Tag Archives: emotion

Writing Scenes That Resonate: What I’ve Learned From Patty Griffin’s Songwriting

19 Apr

Before the days of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Britney, there were…well…people known more for singing and songwriting than weird outfits and wicked awesome dancing.  People like Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, and Patty Griffin.  Since I am neither a wicked awesome dancer nor a clad-in-bubble-wrap-or-the-occasional-kermit-the-frog-outfit kind of girl, I relate more to this selection of performers than the first.

[Um, speaking of mid-nineties music, I must take a brief detour to tell you that “Gangsta’s Paradise” just blasted its way over the coffee shop speakers.  Huh.  I was under the impression that the Ubiquitous Powers That Be had made an unspoken pact to never again let this song meet airwaves.  Guess I was wrong.]

Most of you don’t know this about me, because I hardly blog about it, but music has always been a HUGE part of my life.  I sing, play piano and guitar, and write music.  If I wasn’t pursuing all things author/novels/writing, there’s a good chance I would be more focused on songwriting and performing.  Alas, ever since I decided to aim for master of one rather than jack of all, music has been relegated to hobby status.

That said, I thought it would be fun to combine my two worlds today and write about how music has affected my novel-writing life.  Though I could write about each of the artists I mentioned above, I’m just going to focus on Patty Griffin.  This is because she’s my favorite, and also because I went to her concert last week and have pretty pictures I can include.  Did I mention she’s my favorite?  (I read a rumor somewhere that some of you *ahem, Melissa* have never heard of her.  To this I say, “HERESY,” and also, “I have links for you later.  Check them out because she’s my favorite.”)

So.  Why is she my favorite, and how on earth am I going to marry this to something writing-related, you ask?

Patty Griffin’s songs are like little windows into the souls of people’s lives, poignant portaits of strangers.  She creates scenes with her songs, elicits emotion with just a smattering of well-chosen words, then sings them with conviction.  Her voice is authentic, never forced.  Being familiar with most of her writing has taught me a ton about conveying emotion, and that specific details make a scene resonate.  Patty’s songs inspire me to be more creative in which images I choose and the way I present them; that it’s not how many, but which, words are used.  Words that subtly hint at raw emotion, without being too terribly on-the-nose.

Rather than just tell you vague information, I decided to include specific examples for you.  Deep in the dumpster of YouTube, I waded for an hour (an hour, I tell you!) trying to decide which song I should focus on.  Then, I gave up.  All of her songs are good.

I refuse to leave you with zero examples, and this post would go on until tomorrow if I included everything.  So, as brief as possible, here are three of my favorite examples of things I love about Patty’s songs:


Long black limousine / shiniest car I’ve ever seen / the backseat is nice and clean / she rides as quiet as a dream // Someone dug a hole six long feet in the ground / said goodbye to you, then I threw my roses down / ain’t nothin’ left at all in the end of bein’ proud / with me riding in this car and you flying through them clouds // I’ve had some time to think about you / and watch the sun sink like a stone / I’ve had some time to think about you / on the long ride home.

— “Long Ride Home,” from her album 1,000 Kisses

Another line from that song goes, “Forty years go by with someone layin’ in your bed / forty years of things you’ve seen and wish you’d never said / how hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead?” Details of the limousine and the roses and the hole in the ground all just kinda work together to make this sad story of someone who just lost their spouse; in verse 2 (the part quoted in this paragraph) she adds this whole story of regret into the mix, with one simple line.  Painful, and brilliant.


It’s not far / I can walk / down the block / to Table Talk / close my eyes / make the pies all day // Plastic cap / on my hair / used to mind / now I don’t care / used to mind / now I don’t care / cause I’m gray // Did I show you this picture of my nephew / taken at his big birthday surprise / at my sister’s house last Sunday / this is Monday and I’m makin’ pies

“Makin’ Pies,” also from 1,000 Kisses

This song has a distinct Eleanor Rigby feel to it: lonely.  The part about the plastic cap on her hair, how she used to mind but now doesn’t care?  Breaks my little heart every time.


Diamonds, roses / I need Moses / to part this sea of loneliness, cross this Red River of pain // I don’t / necessarily buy / any key to the future, or happiness but I / need a little place in the sun sometimes or I think I will die // and everywhere is somewhere and nowhere is near / everybody got somebody with their wine and their beer / and I’m just this tragic figure in the corner over here / go home to an empty apartment and call a best friend who is queer

— “Moses,” from Living With Ghosts

Talk about being surrounded by people, but alone, desperate for love and inclusion.

I could go on and on.  I won’t.  If you want to hear more of her stuff, I recommend these two albums (Living with Ghosts and 1,000 Kisses) — not a bad song on either of them. [PS: For some strange reason, 1,000 Kisses isn’t on I-Tunes.  Here’s a link to the album on Amazon, if you’re interested.  I think you can even listen to samples.]

Since I don’t want my hour-long YouTube dumpster dive to be in vain, here are links to two songs that relate to what I’ve told you about here.  First, “Long Ride Home,” which I quoted earlier; second, “Useless Desires,” another song about loneliness with particularly good use of imagery.  (Click here to see lyrics to that one.)

Anyway.  Maybe I’ll share one of my own songs with you guys one of these days.  Until then, happy writing (and listening)!