Pat Pattison’s Songwriting Without Boundaries is a book of writing exercises intended to help songwriters improve their lyrics and, as the cover says, “find their voice.” The exercises are broken out into four fourteen-day challenges, the first of which is called “object writing.” Object writing is a technique where the writer starts with about an object in mind, and then writes about that object using descriptive, sense-bound language. An “object,” in this case, just seems to mean a noun; in the exercises I was prompted to write about people, places, and things. The key is to write about the object using sensory language: the things you would see, hear, smell, taste, feel through your sense of touch, or feel through your kinaesthetic sense (i.e., sense of movement) when experiencing the thing. For example, if the prompt word was “candle,” you might describe how the flame of the candle flickers, how it casts shadows on a nearby wall, how it has a waxy texture, the sensation of heat radiating off of it, how it has drips of wax running down its side, how it has a citrus aroma – you get the idea.
According to Pattison, the purpose of this exercise is “To give you easy access to your sense memories” (2010), meaning the memories we have of the sensations we have experienced. By using sensory language, the writer can allow the listener’s sense memories to paint a picture of the scene in their imagination. Let’s examine how sensory language is used in the first five lines of The Eagles’ Hotel California (1976):
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
Notice that the song’s lyrics are very sense-bound. They engage multiple senses to paint a picture for the listener: a dark desert highway, a shimmering light (visual), the smell of “colitas” (according to Don Felder of The Eagles, “The colitas is a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell” ), the cool wind in the narrator’s hair (touch), the narrator’s head growing heavy, and the presumable feeling of motion while driving down the highway (kinaesthetic). This use of multiple senses to engage the listener in the song was very intentional. According to Felder (2013), “When we try to write lyrics, we try to write lyrics that touch multiple senses, things you can see, smell, taste, hear. ‘I heard the mission bell,’ you know, or ‘the warm smell of colitas,’ talking about being able to relate something through your sense of smell. Just those sort of things.” As Felder points out, writing for the senses gives the listener a point of entry through which they can relate to the song. Pattison says, “When a lyric stimulates and provokes your senses, you draw the images from your own experience,” and that this “Pulls the listener into the song by using his own memories as the song’s material” (2011, p. 4). This is as an incredibly powerful way to help the listener become more immersed in the song, making the experience vivid and engaging. It also makes writing more enjoyable and immersive for the writer, too, I found. The exercise helped me to recognize that one of my favourite things about songs is their ability to paint a scene in one’s imagination.
With each word prompt exercise, Pattison provides examples that other authors have written for that particular word. The examples are effective in demonstrating how to write using sensory language, and were a treat to read. Several of them also made effective use of metaphor, which actually helped paint an even more vivid picture than a straight description of the object might have been able to. For example, one of the object writing prompts was the word “puppy.” In one of the examples for this prompt, an author writes “Big eyes looking up like glass marbles” as part of their description of the puppy (p. 30). The metaphor of “glass marbles” quickly and effectively paints the picture of the small dog’s glossy eyes, and conveys more information about their appearance than if he had simply written “glossy eyes” or something similar. The next fourteen day challenge in the book is on metaphor, and I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about it.
Pattison, Pat. Song-writing without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2011. Print
The Eagles. “Hotel California.” Hotel California, Asylum, 1976. CD.
Songwork. “Songwork’s Object Writing with Pat Pattison.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, June 8 2010. Oct. 4 2016.
“Don Felder : Songwriter Interviews.” Songfacts, Feb. 4 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.