May 23, 2008

Me and Tim McGraw

            I wanna write a country music song.  And I want Tim McGraw to sing it.

            I’ve wanted to do this for a long time – ever since I had a dream that Tim and Faith and I were in my yard talking about the song I’d written because he was preparing to record it.  The dream was so vivid I went across the road to Momma and Daddy’s house to tell them about it and, you’re not going to believe this, but my daddy’d had a nearly identical dream on the same night!  And he’d heard some of the lyrics, but couldn’t remember any of them!

            Unfortunately all my writing time for the next long while was taken up trying to make the edits Algonquin wanted on my first (only) book, Heart in the Right Place.

            But I knew it would happen eventually.  It was just a matter of time.

            A few days ago I walked into Food City in Pigeon Forge and heard Tim singing My Little Girl.  That’s a really nice song and it got me motivated to start writing my first country music song.

            I stayed up late into the night scribbling for hours…

            It’s my destiny to write a song for Tim. 

            So, it’s gonna happen.  I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to … and I don’t.

            The fact that I have no talent, ability, or training in the discipline of songwriting is not going to discourage me a bit either.

            I made a documentary film with no training whatsoever and it worked out real good.  Then I wrote a book with absolutely no training and it worked out good too. 

            To tell the truth, the reason I wrote a book after making the film instead of making a second film was because during the making of the movie I promised God if he would help me get out of the maddening multi-year million dollar project with no fatalities I would never ever let fifty crazy high-strung Hollywood dreamers and lunatics get between me and my ability to realize a product from my artistic imagination again.

            In my wandering search for the right medium for my distinctive hillbilly voice and total lack of managerial skills, I’ve written for film, television, radio, short and long form print media.  It’s all been okay, but not the magic I’m looking for.

            Now I want to be sung.  By Tim.

            This obsession with sound probably has to do with the fact that I was born with an eye handicap.  I can’t see for s***.  The whole time I was working on my book I was conceptualizing it as a hillbilly comic opera.  A sort of Gilbert and Sullivan of the Smokies.  I don’t mean I wanted it to be made into a musical.  I mean it came to me in sonic form, like a medieval epic poem, Chanson de Carolyn.  Or, as my oldest friend, the world champion of accidental but astute malapropisms referred to it, “The Idi-Odyssey” (the front of the word is pronounced to sound like “idiot”).

            I have motley-colored dog-eared stacks of fast food napkins all over my house with single lines scribbled on them.  I’ve been accumulating them for years for possible use in my song.  For example, once I heard just the last line of a savage argument between a man and woman.  A woman shouted, “If I can’t have your love, I don’t want your Vidalia onions!”

            The line haunts me.  I suspect there is a country song in there somewhere.

            The Vidalia onion inspiration was the first one I felt might work out to be a good song.  The next one came from a friend whose husband left her for a woman with the same name.  Something about being a Suzie who was left for another Suzie seemed especially irritating and unfair to both her and me. After the divorce my friend had to move to a used single-wide trailer.  She experienced this as a surreal come-down.  When she got her first look at the inside of her new home, she was surprised to find it was immaculate and perfectly empty except for a single item:  a wedding dress hanging in the closet.

            Now there’s gotta be a country music song in that.

            My third idea came from two other friends who’re currently shopping for a third wife and a fourth husband, respectively.  Unfortunately, they don’t want to marry each other, I tried that already.

            I’ve never gotten married even once (which is the source of my fourth idea).  The main reason I’ve never married is because I’ve always suspected nobody would ever take their vows as seriously as I would.  The disparity between the marital statistics of myself in comparison with everyone around me has frequently caused me to ponder what in the h*** people like my two friends might possibly be thinking about as they recite holy vows for a third or fourth time.

            I’ve asked them both, and they have no answer.

            So that’s what they’ll be thinking.  Not a d*** thing.

            There’s a great country song in that.  It would make an ideal song for Tim McGraw.  Especially since it would structurally match my two favorite songs by Tim, Don’t Take the Girl and One of These Days, both of which have three compelling stanzas.  I could write a stanza for each trip down the aisle and the chorus would the same words every time but mean something totally different in the changing context.  That would be perfect.

            I’ve strained for a line of lyrics on that “Third Time’s a Charm” idea, but nothing is happening yet.

            Recently I got a book on songwriting and found out I shared a methodology with one of the greats, Harlan Howard (I Fall to Pieces, I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail).  We both write from comments we overhear and jot down on napkins.  Okay, he wrote on bar napkins and I write on fast food napkins, but there’s still a theme there.

            He was a serial marry-er and I’m an old maid (with a trail of ex-boyfriends 36 years long).  So there’s another similarity:  I suspect we’re both commitment phobic.

            That’s some strong similarity:  professional writers who never carry anything to write on…or with…who can’t tolerate the idea of writing more than one sentence at a sitting…and who don’t have any ideas except those they hear spoken by other people around them.

            The book on songwriting gave me the confidence to come up with the title and a chorus for my old maid song:  “She Ain’t Purty, But…”  There’s a world of potential in that.

            I’m telling all this in a blog because I understand from my book that a lot of country music songwriters work in teams.  Perhaps I would benefit from having a teammate.  No experience is required.

            If you wanna get in on the ground floor of a no-possible-way-to-fail hit-song project, email me at, and let’s get to cranking.

            It’s a sure thing.

May 31, 2007

FAQ on Writing

An Interview With Carolyn Jourdan

Why do you write?
Because I love my little community so much—the culture and the dialect.
Because I wanted to preserve a picture of what Smoky Mountain culture was like before it was overrun, diluted, and homogenized by new people moving to the area and by the effect of the increasingly pervasive presence of national media in our lives.
Because I wanted to preserve a picture of what family medicine was like at its best—before the business people got in charge of health care and when the doctor not only knew his patient well, he knew 4 generations of the patient’s family and all his cousins, too.
To capture the unique view of a community that a doctor’s family is privy to.
To tell what I learned about the difference in performing some grand gesture of “public service” from 500 miles away and doing even a poor job at something humble at ground zero.
To keep from going insane during a stressful time—to order my own thinking about my life.

What is your writing routine?

Most of the book originated on fast food drive-thru napkins and post-its. I got huge stacks of them and then tried to sort them out and transcribe them. I like to write down things people say. I love the things real people really say. That’s almost the only thing that truly interests me. Real people, real lives, real speech. That’s the good stuff.
Often, I had a palmtop on the reception desk and typed what people were saying and doing without them realizing I was doing it.
If I can I write first thing in the morning, 90 minutes or bust, that’s my best time. Most other times are not good for me. I just can’t do it during other times of the day. Some people can write all day or late at night, but I can’t.
If you write a little bit, day after day, little by little, one day you shock yourself by having a book suddenly show up.

How did you find your story?
This book took 19 years of writing and rewriting. It eventually came to be about what was happening to me personally – but for many years I never intended for it to be about me. I wasn’t even in the book as a character for most of the 19 years. But then I took the fact that I got caught up in Daddy’s office up close and personal as a sign from God to get disciplined and serious about doing the book I’d been pecking away at sporadically for so long.

How do you handle the first draft?
Very poorly. It was just little chicken scratches. Teaching myself to write was agonizing. At first the “book” was 8 stories (each 1 page long) and I was soooo proud of that. Then it was a huge collection of funny stories.
After several years I added a couple of stories that weren’t laugh-out-loud funny, but were interesting. Then, finally, after about 15 years, I added the really sad, downright heartbreaking stories. Then the book seemed rounded out and made a kind of sense to me.
I only meant to lighten people’s lives like my idols James Herriott, Bill Cosby, and Bill Bryson. Or lighten people’s lives like the comedians who can make you laugh and cry back-to-back. That’s what I really love more than anything in the world. But then a famous literary press bought the book and that amazed me. I’m still not over that.
I never thought of myself as a “writer.” I was an engineer and then a lawyer. I had hardly any English in college. In hindsight I believe that helped me more than anything—the fact that I never got much ego into the notion of thinking of myself as a “writer.”
I’ve gotten to work with several amazing editors. That is a highly specialized gift—to be able to edit other people’s work effectively (by that I mean provide constructive criticism that doesn’t crush the artist as opposed to attempting to force a writer to meet the editor’s personal writing style which is what bad editors do). I really appreciate a great editor now. They don’t rewrite your stuff. That was a wrong idea I had. I thought you gave your drafts to them and they fixed them. Oh no. They tell you what they think would improve the work and you have to figure out the fix yourself and then do all the work yourself—but if you didn’t, the style wouldn’t match—so it’s got to be done that way, I guess.

Do you have any writing advice?
Finish the book. My oldest friend, we’ve known each other since we met at the University of Tennessee when we were 19, asked me these questions: “How many people do you know who want to write a book? How many people do you know who ever even started a book? How many people do you know who have ever finished a book?
I realized that although I knew many people who said they were going to write a book one day, I didn’t know a single person who’d even started, much less finished a book.
My friend told me that this was a universal phenomenon and that if I finished a book, he would personally certify that it would be published by the sheer fact of the rarity of anyone’s ever finishing one. He bet me a million dollars that sheer momentum would carry any book I completed all the way through the process of getting an agent and getting published if I would simply (1) start and (2) finish a book. Any book. He was right.
You don’t need anything else before these 2 steps have been completed – not an agent, not anything.
The second best bit of advice came from a great documentary film writer I worked with. He’s also a Professor of Shakespeare. Instead of suggesting fixes for my work, he told me to ask myself: “What are you trying to say?” I listened to him and whenever I’d get confused or stuck, I’d ask myself what I was trying to say and then sit still and listen for the answer. It always comes. Sometimes you realize what you were trying to say was so stupid you don’t need to write it down. Other times it gets you to the most meaningful part of the book.
The third thing is: you’ve got to learn to be edited. You’ve gotta learn how to cope with being edited. It’s hard.
Be careful who you show your work to. Some people don’t know squat – not even that they don’t know squat. Be sure the person you show the book to is someone who would be a likely customer for that kind of book. For example, I could never help someone with explicit or violent material, because I never read it and don’t know what is considered “good” in those genres.
You have to be strongly opinionated to write in the first place, then flexible while you’re getting edited, then come back strong in the re-write.
Writers have to learn to be solitary people. If they are out talking to people about their writing, they aren’t writing. When I’m out yakking or shopping I tell myself I’m “collecting material” or “living” but I’m not sure how often I’m just avoiding writing.
There are two clearly defined groups of writers – the ones who talk about it and the ones who do it. I don’t won’t to get over into the wrong category due to laziness.

March 7, 2007

Great Writers Speak

I’ve been listening to a set of audio CDs compiled from Terry Gross’ interviews with writers on her NPR show Fresh Air. The insights contained therein are REALLY great. I ordered it from NPR’s online store.

February 23, 2007

New and Improved Writing Techniques

Gradually I transitioned to the much more “professional” and “elegant” way of creating a first draft — fast food napkins — these notes were clearly produced during a McDonald’s phase. : )

Early Stages of Heart in the Right Place

Large piles of scraps of paper with one-liners written on them — snippets of conversation, ideas…

February 5, 2007


Go to Borders Cafe…buy hot chocolate…bring headphones for your laptop.

And be careful who you show your work to. Be sure it’s is someone who likes books in the same genre you are writing in. As you can sometimes intuit from reading savage book reviews, you are putting a gun to your head by having your draft romance novel critiqued by a guy whose favorite reads are computer manuals and military history.

Editing is a very high-skill, specialized talent. Few people can do it. Your cousin or immediate family members are very likely to be rotten at it and will (purposely or by accident) crush both your artistic spirit and your will to live if you ask them for writing advice.

The intersection of art and commerce is like throwing yourself into a paper shredder, a hay baling machine, a combine, a thresher, a sugarcane press (depending on the area of the country you live in and what’s available).