Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy

This year we had a 12 year old Taylor Swift fan on our holiday gift list. I thought I'd get sneaky and do a bit of research into Ms. Swift to find a unique gift. One aspect of Swift's career that jumped out at me was how young she was when she started creating music. In fact, Swift's first song, Lucky You was written when she was 12. I thought, aha!, I'll get our Swifty a gift to help her write her first song. That way, she can have a unique connection to one of her favorite artists.

Looking around on Amazon, Jeff Tweedy's How To Write One Song jumped out at me as what I had in mind. Using the Amazon preview feature I read the introduction and it sounded promising. Still, there was a bit of salty language and in the end, I got nervous that it may contain themes that were a bit much for a tween. I was delighted to see that our library had the audio version of the book, so I could dig deeper and find out the whole story.

In short, I was blown away by How To Write One Song. You should probably just stop reading this review and go listen to it. I can tell how impactful a book is by how frequently I find myself trying to explain its attributes to Shira. And poor Shira needed to hear over and over again how on target Tweedy's text was. I'm sure she was relieved when I finally finished the book so she could stop hearing these disjointed explanations.

Part of what makes the book so successful is that it's the right blend of motivational speaker, cheerleader, coach and workbook. The book, in equal parts, convinces you that song writing is a good idea, that you're the person to do it, how to generally approach the task as well as concrete exercises to painlessly craft your first song. As I read the book, I found my thinking changing from: I want to assess this book's value as a gift; to hmm, looks like even I could write song; to I definitely need to write a song; to I must stop every creative pursuit I'm undertaking and write a song this very moment!

Ultimately, I backed off from this last goal, but I have added song writing to my 'Blog Ideas' spreadsheet where I track projects I want to take on and remain eager to give it a go. And I'm not talking about focusing on arguably what would be in my comfort zone: generating my song via code; I'm talking about me belting out a love song, while strumming my canjo. Tweedy has me convinced that the journey of discovery that I'd undertake to write this mythical love song will be well worth the effort.

The value of How To Write one Song goes well beyond song writing. I'd argue its blueprint can help with any complex creative endeavor. It probably won't surprise you when I suggest that by changing the song writing exercises, you could easily have the book "How To Write One Novel" or "How To Sculpt One Sculpture." What may surprise you is the suggestion that Tweedy's philosophy and approach works equally well for pursuits that on the surface don't appear as creative arts. I'd argue that by tweaking the specifics, you could publish "How To Write One Web App" or "How To Run One Ultramarathon."

When Tweedy talks about needing to redefine success, find and savor flow, the importance of reading and stealing from existing work, he's giving the same advice I'd give a want-to-be programmer. If you watch videos from top level ultra distance runners, they talk at length about the joy of flow, overcoming self doubt, finding your why and figuring out how to break down an impossibly large task into approachable parts. That's exactly what song writers do, and Tweedy gives you the tools to get this done.

The audio version of How To Write One Song is read by the author and contains some nuanced and creative content. It's one of the few times I can recall where listening to a book had clear advantages over the paper version. Still, I've rented the hard copy of the book because I want to see and work through the exercises.

This past weekend we visited our nieces and nephew in Florida. 10 year old G told me she wanted to be a singer when she grew up; though she explained to me that she'll probably have a songwriter. I suggested she could write her own songs, and for about 8 seconds I had her rapt attention. Then she lost interest and moved on to a new topic. If I'd had some of Tweedy's exercises at the ready, it's possible she would have given them a go. In short, adding song writing skills to my Uncle/Foster-Dad toolkit seems like a smart move.

Now that I've been through How To Write One Song, I'm confident that the language and themes are almost certainly fine for a twelve year old. Like an R-rated movie, there are a few well placed cuss words, but I'm sure it's nothing kids haven't heard before. There is some talk about drugs and alcohol, but that talk is positive, reinforcing that the creative process doesn't need these to be successful.

As for older teens and adults, I'd say that How To Write One Song should be required reading. There's huge value in creative endeavors, and the roadblocks that keep us from embracing these pursuits are real. But How To Write One Song can help break these down. And for that alone, it's worth your time.

Hmmm, maybe I should be writing a song about that. Let's see, what rhymes with roadblock? Sunblock. Cuckoo-clock. Aftershock. Johann Sebastian Bach. Yes, that's it. And we're off and running!

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