Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Faith in the Headlights

Rosanne Cash has been writing songs for over three decades, most recently releasing the critically acclaimed album Black Cadillac in 2006. But she doesn't limit herself just to music. "My liveliest cottage industry now is writing for magazines," she says. And besides contributing essays to The New York Times, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living and other publications, Rosanne has also written a book of short stories and a children's book. We here at the Visual Thesaurus were thrilled to have a fascinating conversation with Rosanne about her work:

VT: Is there a difference between writing lyrics and writing prose?

Rosanne: The difference? I edited a book of songwriters' prose not too long ago called Songs Without Rhyme and in the foreword I said that people always ask me that question. But to me it's the "same water, different pool."

The process isn't that different in that with both genres you have to worm your way down to the tunnels of your own inspiration and get into that particular zone that writers get into. But obviously with songwriting you're balancing your lyrics with a melody and they have to fuse seamlessly or else it doesn't work as a song. Also, with songs you're working in a very restricted climate - you have a three and a half or four minute format. You have to follow the rhyme scheme you set up in the beginning and obey your song's internal structure. It's a very prescribed playground. But I really like structure so songwriting is incredibly satisfying to me, and I love music more than anything.

But having said that, finding melody in prose is really exciting to me, too, because it's so subtle and so different. You're not doing chord changes, but there is melody there, obviously. Was it Natalie Goldberg who said, "To turn a word over and over in your hand like a stone until it's rubbed smooth?" I always have the image in my head when I write. You just tinker with words, shift it here and rub it there until that internal melody is perfect.

VT: Do you find that music when you write essays?

Rosanne: Yes, I do. I certainly have to look for it but it's really satisfying when it comes out. You know how E. L. Doctorow said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can't see beyond the headlights, but you can get all the way home." I feel that way about both songwriting and writing prose. Sometimes a song or essay starts with a singular image and I don't know where it's going. I just have to follow the headlights.

VT: And have the faith to follow those headlights.

Rosanne: Yes, you have to have the willingness to take that leap. My friend John Stewart, a great songwriter, told early in my career, "write everything and edit later." That was a very liberating piece of advice.

VT: I think a lot of people get caught up with editing while they're writing.

Rosanne: It's dangerous. I used to teach songwriting and that was one of the things I hammered home to my students, that if you start editing too early in the process, your internal critic gets too strong. You just give that critic power and you get dismantled early in the process. There is a place for the critic and editor, but it's more towards the end.

VT: I read from liner notes to your music that you say you work to "articulate emotional realities." I'm curious to know more about how you do this. How do you convey emotion?

Rosanne: I don't like a lot of personal drama in my life and I don't like things that are messy. So bringing my discipline as a writer to those things that are unmanageable is very useful to me. And not to be crass about it, but pain and emotional upheaval provide a great wealth of material. But it works both ways: my life feeds the songwriting and songwriting provides clarity and discipline to those things in my life that feel unmanageable.

VT: What are you writing now?

Rosanne: I'm about two thirds of the way through a nonfiction book. In fact I just gave the manuscript to my editor two days ago. It's a memoir, but I hate to say that because I don't think I'm old enough to write a memoir. So I call it a "partial memoir."

VT: Has writing your book been different from the other writing you've been doing?

Rosanne: Yes, I'm enjoying spreading my wings a bit; it's a much larger canvas to paint on. There's a certain safety in songwriting that I've become accustomed to after doing it for over thirty years. Prose still feels like uncharted territory in some ways. It's a bigger leap for me. When I started writing some of these chapters and didn't really know where it was heading and 6,000 words later I figured it out - that took a willingness to go on the whole journey.

VT: We talked earlier about venturing into the unknown and not knowing where you're going when you're writing. You'd think that only beginning writers would face these kinds of things.

Rosanne: You mean being careful of your inner critic, the discipline, the leaping off point, the trust, the fear, and after finishing something thinking you're never going to write anything again? No. It always happens. After I wrote "Black Cadillac" and made that record, I thought I'd never write any more songs, it was over. But I feel like that every time I make a record. I always feel like a beginner which is both wonderful, and a bit terrifying.

That reminds me of a great story about Kris Kristofferson, who is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and my dad, who was also a tremendous songwriter. My dad wrote a song, I forgot what it was, and Kris asked him, "How did you come up with the idea?" And I was thinking, what are you talking about? You're one of the greatest songwriters in the world, you know how ideas happen, what do you mean? But it was so adorable that Kris felt like a beginner, too. And he looked at another songwriter and said, how does he do that? And yet he does it himself every day.

(photo credit: Ethan Russell)

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 19th 2007, 4:24 AM
Comment by: Jack B.
very cool article.
Monday March 16th 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Kris Kristofferson's humility is refreshing. He is a talented songwriter and actor. Thanks for the insight on him.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 7:15 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Very interesting... I'm going to study it more.

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