A recent HBO documentary — “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” — profiled the careers of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, superstar New York newspaper columnists. Between them, they also wrote dozens of nonfiction books and novels.
In the film, the interviewer asked Hamill what advice he had for writers. He had a simple answer:
By reading a lot, you not only can learn a lot, but you also can get the feel of the rhythm and pace of excellent writing.
That feel can find its way into your own writing.
The substance of our own adventures feeds our writing.
Reading other writers’ living adventures expands our universe and can enrich our writing.
It also can help us develop an engaging style.
Have you ever thought of looking for examples in the lyrics of tunes from the Great American Songbook, lyrics by such giants as Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein?
Those lyrics embody simplicity — a standard we should embrace — and, even without hearing the music, we can feel the rhythm.
I encourage you to read — and reread — lyrics like those appearing below.
Let them wash over you; you may find yourself saying, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Ah, but it does get better, when you experience a recording of these songs. That’s why they are considered “standards,” and why singers over the decades have performed them thousands of times.
Now, feel the rhythm.
All the Things You Are
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
(Music: Jerome Kern/Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein)
In the Still of the Night
In the still of the night
As I gaze from my window
At the Moon in its flight
My thoughts all stray to you.
Do you love me as I love you?
Are you my life to be, my dream come true?
Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight
Like the Moon growing dim on the rim of the hill
In the chill, still of the night.
(Music and lyrics: Cole Porter)
The benefit of this exercise? You may find yourself relaxing into the rhythms and then, holding onto the feeling, allowing your writing to flow more simply and easily.
You may never find yourself writing something that tries to match the sophistication of Cole Porter’s internal rhymes — “Growing dim on the rim of the hill, in the chill, still of the night” — but your writing can deliver a sense of flow and grace.
Or, think of it this way: Duke Ellington wrote the music; Irving Mills, the lyrics.
“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: www.writebetterwithgary.com.