Discovering a Lyric through Prose Writing

by Carol de Giere on September 4, 2013

pen-notebook“I hate writing love songs,” Stephen Schwartz ranted to me one day in an interview in 2003. “They are very, very difficult for me. Every time I have to do one I think what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said a million times before and probably a great deal better?”

As we spoke about his movie writing lyrics for Disney animated features, he recalled what it took to write “If I Never Knew You,” a touching love song from Pocahontas (with music by Alan Menken).

How did he get past the blank page? “Sometimes if I’m really stuck, I think I’m stuck because I don’t know what the song is about. I don’t actually know what I’m trying to say. So I take a step back from what I’m trying to do, which is actually come up with specific lines, to find out what the song is about. That’s basically what happened with ‘If I Never Knew You.’” He tried a technique sometimes known as freewriting or stream of consciousness writing. In a notebook, he wrote out several pages of invented prose, almost like a letter. It worked to bring clarity and support the collaborative effort.

He elaborates on his songwriting experience on his website: “I was struggling with a concept for the song, and so I wrote a long sort of stream of consciousness monologue of what John Smith might be saying to Pocahontas at that point in the story and showed it to Alan [Menken]. He picked out the phrase ‘If I never knew you’ from within the body of the monologue, and that became the title of the song.”

pocahontas-album-coverFrom there he was able to approach the love song with a specific line in mind, clear concepts, and the characters freshly drawn in his imagination. Even if a lyricist wishes to come from a poetic place when approaching a song, writing things out in prose can be a valuable step.

Pocahontas – MP3 a Amazon

If I Never Knew You (End Title) – Pocahontas (Original Soundtrack) – iTunes

Carol de Giere is the author of Defying Gravity: the Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, website publisher for MusicalWriters.com, and editor of the Musical Writerzine – a newsletter for writers and producers of new musicals.

 

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