Monday, August 22, 2011

Finding Stephen Sondheim in Bangor Maine

This is more than an excuse to share some photos from our trip to Maine, but I do want to do that, too--a rainbow over my sister Laura's place, northern Maine looking toward Mount Katahdin, and my brother David's blueberry pie.

Who would have thought that on a trip to northern Maine I'd find a copy of Stephen Sondheim's book about writing song lyrics for musicals--Finishing the Hat-Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. But I did and am excited to have it. We writers can learn from each other and often "cross-over learning" surprises us, shakes us out of our old ways into some new ways.

And, sure enough, right off the bat, in the Preface I find: "There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms...I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I've every written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:

Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is in the Details

all in the service of


without which nothing else matters."

In thinking about "Content Dictates Form," I was reminded of Candace Fleming's wonderful book about the Lincolns, The Lincolns: a scrapbook look at Abraham and Mary.

Stephen Sondheim and this wonderful Lincoln book will make me think harder about the form of my next book--what is the best, right-est form for the story I want to tell? Maybe short prose poems, maybe letters, maybe include some lists. But whatever I do, I won't assume that the traditional narrative is the best form.

"Less is More" is the first principle of revision which is really often cutting, cutting, cutting, to let the real story emerge. Sondheim says in writing lyrics for musicals the principle further demands that the lyric writer leave a space for the music to carry the message, too, that too much fanciness in the lyrics gets in the way of the music. This is probably true for picture book writers. We should leave a space for illustrators to add their important strand to the story.

And of course "God is in the Details." We know that. That's why we spend so much time thinking about the details of our characters and our settings. But it's good to be reminded, and to be reminded that it's a truism for all writing.

And the blueberry pie-- warm summer days, smell of pines, fingers stained purple and blue. Best for breakfast.


  1. I *love* FINISHING THE HAT! Gave it to Jim as a gift, but it's as much a gift to me. :> xo

  2. I think I'm going to love it, too. He is so thoughtful about what he does.

  3. well.... the book gets a bit luguuuuubrious, actually... so I ended up skimming a lot, reading the boxes, and soaking up all that I could. It's still a good book. I'm not a lyricist. Or a composer (of music). I still think those three 'rules' are great. xo

  4. Oh what a great word--lugubrious. And I think you've just turned it into an entire song lyric. This afternoon I've promised myself an hour side by side with Sondheim.