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Poetry & Youth Songwriting Part 2: Swallow Hill Music

Songwriting is rarely taught. It’s instinctual. Or is it? Maybe you’re already do everything right. The notebook by your bed is full of sleepy-eyed, dreamscape lyrics, your phone holds hours of recorded cords and melodies, and best of all, your bff screeches, “You’re gonna be a star!” after every song.  There’s no better feeling than the encouragement from your loved ones. They can carry you through the desert lands of inspiration and be an invaluable source of collaboration. But there are also resources like SETH who will be teaching his workshop, The Poetry of Writing Song Lyrics at the November 7th Castle Rock Writers cConference (Part 1 of this article – read it here) and of course, there is the school of music in Colorado, Swallow Hill Music.

Swallow Hill Music, a non-profit established in 1979, strives to positively impact the quality of people’s lives through the art of music. Besides providing private lessons, camps and concerts for all ages, they also host a yearly Young Songwriters Competition. Thomas Koenigs, a student of Regis Jesuit High School and 2015 winner of the Swallow Hill songwriters’ competition, explains that he used to be shy about his music. Then someone told him that music was an expression of the self.

“We aren’t perfect people, but we grow. Good music reflects that imperfection and personal growth,” said Koenigs. “Expression does not and should not require justification or explanation.”

Swallow Hill’s Director of School Operations, Cheri Gonzales, counsels kids starting out to “never be afraid to try something new and challenging.”  She encourages young songwriters to perform as much as possible, actively participating to “create material that is completely unique to [them] as an individual.”

Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and into a state of unease might be frightening, but it can also lead to an ultimate experience of performance euphoria and acceptance. So make it fun, get crazy, and rejoice in the double takes and sideways smiles of those around you as you recite poetry to your dog or sing in your car. Invest in a rhyming dictionary or find one online, like www.rhymer.com, because rhyme can make for powerful lyrics.

Be sure to create an irresistible hook. Songs often have several hooks. The title, chorus, and riffs. Use everything you can to keep your audience captivated. Write about topics or events that interest you, not what’s popular in music at the moment, unless the two are the same. Koenigs’ winning song, Beat the Drum wasn’t about love lost or flashy lifestyles; it told the story about three musicians that suffered from mental illness, drug use and acts of rage. Subjects that evokes strong emotion–like Ferguson, Koenigs’ most recent song—touches both our hearts and our beliefs.

The emotions songs lyrics evoke remind us of our humanity. But it isn’t about telling: it’s about showing. Write lyrics that conjure vivid images. Try word associations by writing all the words you think about for a certain event, subject or detail, and use these words in your song.  When you think you’re done, put it down for a few days. Revisit it with a critical eye. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Just like fiction writing, don’t be afraid to kill off that character, chorus, or single line that, in the end, is throwing off your work. As Gonzales says, “It’s like a beautiful puzzle that fits together just the way [you] want it to.”

Swallow Hill Music’s annual Young Songwriters Competition starts in February. There’s no fee to enter and according to Gonzales, contestants usually take total responsibility for the process of submission deadlines, although parents are welcome to be involved. But who can wait for 2016?  Starting November 1st Swallow Hill offers a program called House of Rock.

“Here they’ll work constructively within a group of kids with similar goals and passions. You might see a timid 13-year-old the first day of camp who’s very soft-spoken and nervous and by the last day that same [kid] is shredding an electric guitar solo at [a] performance,” says Gonzales.

Teens that participate in the House of Rock will perform a concert at Moe’s BBQ for their final class.

The Castle Rock Writers Conference will offer a similar experience for teen poets who attend Jovan Mays’ Slam Poetry workshop. Jovan will lead students through the process of creating poetry using tools to craft pieces that can be performed in three minutes or less. Teens will then be invited to kick off CRW’s January free monthly workshop by performing their Slam Poetry for family and friends.

Opportunities for youth expression abound in Colorado. Coloradoans are passionate about their art and culture and want to pass on that love to their children. The success of non-profit organizations like Swallow Hill Music and Castle Rock Writers proves that expression through music and writing is an important part of that culture.

Read the full interviews with SETH, Thomas Koenigs, and Cheri Gonzales at www.CastleRockWriters.com/updates. Information about Swallow Hill Music can be found at http://swallowhillmusic.org/denver-music-school/. Swallow Hill has also donated one of their Family Memberships to CRW to offer during their silent auction. Information about CRW can be found at http://castlerockwriters.com/events/annual-conference/conference/.

Poetry and Youth Songwriting:

Part I. Welcoming SETH

Poetry intimidates me. I literally cringe when I think about writing stanzas. And yet each day, poetry resonates within me in the form of music. It calms me through Denver’s frustrating rush hour, pushes me during a dreadful workout, and makes my heart soar when my children sing their sweet melodies. It transcends age, gender, race and even geography as it unites us as a people. And it’s so very therapeutic. We cry. We scream. We laugh. Even a star like Taylor Swift used poetry and songwriting to work through the emotional turmoil of being a bullied outcast in her younger years. Poetry in songwriting is not only a safe and creative way to find solace, but by sharing our deep secrets, emotions and experiences, songwriters help others cope with similar feelings, both good and bad. It’s no wonder that reading, writing, and music carry so much weight with teens as they traverse through some of the most volatile and confusing parts of their lives.

This is why I was extremely excited when the speaker coordinator for the Castle Rock Writers, Susan Rocco-McKeel, asked SETH, local poet, performer, writer, and instructor, to lead a workshop at this year’s CRW conference on November 7. SETH will be leading an interactive workshop for young writers entitled the “Poetry of Writing Song Lyrics.” SETH – always capitalized – ­will be one of ten workshop leaders teaching an exciting array of writing classes with topics ranging from research to the art of writing to getting published.

SETH has been teaching the mastery of literary arts and creative expression since 1999. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t reading poetry that led SETH to becoming a poet; it was the poetry he heard in song lyrics that provided the initial spark. For his workshop, he’ll be sharing a technique he calls the “extended metaphor.” In an interview with CRW he explained, “You start with a metaphor, say using a zoo to describe what your heart is going through. Think of all the things you associate with the zoo. The various animals. The zoo keeper. Cages. The ‘Do Not Feed’ signs.” During his workshop, SETH will help guide attendees transform these extended metaphor associations into verses and choruses. This is the first time CRW has offered such a unique and exciting opportunity for poets and songwriters.

“It’s a simple technique, but once you’ve mastered the concept, you’re well on the road to writing great lyrics,” said SETH.

As writers we know to always, always, always have something to write on, no matter the day, time or place. A notebook, tablet, napkin…doesn’t matter. Inspiration will hit you when you least expect it. But if you’re struggling for inspiration, SETH has some advice. “Relax. Eventually it will come. Follow your own intuitions and something uniquely you will emerge.” He explains that his most original, innovative stories and poems occurred when he was not taking himself or what he wrote too seriously – instead tinkering and playing with words and form.

During the Castle Rock Writers Conference SETH will have CDs and books available. His book Black Odyssey (2013) encompasses everything from love, death, soul searching and “trying [to] make sense of this psychotic sea called existence.”

SETH performs at the “Jam before the Slam” which he hosts at the Mercury Café in Denver every Sunday night from 7 to 8 pm. His band, Art Compost & the Word Mechanics, improvises with his poetry and the poetry of anyone who is willing to share. Videos of his jams can be found on his website at www.wagingart.com. The full interview with SETH can be found at www.CastleRockWriters.com/updates.

The yearly Castle Rock Writers conference is known for its supportive and intimate workshops. Everyone who attends shares a passion and pure joy for the written word. I guarantee you’ll leave with new friends and inspiration to last you for months to come. For the first time the annual conference will take place at the Parker Arts, Culture and Events Center (PACE), 20000 Pikes Peak Avenue in Parker. Registration is $85, which includes a catered lunch and a literary pitch for writers with a manuscript or idea. High school students in grades 11 and 12 and those in college enjoy the same benefits as adults, but at a discounted price of $35. Educators can attend for $45. Price at the door is $95 and does not include the catered lunch. Check-in starts at 8 a.m. Workshop sessions end at 4:30 p.m. Registered, published authors can sell their books at the conference bookstore run by the BookBar.

A pre-conference Friday night event will feature a panel of attorneys speaking on Intellectual Property Rights for writers. Price for the Friday event is $10 with conference registration or $20 at the door.

More information on the 2015 Castle Rock Writers Conference can be found at www.CastleRockWriters.com or email CRW at CastleRockWriters@gmail.com">CastleRockWriters@gmail.com for more information.

Winning the Writing Lottery: Young Writers

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            Passion for the written word is ageless. Unhindered by adult realism, children flourish in their make-believe, fantastical worlds.  Book characters become new best friends and difficult lessons are explored in the safety of loving arms. Blink and those children have morphed into creative teenagers, who want nothing more than to challenge their adult counterparts to acknowledge their ferocious dedication and potential within today’s writing industry.

            The next generation of successful writers is hungrily absorbing information. They read writing blogs between classes and collaborate with friends after school. Most inspiring is the vision of themselves as published authors in the not so distant future.

Like many writers, my own passion for writing sparked at a very young age. I wrote my first of two novelettes at the age of ten. I remember my mother tediously typing my beloved manuscript on a black antique typewriter at our kitchen table. As I look at my early work now, I find the mosaic of black ink and White Out endearing, the floral wallpaper-covers very 80sish and the red duck-taped spine hideous.

Not only were these precious single copy treasures my first exposure to self-publishing, but they’ve also become an inspiration for my own eight-year-old year old daughter who also loves to write. But this marked the end of my writing career until I reached adulthood. While my family and friends applauded my accomplishments, knowledge about teen authors and publishing was largely non-existent in my world.

I’m thrilled that today’s youth have the support and access to resources like never before.  Websites like YouthWritersSociety.com provide a social network for writers, ages 13+, to share their creativeness, ask questions and make connections with mentors and other young writers.  NaNoWriMo YWP, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, Young Writers Program, is an event in November which challenges its youth participants to write a novel in just 30 days.  Young writers’ camps and professional writers’ conferences, like the Castle Rock Writers Conference, that provide writing workshops in a safe and supportive environment with other like-minded people.

Castle Rock Writers has proudly offered a Teen Track program for Young Adults during its writers’ conferences for the past three years. Susan Rocco-McKeel, past Teen Track coordinator for the Castle Rock Writers was delighted with the enthusiasm shown by young writers from all over the Front Range of Colorado.

One such attendee of the 2014 Conference’s youth session was 10th grader Gracie Wilson. Gracie thinks that the most important thing for people to know about her is that she is “just as passionate a writer as some who have been writing their whole lives.” This is a common feeling among most, if not all, youth writers.

Enthusiastic friends, 9th graders Julianne Marsh and Annie Borelli also attended this past year’s writer’s conference. Julianne’s maturity was as clear to me as her writing during a post-conference interview. When I asked her how she finds the time to write, she explained that “it’s difficult, that’s for sure. However, if I tell myself ‘I will write today,’ I can do it. NaNoWriMo and weekends are times where I get a lot done.” Good advice for any aspiring writer.

Annie demonstrated her writing drive in an interview with Jean Jacobsen, 2014 Conference Director. “I really enjoyed visiting each of the classes and hearing the speakers. As far as future workshops, an in-depth explanation of the publication process especially for teen writers would be awesome. I would love to attend another conference!”

Like all writers, no matter their age, teens want to leave their mark on the world. Most read and enjoy writing within the wildly popular Young Adult (YA) genre. It seems reasonable that they would be the experts in this area which can include love, loathing, sacrifice, self-discovery, family contention, and other relationship interactions. Gracie “hope[s] to express in [her] writing something powerful, something that will make people stop and think and wonder and go about their lives in a different way.” Julianne wishes “to create something that others can read and really be drawn into.” She loves that “with writing you can make a world different from your own; there are no limits.” I have no doubt that these three brave young women will accomplish exactly these things in their future writing aspirations.

There are some very impressive gems whose authors astound us with their youthful success. For instance, Christopher Paolini started his journey to the New York Times bestseller list at age 15 when he started writing his novel Eragon. The book’s first edition was published by his parents’ small publishing house, but it wasn’t until his novel was discovered by Alfred A. Knopf  Books for Young Readers that Eragon climbed to the bestseller list, after a reedit and release in 2003. Perhaps even more impressive is Alec Greven from Castle Rock, Colorado, who at age 9 published his first book, with HarperCollins, How to Talk with Girls, after an invitation to the Ellen DeGeneres show in 2008.

Dreams can, and do, come true for young writers.  With encouragement, information and a supportive network of friends and mentors, youth authors can find their way to winning the writing lottery.  They may even one day share their stories with those they love the most, generation after generation to come.

Castle Rock Writers will be hosting free monthly workshops starting January 5th, 2015 at the Philip S. Miller Library, 6:30 – 8:30pm.  First workshop is “Recognizing & Fixing Common Writing Mistakes in Your Own Work.”  Anita Mumm, freelance novel editor will lead an interactive workshop in which she will discuss the most common fiction writing faux pas, with a particular focus on opening pages.