This is a review of Ben Opipari's Songwriters on Process website. Opipari has a PhD in Language and Literature, and he created this website in 2010 as an ode to "the creative process of the songwriter," and as a resource for professional and novice musicians to investigate the generative and writing processes musicians actually employ when designing music. On this website, we can explore dozens of interviews with musicians from various musical backgrounds and gain unique insights into their creative and writing process. Opipari's background and love of writing, language, and literature stem from his preoccupation with music, song lyrics, and steadfast diet of concerts. There are links provided to Opipari's popular publications to further establish his ethos.
The songwriters on process website is a digital space for music fans and musicians to explore and learn about how a variety of musicians are creating new music. Much like the New York Times' Writers on Writing series, the Songwriters on Process website can facilitate cogent discussions about a variety of writing studies topics like genres, discourse communities, and methods for research. Composition and writing faculty particularly interested in process pedagogy and writing about writing curriculums can utilize this website to facilitate rhetorical and pedagogical discussions about invention strategies, approaches to drafting, revising, and delivery, multimodal composing, and ethnographic and qualitative research concepts, examining the database of interviews as a digital artifact, a set of data nodes, and a subjective narrative at the same time.
I was particularly interested in reviewing this website because I am both a musician and a writing instructor who implements process-pedagogy in to my writing courses. My composition students conduct a think-aloud study on their composing process like the one Carol Berkenkotter (1983) employed to study Donald Murray's process and the one Sondra Perl (1979) implemented to study the composing processes of unskilled writers. In addition to reading scholarly texts about the writing process from Mike Rose, Janet Emig, and Charles Bazerman to prepare for this autoethnography, students read how several popular writers like Anne Lamott and Stephen King consider and negotiate the writing process.
Examining how musicians formulate music provides student writers and makers, learning how to build and develop their ideas in words, sounds, and images, with a set of unique examples of a multimodal composing process. Studying the composing and generative processes of musicians, and connecting these processes to writing studies is especially valuable in our multimodal culture. Students can learn about the composing processes and generative strategies for media and print content they are familiar with and relate it back to writing studies if giving the opportunity and taught how to make these connections. Like scholarship and other forms of professional writing, writing music is messy and it requires a sophisticated process. Scholars interested in multimodal literacies, such as Jody Shipka, Cheryl Ball, Jeff Rice, and Cynthia Selfe, encouraged a comprehensive investigation and analysis of a multimodal composing process that involves text and sound as a means to develop and explore multiliteracies. Writing instructors can ask students to consider how musicians combine words and sounds to create multimodal texts, and how that process is similar and different from print strategies for writing. Students can analyze and discuss how drafting, feedback, and revising function when designing multimodal texts. I had a student in my course publish a paper on the composing process that compares the revision strategies of musicians with the revision strategies of writers to see what they can learn from each other, so there are significant benefits for students who study multimodal composing processes.
The interviews are poignant and accessible. In the interview with John Darnielle, band member and lead singer/songwriter for the Mountain Goats, Opipari opened with some background on Darnielle as a writer of both fiction and songs. Darnielle has won numerous book awards for his published fiction. Before we learn more about Darnielle's process, we can listen to a track from the Mountain Goats new album with an embedded YouTube video. The interview questions and answers separate these types of musician interviews from other musician interviews in popular magazines like Rolling Stone or Billboard. A substantial amount of interviews with musicians capture surface level information about the artist and his or her composing processes. Opipari askss questions about where ideas for songs come from and how these musicians draft and revise a song. Opipari digs deeper into the musician's creative process than most popular interviews with musicians and song writers, examining how musicians grapple with multiple situational variables relevant to both print and multimodal writers, like where and when writing takes place, and under what constraints and limitations does the composing process have to consider. He asks questions about writers block and how musicians get themselves through blocked moments. He asks questions about the frequency, environment, location, and emotional labor for writing that ultimately normalize an extremely complicated process for creating music. Asking students to read about how these writing processes work helps writing instructors dismantle outdated notions of creative genius that many times prevent students from writing and creating in the composition classroom.
There is also extensive discussion on the revision process in these interviews, which I think is especially valuable for teaching and learning with this website. Teaching students how revision works and what it looks like in a variety of contexts is important. For example, in an interview Theresa Wayman and Opipari co-conducted with Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon, Nagano contended that she draws out her ideas for songs before writing the lyrics. Nagano even used Peter Elbow's famous mantra when describing how she uses her journal to "make a mess" while drafting her song lyrics. Darnielle from the Mountain Goats iterated how much distance he needed from his writing to make it work. He needs to step away from his writing for a few days so his ideas can incubate and grow. He also discusses how his current reading impacts his writing process. He reads all the time and ideas from his readings find themselves in his own writing.
Reading and discussing interviews about process work great with a process-pedagogy like WAW. Reading about how musicians create first drafts when working through their process is a great way to expand our students' understanding of process-pedagogy and the reality of the writing process. Using pop culture modes of communication like music to examine the writing and making process helps normalize the complications, anxieties, and frustrations that come with the writing process that most students use as an excuse to justify how they are not meant to be writers. I mentioned teaching an autoethnography assignment earlier that asks students to use a think-aloud to examine their writing process. This website opens up a new angle for writing teachers to use to design assignments about the composing process. Musicians create music using a very similar process as writers. The more we learn how music works the more we can play around with the process. We can use this website to ask how musicians invent a song, and to compare how the development and creation of a song is both different and similar print genres? That is what makes this website so valuable. Those of us that teach writing about writing and process-pedagogy can us the website to make connections about invention, drafting, revising, and delivering, to explore multimodal composing, and to examine quantitative research methods and interview strategies.