Say it in Song: an Interview with Jennie Litt
by Writing Workshops Staff
2 months ago
by Writing Workshops Staff
2 months ago
Get ready to embark on a lyrical journey like no other with the upcoming Say It In Song: Two-Day Lyric-Crafting Workshop, led by the incredibly talented instructor, Jennie Litt. With an MFA in Fiction from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop and a prolific background in short fiction, theater, and audiobook narration, Jennie brings a wealth of creative experience to the world of songwriting.
In this exciting course, participants will discover the intricate art and craft of song lyrics, exploring the magical relationship between words and melody. Over two enriching sessions, students will delve into the fascinating nuances of lyric writing, from dissecting the impact of music on words to crafting their own complete lyrics to an existing melody. This workshop promises to be an unforgettable journey through the world of songwriting, offering invaluable takeaways for both aspiring lyricists and seasoned musicians.
In Session 1, Jennie will guide participants through the fundamentals of lyricism, touching on the differences between poetry, prose, and song lyrics, the role of rhyme, and the art of maximizing a song's impact. Students will engage in hands-on exercises, collaboratively create a dummy lyric, and set the stage for crafting their own lyrics in the week leading up to Session 2.
Session 2 will see participants workshopping their original lyrics to an existing melody, fine-tuning their craft, and seeking to create a harmonious synergy between words and music. By the end of this course, students will not only have gained a deep understanding of the songwriting craft but will also leave with a complete lyric, ready to resonate with the world. Don't miss this incredible opportunity to explore the magic of songwriting with the remarkable Jennie Litt.
WW: What was the pivotal moment or inspiration that led you to create this specific workshop on lyric crafting? Was there a gap you saw in traditional songwriting education that you wanted to address?
JL: I’m a lyricist, not a composer. I’ve collaborated on songs in which the lyrics came first, and those in which the melody came first. Writing lyrics without a melody is not unrelated to writing a poem—though a lyricist is more bound by form than a poet is, unless the poet is deliberately writing in a particular form. Writing a lyric to a pre-existing melody, however, is by nature a more collaborative act. At every stage of the creative process, you are responding to the music—emotionally, metrically, and in terms of arc. To me, this seems the most impactful way of introducing aspiring lyricists to the act of songwriting—to make them interact with the music, rather than just imagining it. The music has as much to say as the lyric—together, they comprise the song.
WW: Considering your extensive background in fiction, how do you incorporate narrative techniques from fiction writing into your teaching of lyric crafting? Can you give an example of how a fiction writing principle can be effectively applied in songwriting?
JL: When I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the single most important lesson I learned was Frank Conroy’s dictum: “Clarity, sense, and meaning.” As a writer, I consider my job to be to express myself as precisely as possible. Too many songs these days (in my curmudgeonly opinion) are mushy or just plain meaningless, or (to be kinder) meaningful to the writer but not clearly enough expressed to convey meaning to the listener. Is it possible to love a song you don’t understand? Sure! Is it likelier that you’ll love a song you understand than one you don’t? I suspect so. I apply the same standards of precision to my lyric writing as I do to my fiction and other writing, and encourage the same in my students. For many of them, that is a revelation—as if songs were somehow immune from the burden of communicating. The other principle I think is applicable is always choosing the specific over the general. Little Jackie Paper brought "strings and sealing-wax" ro Puff the Magic Dragon, not just "fancy stuff.” And we understand the irony of “fancy stuff” because it is preceded by “strings and sealing-wax” in a way that we wouldn’t if we didn’t go from the specific to the general—and we therefore know more about Puff and Jackie than we would otherwise.
WW: Your workshop is uniquely structured into two intensive sessions. Can you share with us how this format enhances the learning and creative process for your students?
JL: I’m downloading a whole bunch of information in Session I which might take the students a while to process. Then they’re going to need to synthesize that information by writing a lyric to share in Session II. I just wanted everyone to have time to process, then spend some time with the melody and let it sing to them for a while. I wanted enough time for people to get everything done but not so much time that they ran out of steam.
WW: In your course description, you emphasize the relationship between melody and lyrics. How do you guide your students in understanding and mastering the art of blending these two elements effectively?
JL: We spend the first part of the Session I discussing songs that we’ve all listened to before the meeting. I’ll be raising their consciousness about ways in which the lyrics and music interact in these songs, things they likely responded to unconsciously. The songs are carefully chosen to showcase some of these techniques.
In terms of their own creative work, we’ll be encountering the music—the melody to which they are going to write a lyric—in a couple of different ways. First we’re going to capture an impression of the music in words with a free-writing exercise. What does the music suggest to them? Colors, moods, a story, images, memories—there is no right or wrong. However the music resonates with them, that’s (hopefully) what will generate their lyrical ideas. Secondly, we’re going to analyze the music metrically and in terms of potential rhyme schemes. Personally, I’m a big proponent of rhyme in songs, even though our current popular music doesn’t value it highly. But rhyme makes a song more memorable, more song-like. We’ll write a dummy lyric in which the rhymes and syllables fall naturally, which will then act as a formal guide when they craft their own original lyric.
WW: What are some common challenges you've observed in lyric writing, and how does your workshop address these challenges to help budding songwriters improve their craft?
JL: I think the same challenges apply to writers in all forms and genres—challenges of originality vs. imitation, the challenge of expressing oneself with precision, the challenge of building a world (even within a song) that’s consistent and specific. Additionally, for a lyricist, there’s the challenge of making the language sound natural and precisely convey its meaning within the confines of a precise metrical structure, ideally with rhymes. That can sometimes take a lot of fiddling to get right, but it’s so worth it. We look at excellent lyrics that do a great job of navigating these challenges as inspiration. In the workshop session we’ll be providing class and instructor feedback on what’s working and what could be even more precisely or naturally expressed.
WW: Can you share how your personal approach to songwriting has evolved over time and how this has influenced the curriculum of your 'Say It In Song' workshop?
JL: I came to lyric writing as a writer, a singer, and an actor. I perform my own songs, which puts even more pressure on me to be as honest and precise as possible when I write, as I’m going to have to get up there and sing those lyrics to an audience. The more I write, the more I appreciate great songwriting. I’ve built up a library of great songs to share with students of amazing feats of songwriting that inspire me and hopefully will inspire them
WW: Finally, what are the key takeaways you hope your students will leave with after completing the 'Say It In Song' workshop, and how can these skills be applied in their future songwriting endeavors?
JL: There’s a kind of DIY sensibility to a lot of popular-music lyrics these days. I would love for my students to embrace the idea that lyric-writing is both a craft—of metrics, emphases, and rhymes—and an art. Sure you can write a sloppy lyric, or an impenetrable lyric, or a derivative lyric; and you can hit record, strum your guitar and sing your lyric and release it on Spotify. But with a sensitivity to music, a strong sense of narrative drive, and a respect for form and meter, you have a much greater likelihood of communicating something honest and meaningful to listeners—and isn’t that what all writers want?
You can learn more about Jennie's upcoming Say It In Song: Two-Day Lyric-Crafting Workshop and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?
Instructor Jennie Litt holds an undergraduate English/Creative Writing degree from Harvard, and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Her award-winning short fiction has been published in the Indiana Review, Columbia, The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, Speak, Fireweed, and The Blue Moon Review. Her award-winning works for the theatre have been performed at Circle Rep (NYC) and the American Repertory Theater (Cambridge, MA). Jennie is a cabaret performer, performance coach, director, and songwriter, with two albums of original cabaret songs co-written with her composer-pianist husband David Alpher: Two Apples (2014) and Songs For Sapiosexuals (2019). As a duo, they have performed internationally, including appearing (or having their songs performed) at most of the major NYC clubs. Alpher and Litt have been co-teaching cabaret performance workshops since 2013, in NYC, upstate NY, at Vassar College, and at SummerKeys in Lubec, ME. Jennie also teaches for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (songwriting) Singnasium, and Brooklyn Acting Lab (cabaret performance), as well as privately, and she's a two-term board member of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets. As an audiobook narrator, Jennie has worked with Macmillan Audio, Tantor, Blackstone, and Spoken Realms, and is the voice of Eric Van Lustbader's Evan Ryder series of espionage thrillers.