, hosted by a well-regarded demo service. We gathered in the actual studio, where musicians perform. One by one Hopefuls arrived and mingled awkwardly—none of us had ever met. We were thrown together and had to muster our people skills.
Not all songwriters have people skills.
Still, networking is key to Nashville success. And this was prime networking. Future co-writers might be here tonight. We all made quick, biased, hunch-based, unfair judgments of each other, trying to answer the question, “Whom will I wish I’d buddied up with?” The classic Mingler’s Challenge.
The studio had been decorated for Halloween. A Frankenstein here, a Dracula there. Bats. Rayon spider webs.
Candles had been placed around. Lights were dimmed.
A blend of elegant and eerie.
The three publishers knew each other. Sitting in the “guests of honor” position at a horseshoe-shaped table, they joshed throughout the eating part of the evening, as Southern Fellas do: a little good-natured ribbing, a slightly edgy laugh at one’s own expense that is somehow a tad aggressive, an unexpectedly personal remark or story, more ribbing, additional laughter.
One publisher was in his thirties with hipster glasses; he could have been set to see Yo La Tengo later on. Another publisher had probably coached fifth grade football recently and takes pride, I’m going to guess, in his ability to drink five beers without burning the meat on nights he fires up his really nice grill. Seated far right was a calm, Roman statue sort of guy—friendly enough, but with a tendency toward serious examination of issues that confront him.
They each reacted to every song. Without being mean, they were frank. They offered advice. Suggested changes.
My war song’s turn arrived.
It was toward the end of the evening, and one publisher had an appointment to keep. My metaphorical exposed-gear alarm clock’s imaginary ticking got louder.
Tick tick tick.
Suddenly I got a lump in my throat. I trembled—I don’t think the buddies I’d chosen to sit by were aware of it. One of the owners of the studio had a twenty-buck Walmart-y CD player for our songs. He punched play.
The panel nodded through the first verse and chorus. They were reading ahead on my lyric sheet as they listened. One made a “not bad” appraising sort of face.
The one with the appointment motioned to the CD player guy to turn it off during the bridge section.
“This is really well written,” he said. His voice went up at the end. As soon I heard that, I lost hope. It’s how critiques work: if they start with a negative comment, it’s because they’re leading to an overall positive thought.
Leading with a compliment is always bad.
Another publisher picked up on the hesitance. “There’s too many songs about the war already,” he said, with a clear period at the end of the sentence. A hard return, a new paragraph.
Really nothing more to be said.
Then the third fellow looked at my second verse and had some suggestions—some good ideas, I think. He wanted to hear more specifics about why my war wife missed her husband instead of further examples of how hard it is. Okay, that makes sense.
One of them wanted to make the song more specifically and literally her “war” at home—this was her war. I wasn’t as crazy about that idea, but I nodded and looked glad to get the advice.
Which I was. It’s always a thrill when the whole room is focused on you.
“But yeah, there’s just so many songs about the war,” the one publisher reiterated. “My writers have a bunch. Yours probably do, too.” The other publishers agreed with him. They all have stables of contracted writers they pay to write songs and don’t really need us amateurs in the first place. “I mean, this is ‘a new perspective’ on it, I get that. But…” A shrug. Not much else to it, really.
These publishers know The Market. They know what’s selling. Their role is intermediary between writers and the artist representatives, and they get a percentage for their efforts. You have to assume they want to sell songs, and would take any viable contender to all the Billy Curringtons or Sara Evanses out there.
And if they don’t think they can sell your effort, they say so.
It’s a kindness, actually.
They’ll admit they might be wrong. There are tons of stories about hit songs that got “passed” on, repeatedly, till someone had the sense or the luck to release them. But if every writer believes he’s simply unappreciated, then at least some writers are deluded.
So one puts one’s war song aside and keeps writing.
The answer is always, Keep Writing.
The lights came up. Nobody had sold any songs. We all promised to keep in touch, or to find each other on MySpace or Facebook. Some people had little songwriter business cards and selectively handed them out.
Slowly we filed out into a warm, leaf-crunchy Nashville autumn and unlocked our cars.
I think Uncle Oran would be okay with the evening’s outcome. Let the subject rest. Shhh. New topic.
Epilogue: A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from the demo studio announcing that two—two!—songs had been sold at the Roundtable held the following month.
The answer is always, Keep Writing.