The Sister Mary Elizabeth Rule of Songwriting

 

When I was in kindergarten we got a new puppy, a wiggly little Cocker Spaniel I named Rusty.

 

I told Sister Mary Elizabeth “I got a new puppy.”

 

“That’s nice,” she smiled, in her kindergarten teacher sort of way.

 

“Can I bring Rusty to school for Show and Tell?”

 

“No, no” she said, shaking her finger (they always shake their fingers), “We don’t bring our pets to school.” (Who is “we,” anyway?)

 

I put on my best sad face, and it had the usual effect. So she was quick to say, “But you could bring something of Rusty’s, a picture, or his collar to show to the children. Then you could tell about him.”

 

I got home fast as I could after school. I was a walker— making my way nine blocks down Jessamine Avenue to Duluth Avenue, then another three blocks down Duluth to our row of Quonset huts, built for returning veterans in the housing shortage after WWII—a whole mile!

 

A little breathless, I asked my mom, “Can I bring Rusty’s collar to school tomorrow for Show and Tell?” (Photography probably hadn’t been invented yet, or at least, we didn’t have a picture or any way to get one by the next day.)

 

“Of course.”

 

I was excited all night. The next morning (dark and Minnesota mid-winter morning), there was Rusty’s collar laid out on the kitchen table next to my Superman lunchbox. I hurried through breakfast, put on my snowsuit, buckled my overshoes, wrapped my scarf around my face, yanked on my mittens, grabbed my lunchbox, and headed for St. Casmier’s, squinting against the cold.

 

“I brought Rusty’s collar for Show and Tell.”

 

“That’s nice,” Sister Mary Elizabeth cooed, in her kindergarten teacher sort of way.

 

I hung my moonsuit in the cloakroom and went to my desk to open my Superman lunchbox: a Spam sandwich with French’s Mustard, a hard-boiled egg with salt wrapped in waxed paper, a banana, celery stick with peanut butter in the groove, and my Twinkies. No Rusty’s collar. I looked again. No Rusty’s collar.

 

Apparently I had forgotten it in my hurry to leave. It was probably still on the kitchen table. I thought mom had put it in my lunchbox.

 

“I forgot Rusty’s collar.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

 

I put on my best sad face.

 

“Can I do Show and Tell anyway?”

 

Alas, my best sad face failed. I wasn’t used to that.

 

“No, no,” she said, shaking her finger (they always shake their fingers.)

 

YOU CAN’T TELL UNLESS YOU SHOW FIRST.

 

One more time:

 

YOU CAN’T TELL UNLESS YOU SHOW FIRST.

 

I went back to my seat and listened to the other kids do Show and Tell.

 

YOU CAN’T TELL UNLESS YOU SHOW FIRST.

 

To this day, I call that the SISTER MARY ELIZABETH RULE OF SONGWRITING.

 

Show before you tell. Showing makes the telling more powerful, because BOTH your senses and your mind are engaged in the process of understanding, not just your mind.

 

The SISTER MARY ELIZABETH RULE OF SONGWRITING says:

 

Hold up Rusty’s collar first, and then say what you will. We’ll hold its image in our mind and understand what you’re telling us a whole lot better.

 

Like this:

 

All the things we used to do
Those dreamy teenage nights
Nothing matters like it did
Back when you were mine

 

 

Try showing Rusty’s collar first:

 

Hot rod hearts and high school rings
Those dreamy teenage nights
Nothing matters like it did
Back when you were mine

 

 

Think of Rusty’s collar this way: “Hot rod hearts and high school rings” is a bag of dye. Hang it on top of the section and it drips its colors downward onto the other lines, giving them more interest and depth.

 

Even if you show Rusty’s collar just a little later:

 

Nothing matters like it did
Those dreamy teenage nights
Hot rod hearts and high school rings
Back when you were mine

 

 

We still get colors, but the law of gravity says that they’ll only drip downward, leaving

 

Nothing matters like it did
Those dreamy teenage nights

 

with less color than when we follow the SISTER MARY ELIZABETH RULE OF SONGWRITING. Colors drip DOWN, not UP. Show first, and watch everything else gain impact:

 

Hot rod hearts and high school rings
Those dreamy teenage nights
Nothing matters like it did
Back when you were mine

 

 

The teenage nights get dreamier, and we’re really able to feel the emotion of

 

Nothing matters like it did
Back when you were mine

 

 

When you’re writing, it’s fine to just let things flow. But keep part of you on the alert for potential collars. Even better, morning Object Writing will train you in the art of showing, then you’ll have plenty to choose from. Don’t leave Rusty’s collar on the kitchen table, no matter how excited you are to get to school and tell about your new puppy.

 

The SISTER MARY ELIZABETH RULE OF SONGWRITING:

 

SHOW BEFORE YOU TELL.

 

 

About Pat Pattison
Pat Pattison is a Professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Lyric Writing and Poetry. In addition to his four books, Pat has developed five courses for Berklee’s online extension school. For more information on Pat, please visit: http://patpattison.com/