Songlines to Stories: April Write From Your Life

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The traditional Aborigine in Australia follow “Songlines” wherever they walk: notes and melodies to sing depending on where they’re walking, each place they step having a part of a song that they all know. While their songlines relate to place, you can also explore your songline through the songs important to you at various points in your life.

Maybe you’re driving your car when the song comes on the radio, and you remember being 19 again, driving alone down a blue highway in the middle of the night while belting out “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” with the radio so many years ago. Or maybe you’re pulling weeds, and you suddenly remember your grandmother singing “You Are My Sunshine.” We all have songs that mark moments throughout our lives, even encapsulating those moments into a wisp of a provocative lyric or long-held note.

For this month’s WRITE FROM YOUR LIFE, let’s turn to the songs of our lives not just to connect with glory or not-so-much-glory days, but to see what these songs can generate in our poetry and prose today. Here’s a two part exercise to try on your or with friends or family:

ONE: Get a long piece of paper, at least three or four feet long (you may need to tape together several sheets of regular paper), and write the year you were born on one end, and then the year it is now — by all accounts, 2010 — on the opposite end. Between your birth year and this year, write in all the years. Then, under the appropriate year, write the name of a song important to you at that age. When I did my songline, I had “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as age five, “Here We Come” by the Monkees at age 11, “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel at age 19, and so on. See what you can come up with right now, and then hang the paper somewhere in your home that you pass by often, and over the next few weeks, keep adding in other songs that come to you. Over time, you’ll find that the memory of one song triggers the memory of another, and through those songs remembered, you can recall more of your life and find more material for your writing.

TWO: Whenever you’re ready, look at your songline, and see what song calls to you at this moment. Then sit down and write the story of that song in your life: what does it remind you of each time you listen to it? Where were you when you first noticed this song? At that time, what might you have been doing, wearing, thinking, feeling, worried about or excited over? You might even listen to the song a few times if you can easily find it.

You can continue to add to your songline over the rest of your life, and return to your songline to find new inspiration for writing from your life.

Thank-you to my friend and colleague Jim Sparrell, a lover of music and writing, for the idea for this writing exercise.