In the July 18th edition of The Wall Street Journal, former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry spoke with the paper about the process of writing songs for his second album. Much of the commentary was boilerplate, discussing how emotional strain and constant touring informed his lyrics. But an aside about the song "No Surprises," co-written with Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, stuck out. Daughtry explained how Kroeger searched for rhymes by methodically ticking off every letter of the alphabet which was printed on a strip of tape over a doorframe.
Though I must confess to not being a huge fan of either of the Top-40 rockers, I find their approach to writing fascinating. A certain aura of transcendence tends to accrete around successful authors, a conviction that they possess some ineffable competence to which we mere mortals can only aspire. But while talent certainly plays its role, writing is always work, no matter how much latent skill you have. In his autobiography Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl said, "The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. ... If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not."
This is the point where simple exercises come in, little crutches to prop up our writerly weaknesses. For my part, I’m awful at settings. The story may be comic or tragic, the pacing speedy or stately, the characters flat as a pancake or round as a bowling ball, but it all seems to be going on in the same ill-defined space, sort of a literary equivalent of George Lucas’ much-reviled green screens. Rather than trust to inspiration, I’ve created a crutch of my own, à la Kroeger’s tape. The Setting Sheet is a little slip of paper about three by eight inches. On one side is a list of all the senses (a nod to N.D. Wilson), on the other the words "architecture," "flora / fauna," "weather" and "hoi polloi." When it’s time for a setting sequence, out comes the sheet. If I can mark off at least half of the categories by the end of a paragraph, I consider it a success. After all, there’s no shame in using a crutch as long as it carries you as far as you need to go.
(Picture: CC 2009 by korafotomorgana; Hat Tip: The Rabbit Room)