I recently had the opportunity to interview singer and songwriter Carolyn Arends for Maranatha News. As we chatted via email, we found out that we’re both trying to juggle motherhood and university along with other commitments. Carolyn is currently doing a master’s degree while also teaching and singing and raising two children. I was honoured that she took a few minutes to answer my questions about writing songs…
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An Interview with Carolyn Arends
TKM: How did you become a songwriter?
Carolyn Arends: I was a really shy kid, and I discovered songwriting early on as a way to express myself. When I was ten, I wrote a song for my mom for Mother’s Day and it was a huge hit (with my mom)—so there was really no stopping me from there. I got my first professional break when I was twenty-one and signed a contract to write songs for other artists with a Nashville Publisher … that led eventually to a record deal and the chance to sing my own stuff for people.
Carolyn: Frederick Buechner claims that “God speaks into and out of the thick of our days” and songwriting for me (writing in general, really) is a way of forcing myself to listen and respond to that still, small voice. As a result, pretty much anything can be an inspiration to write, but I’ve noticed that the more I read great books, the more likely I am to end up writing something.
Listening to really beautiful music helps, too, as well as the consumption of high-grade chocolate.
TKM: Who is your favourite author or musician and why?
Carolyn: I’ve already given this one away on the previous question—Frederick Buechner’s spiritual memoirs woke me up to the sacredness of supposedly mundane details many years ago, and I still turn to his work when I need another wake-up call!
Carolyn Arends’ Writing Advice
I had the opportunity to meet Carolyn Arends at the Write! Vancouver conference hosted by The Word Guild. It was refreshing to be gathered with so many other Canadian, Christian writers all passionate about their craft. My first workshop was Carolyn Arends’ songwriting class. I have no intentions of ever writing songs, but the novel workshop was full when I registered, so I decided to take Carolyn’s class.
As I sat in her workshop—and others later that day—I thought about how good writing advice is good writing advice no matter what genre you write in. Most of what I write these days is for various blogs and websites, but many of the same tips apply as for writing songs or novels. So here’s my highlights from Write! Vancouver.
Process of Inspiration
Carolyn opened her workshop by talking about the Process of Inspiration—four steps identified by scientists as what happens inside people’s mind when they get an idea. The first step is preparation, which is basically your whole life (all that fodder you pull from personal experience to write a song, story, or blog post), but also includes the things that inspire you (like your favourite place to write or your favourite CD).
Then comes incubation, the hatching of an idea, which may happen over a few minutes, days, or even years. You might keep the idea just in your head or you might jot scraps down on a piece of paper or start a blog post or do more research on the topic. Eventually, the third phase—illumination—occurs, when you have an “aha” moment and start writing. This is the time to just write; let the rough draft flow without editing yourself.
The final stage is verification. This is where you go back to edit and polish your writing. Then you get feedback, either from a critique group (if you are writing stories or novels) or your blog readers or your editor/publisher. All parts of this stage are vital to the process of creating; let yourself work through them, allowing time for each phase. Deadlines here (whether self-imposed by your own blog schedule or given to you by an editor) can be a friend, because they force you to stop editing and rewriting and simply present the final product.
Questions to Ask of Your Writing
While in the verification phase, just before you hit “publish” or send that piece to your editor, you can ask yourself a series of questions to help improve your writing and identify problems in the piece.
1. Does your subject matter… matter? Is this important to you? Something you are passionate about?
2. What is your hook (or thesis or title or main idea)? It should be clear very quickly what this song, story, or article is about.
4. Is it general where it could be specific? Connect to people’s imaginations by using concrete things, like the deep orange tiger lily growing by your front door instead of just the flower.
5. Is it obscure where it could be relatable? Know your audience so you don’t make reference to something most of them have never heard about; specific can sometimes be too specific.
6. Is it abstract where it could be concrete? Abstract is a concept (like love or motherhood) while concrete is something physical (a hug or a muddy trail of footprints). In my post on Tuesday, I tried to identify concrete things that I love about motherhood (a big, abstract concept).
Carolyn had another six questions to ask while editing, but I had to slip out for my next workshop. Over lunch, I reconnected with a fellow writer who also moved to Vancouver Island recently. In the afternoon, I talked to a mentor about publishing my short stories.
More about Carolyn Arends
Carolyn Arends is a singer/songwriter, author, speaker, college instructor, recent grad school graduate, wife, mother and slightly distracted driver. (She’s working on the driver part. Road safety is important.) She is also the Director of Education for Renovaré, a wide-reaching organization that encourages and nurtures spiritual renewal.
She lives in Surrey, BC, with her husband Mark and their two kids, Ben and Beth. She loves ideas and language (and chocolate). To find out more about her music or books, drop by her website.