Musings from David Nash

Expanding Ideas from a Song to a Novel 

Several years ago, I wrote a song about a legendary folk figure of the north woods: Paul Bunyan. I wanted to see what kind of story existed besides the silly cartoon I'd grown up with. So I conjured the rhythm of a swinging axe. I strummed the guitar and the words flowed like a river at ice-out. My song "Paul Bunyan's Lament" was born.

I was listening to an interview with Josh Ritter about his book "Bright's Passage." In the interview he mentioned that his novel stemmed from a song he had written. My mind was blown. It had never occurred to me that the story written out in a song could extend after the track ended. And why not? I had just done the exact opposite, hadn't I? I had taken a well known and explored story, re-imagined it, and condensed an entire plotline into a three-and-a-half-minute sound bite. 

So, the opposite must be true.

That night, I sat down with my laptop, and imagined how I might tell the story in prose instead of lyrics. I wrote a lot that first month. The song expanded like a bellows inhaling the room. It was only when I started sharing my story with my wife when she helped slow me down and provide some good advice. 

To really do the story justice and let this new literary world unfold, I needed to have a few things figured out.

First, I needed to have an outline. This was pretty easy as I had the song to get me from point A to Z. But what about all of the other stops in between? I began creating a more detailed sentence outline that gave me structure as I wrote Paul's journey. This was so helpful in keeping me on course.

Secondly, I needed to be accurate. I began doing my research. I searched the web. I read first accounts of logging history. I took notes, and added the depth and intensity of color to my story that made all the difference. 

Lastly, I simply needed to understand the characters and what I wanted their journey to look like. I had to spend a little time asking what was the purpose of each event in the book. I found I had a tendency, primarily out of my new found joy or writing, to get lost in describing minutiae. Staying focused on the motivations and path each character was walking was helpful for me  

A challenge with prose compared to songwriting is also the appeal. With a song, you have to be concise due to the short window you have with the listener. With prose, the pages can keep turning. There are many doors in a hallway to explore. However, concision is still essential. If I found myself getting board when writing a chapter, I knew my reader would be as well. 

Slowly but surely, by asking myself what happened between each line in the verses and choruses, a story unfolded and a world came to life. Turning a song into prose was as exciting as running through a corn maze. Sometimes you hit a dead end, but then you just back track, and enjoy the twists and turns until you see the ending. Then you sprint out of the field. The end result was a novel called "The Man in the Pines" which was eventually published by Ten16 Press

Not in any of daydreams did I ever imagine myself becoming an author. I've always thought of myself as a songwriter. As it turns out, both seem to feed each other. It's a relationship that I've continued as more ideas enter my orbit, and I remind myself that ideas don't need to be closed circles. They can open and expand if you are willing to do the exploring. 

 

Songwriting and Parenting: 5 tips for stoking the songwriting fire 

What’s that you say? Yes! I did write a blog about Parenting and Songwriting. It was inspired by a late-night conversation with Annie Mack after her closing, Saturday night performance at the Great River Folk Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin. You can read it here

I know this sounds the same, but I swear, this post is different. It is about Songwriting... and Parenting. Last time I was focusing on keeping the balance. We talked about how find a way to keep writing while still recognizing your important role as a parent. This time it’s all about business. How do you keep that creative songwriting muscle going when are also juggling the responsibilities of a parent? With kids in the house, the days of staying up late working on songs while tipping back another beer are fewer and father in between. Quiet mornings with a hot cup of coffee, your guitar, and a pad of paper on the porch are basically non-existent. So how do we as songwriters keep finding time to chase that song and feed our creative soul? 

We do it intentionally and with a few tricks up our sleeves. I tried to narrow down my top five tricks and hacks for keeping the lyrics flowing and the creativity candle burning. 

1. Make/schedule time – I feel like this is an oxymoron when you have children. I mean, essentially, your time is their time, right? Early mornings? Nope, the kids wake up early and are jumping on the bed. Nap time? Maybe, if you have littles, but mine are older and they just get grumpy at about 3pm but don’t sleep. Even if they did nap, I’d probably be napping too at that time. Or catching up on dishes, laundry, or toy cleanup. On the potty? Nope. The kid’s fingers are practically reaching beneath the door.  So when the heck will you be able to carve time out of your day to write poetry, prose, or music? If you are struggling with this question, here is the key: Do an inventory of you time. I think most of us have some time during the day that is being occupied with something elective. Streaming a show? Social media? Podcasts? Staring blankly into space as you eat lunch? If you are missing songwriting, I’d suggest finding something to cut. Maybe the thing is sleep, and this means waking up 15 minutes before the kids usually do. Maybe you don’t really need to watch the 20th season of the Great British Baking Show. Try to look at how you currently spend you time and see what can give and swap it with you art. After a few weeks, if you really miss your old ways of doing things the old way, then you have your answer. Songwriting isn’t as much of a priority at this time in your life, and that is okay too. 


2. Write, discard, and write again – We are already acknowledging free time is a luxury that leaves us when kids are in the house. When free time returns, you’ll probably want the kids back, so for now, I think there is much value in writing just for the sake of writing. If you sit down once a week for a year, you’ll probably get 40 crap ideas, 8 ones you kinda like, and 4 you’d play in public. And I, for one, think that ratio is pretty darn phenomenal. As such, don’t be afraid to write and toss. Of course, there is something to be said about persevering and finishing a song, but with kids, sometimes just finding a nice melody worth humming is a win. Don’t get discouraged by songs that don’t fly. The  simple act of writing is valuable. Write a bit. Trash em if you don’t like it. Play with your kids. And write some more. 


3. Keep the recorder handy – I already touched on this, but having a recording device handy (ie. Phone) is key. That and a pad of paper and pen. Keep one in your bag, car, purse, bike satchel, whatever. Let your mind wander and capture those little golden nuggets as they come to you. It kinda comes back to seizing the moments as they arise. If you have something handy to write down the lyric or record the melody, you’ll be ready when the muse dances through your window.  


4. Find a prompter – Social media has light and dark sides, we all know this. One of the gifts is the networking in song groups. I like to jump in and out of these from time to time as they add some extra nudges of pressure and encouragement when I need to write. Additionally, many of these groups come up with prompts for you to practice the craft of songwriting. Though I love to write from moments of pure inspiration and personal experience, the ability to just work on song structure, style, and practice new things has been so important as I strive to become a better writer. Groups that encourage me to write around a prompt have be great for me. My favorites: Fearless Songwriter: a quarterly group on facebook that asks you two write a song a day in 45 minutes for one week straight. It is a difficult task, but it jumpstarts your creativity button. I do it after the house is asleep. The other has been a great group that started this year called Mulvey’s Elephants – a weekly group started by the amazing writer Peter Mulvey (find the group here on his patreon page) where we are given a weekly prompt and all share songs and provide feedback. It was a great group to belong to during this pandemic year. So there you go. When you feel stuck, find someone to give you a nudge, or in this case, a prompt. 


5. Find a friend – this is the last tip I have for the songwriters who are also wading the high waters of parenthood. I love songwriting. But when it is just me late at night, and I find a song I’m totally excited about, I often have to find someone to share it with. If I try to play it for my kids in the morning, they ask me to be quiet and leave. They don’t have any interest in it. I don’t blame them. I’m not that interesting unless I’m being silly. As such, for me, writing songs can quicky become a lonely task. Music is mean to be heard and shared. I want to tell stories and engage with others. So, what do it do when I don’t have weekly gigs to whine and moan and shout out lyrics? I send drafts of my songs to friends. I’ve systematically blasted folks enough to have figured out which ones come back at me with a good mix of critiques and criticisms. Sometimes I send one out just to share, but finding a pal who really enjoys editing and working on a song is super valuable, and I recommend you find a few folks like that. Having someone respond to your latest effort with encouragement can help fight off the “what’s it all for?”-voices that creep into your tired parent mind from time to time. 

So, I don’t know if this is helpful, but as you fight to keep that songwriter alive while reading Frozen for the 30th time or giggling at Captain Underpants jokes (they are pretty funny, afterall), employ some intentional techniques to set yourself up for success. Be loose with your lyrics and let go of the bad ones. Keep the recorder handy and do an inventory of your time to see when you’re most likely to give your craft attention. Join a group where others provide inspiration, and find someone thoughtful to be your audience. 

Parenting is hard. Songwriting is hard. But they are also fun and awesome. You can’t always do both, but there are ways to keep the muse close enough to grab when the time presents itself. 

Good luck. Now go enjoy your kids. 

____

 

Next up: Prepping for Nanowrimo2021

Parenting and Songwriting: 5 tips for keeping the balance 

Last weekend at the Great River Folk Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I was talking with Annie Mack, an amazing performer who had just finished a spectacular closing set following performances by Chicago Farmer and Greg Gilbertson. Somehow we stumbled onto the fact that we both had energetic 4-year-old children waiting for us back at our homes. We shared a moment of understanding at the duality of magic of parenthood as well as struggle to find time, energy, and inspiration while still being a good parent to young children.  

 

Our conversation got me thinking. What are the most important, big-picture things I can do as a parent, songwriter, and author to keep the creativity flowing all the while being the best dad I can be? The list below are 5 thoughts I had that are more “parent focused.” I’ll try and come at this from a “songwriter focus” next. Additionally, these all come from the mindset of a cis-gender, straight, white male, married father of two children less than age eight…. So I get that this won’t apply to everyone. Lastly, I have another job that gives my family financial stability. Our rent and food doesn’t rely on the income from books sales and spotify streams (thank god). If nothing else, this article got me thinking about how I balance both roles, and maybe it will for you too. 

 

1. Avoiding resentment - this is SOOOO important. Everything competes for our time and attention, and your family and writing are no different. They are naturally at odds with one another because writing requires us to be internal and focussed on the task while parenting requires a selfless focus on others. Therefore, you have to be intentional about not blaming your children for interrupting your train of thought. They are doing what kids do. They are asking for help. They are asking for attention. They are asking for love. Relish in it. If you aren't intentional about enjoying it, it is so easy to blame them for the interruption. The stage of parenting children who actually want to hang out with you will go soon enough and you'll get your "me-time" back. For now, when you kids come looking for you, leave whatever you are working on with a grateful heart and go to them. If you go with bitterness and resentment, it will taint the time spent with them and poison the artwork when you return. If you aren’t mindful about resentment, it’ll sneak up on you and the game is lost. That's when the trouble really hits, because neither of your roles will be fulfilling. The balance will be off. 


2. Rest – I’ve always prided myself in my lower need for sleep…. But, time is catching up with me. I’m finding it harder to burn the candle at both ends. Over the last couple years I started to realize a pattern between my patience as a husband and father and my lack of quality rest. As such, I’ve had to be more disciplined about my sleeping/rest routine. I wish we could all get drunk late into the night and wake up ready and refreshed to crack out a few lines of prose and finish the last song all while flipping a stack of pancakes and delivering breakfast in bed to my wife, but who am I kidding? If I’m up until 1 am, the kids don’t care and they are up all the earlier. If I was up finishing off a six pack of whatever high alcohol content beer it is I’m enjoying lately, I’m pretty worthless. It is difficult to be good at anything (in this case, a parent and songwriter) and be chronically tired, operating at less than 100%. Know how much sleep you need. Fight to maintain a schedule that gets you there. Limit the rock n’ roll lifestyle if it is coming back to bite you. If you are rested, your writing will be better and you'll have the patience needed when the shape of your pancakes doesn't fit the criteria for your 4-year-old food critic.


3. Seize the quiet hours – If you are following the advice above and are well rested, then you are ready to seize those precious minutes to hours of quiet time. Josh Ritter spends his Sunday mornings (up by 5am or so, eeesh) writing prose and the quiet moments after all are asleep songwriting. We all know we have different preferences for how and when we write. Some don’t like to plan it. Some do. Some like music on. Some want to write in the car or at a coffee shop where college kids get to fit in and practice being themselves without the a-holes of their high school judging them. Some want complete silence in their favorite chair. For me, I need to seize the moment when the kids are occupied or asleep. Asleep is the safer choice in our home, but of course you never can never tell when a night-terror or bed-wetting scenario will pop up. If I’m on my game, I like to quietly get a little done before they day begins. My kids are usually up by 6, however, so night time is where I go more frequently. After the hour-long (or more) bed-time routine, I try to do some dishes or something to switch my mind-mode… Currently, it is watching an episode of Ted Lasso with my wife (It’s Roy Kent!). Then I pick up the guitar and start getting into the writing zone. 


4. Keep the phone handy – This may be another obvious one, but the notes app and audio recordings are essential for catching the tail of the muse as it sores by while folding laundry or picking up legos. To help save the moment of inspiration and hopefully return to it later, I try to capture not only the idea, but also some of the feelings and other vague thoughts that swirl in my head so as to anchor myself to that moment of inspiration. I have a hard time jumping back into an emotional song I’ve only partly written, but if I’ve got a few more tidbits of storyline tying me to the space I was in while writing it, it feels easier to return and pick up where I left off. Whether it is a pad of paper or your phone, keep something handy to jot down the inspired thoughts. 


5. Forgive yourself for not always being awesome – Being a parent is hard. I fail daily. (I’m starting to get it, mom and dad. Thanks for doing hard work.) Being a good parent while doing anything else well, songwriting included, is also hard. Don’t be too hard on yourself when either one doesn’t feel like it is meeting your expectations. The words and songs will come if you keep your pen handy and your mind and heart open to the muse as it zips past. The kids grow up. They fly away. Its best to keep that in mind while they still come running to your side. Though it won’t always be possible, I do think you can set yourself up to maximize the songwriting moments you get, so that you can be the best parent you can be while your little ones are still little and require more of your attention and love. Forgive yourself and take the pressure off when you don't finish the song. If you can't get back to the space you were when you left, the song probably wasn't your next big hit, and that chapter wasn't the correct storyline. Consider those false starts and half-finished choruses as the prep-work to the next great idea waiting for you around the corner. 

 

So there it is. Is this helpful? What has worked for you to balance your role as a parent and songwriter? What hasn’t worked as well? Stay tuned for a few thoughts on my specific songwriting tactics while being a dad to two very energetic littles at home. Until then, feel free to check out any of my music on Bandcamp, spotify, etc, follow me on social media (facebook; ig: nash_david_), and go check out my novel The Man in the Pines, a reimagination of the story of Paul Bunyan. 

And most importantly, thank you. 

*** the photo is of my two crazy kids who give me more writing material than I could imagine.