Learning to Tell the Truth


Happy Spring! I'm excited to be teaching new songwriting workshops - Italy in May, and Nashville in June!

I am often asked “Can songwriting really be taught? Isn’t songwriting just a natural-born gift or a talent?"  What I teach, and what I enjoy teaching, is that we writers are called to write primarily because we have something to say that matters.

As most of you know, I did not start writing songs until my early 30’s, though I was trying to write long before that. My early attempts failed for a variety of reasons (primarily my lack of sobriety), but also my lack of confidence.

I didn’t believe that what I had to say mattered. In retrospect, 10 albums and 20 years later, I think this is something most beginning songwriters struggle with.

I got sober in 1990. Soon after that I picked up a guitar and started trying to write songs about how I was feeling. I had time on my hands, PLENTY of time. I did not hang out at bars or parties anymore. I came home to an quiet, empty house every night after work, with nothing to do.

Turns out, this was a good thing. It gave me time to focus on the songs, and keep working on them, making them better and better.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, and started hanging out at the Boston and Cambridge open mics. I watched other beginners struggle on stage, and I watched what worked for them, and what didn’t. People always love great singers and a skilled guitarist is impressive, and those things got applause. But that’s not what I was interested in. Great songs were what I was looking for, and they are hard to find at an open mic.

I took some songwriting classes, but the teachers I found were not right for me and I didn’t learn much because they were teaching about writing hits, which I didn’t care about. I cared about the heart, not the chart. I still do.

So I became a better writer by writing, and playing, and writing, and playing, for years. And paying attention to what connected with people.

And always, connection happened with emotional honesty.

Here’s the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this discussion: Writing can be taught, if it’s writing for and from the heart. Putting yourself on the line, and revealing what matters to you.

Talent cannot be taught, but courage can be taught.

When I write, and when I teach writing, I use the word courage and truth over and over and over again. These are two essential things that make for great writing.

Hemingway famously said he was trying to “Write one true sentence.” I try to get my students (and myself) to write one true line. Once you finally have that one true line, you can then grow a song out of it. If you do not have that, then you are building your house on sand. I often have to write for hours to get to that true line, but once I get there, I know a good song can grow out of it.

I teach my students to try and locate their own truth-o-meter…get in touch with the place in their gut where they know, and apply it to their songs, line by line.

It gets tricky because songwriting is not journalism. We’re not looking for objective truths in songs. We’re looking for emotional truths that resonate, and sometimes we must lie to get to them.

Picasso said that art is a lie that points to the truth, and if that were not tricky enough, I’d also add that in songwriting we should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I cannot teach a student what matters to them, where to find their inspiration, or what to write about. But I can teach a songwriter that their job is to make the listener feel something, and the way to do that is to reveal something that matters in a way that makes them, the songwriter, feel something.

In other words, be vulnerable.

The human heart is the same everywhere you go. People are people are people are people. Once we  truly get this, it becomes clear that to connect we must show listeners our heart, and in that process we writers will also show them theirs. This is teachable, if the student is willing to be brave enough to reveal what most people try to hide.

With our hands shaking and our voices cracking, in my class, we learn to tell the truth.