Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Glee

Julie Rowan-Zoch
G is for glee: music and poetry. I have a confession to make. I am a Glee Geek (Glee is a show on TV). I love that show partly because I get to spend an entire hour listening to fantastic songs and the other part is because once upon a time I wrote songs. I even gave one of my songs to a local band when I was 13 and the singer encouraged me to continue to write. For me, writing and singing are among my greatest joys. So when I learned that fellow 12x12er Beth Stillborn writes hymns, I just had to have her come on my blog and talk about it. Thanks Beth! Thanks again to Julie (I'm loving your illustrations)!

How long have you been writing hymns?
I wrote my first hymn text in the summer of 1972, when I was 15. Doing the math on that astonishes me. Forty years? Really?

 What attracted you to writing hymns?
I was at a week-long live-in workshop called "Music in the Context of Worship" and one of the electives was hymn-writing. I can still remember sitting in a big old armchair in the lounge, hymnbook on my lap (for the tune), writing those first words. I wrote occasionally after that. When I was music director for my church, I was asked to write a hymn text for the church's anniversary. A few years later, I noticed in the paper that the church Jimmy Carter attends was celebrating an anniversary, and got out my hymn, reworked a couple of awkward passages, and sent it to the pastor of the church. Their choir sang it in a worship service, which meant a great deal to me. That reawakened my interest in hymnody, and I wrote quite a few hymns in the years that followed, until my focus turned more to writing fiction.

Is music playing in your head when you write a hymn or do you create music to go along with the words?
If I don't already have a tune in mind, I make up one when the words start to form in my thoughts. I seem to need to sing the words onto a tune. Usually, after I get enough of the words thought out to have a good idea of the meter (the number of syllables in each line combined with where the emphasis falls on the syllables) I go through a hymnbook and try out tunes with that meter until I find one that works well. Once I've chosen the tune, then I sing the words in my mind as I'm writing.

 Can you tell us a little bit about your process of a creating a hymn?
My ideas come from many places. Sometimes a phrase will trigger an idea, sometimes searching for a hymn on a particular topic has made me think "I'll write one myself!" I often start out with a phrase or two, not necessarily ones that fit one after the other, and start singing them in my head. There are times when the whole thing simply spills forth, and I find myself writing frantically on scraps of paper wherever I am, there are other times when the initial image intrigues me, but the actual writing is a drawn-out, difficult process. Interestingly, the two texts that have been published thus far represent both those ends of the spectrum. One just flowed out, demanding to be written, the other took a couple of years of struggling with images. I find it an intriguing challenge to express and develop an idea within the confines of the necessary meter and rhyme of a hymn text. Most of my hymns are three verses, which comprise an introduction to the theme in the first verse, a development of the theme in the second, and a call to action in the third.

Is writing a poem similar to writing a hymn?  
I can't speak to anyone else's process, but for me, although there are certain similarities, there is much more leeway in a poem. For one thing, poetry doesn' always have to rhyme or have a distinct meter. A hymn must be singable, or there's not much point to it. In writing lyrics for a popular song or stage/screen musical one can have a less metrical structure and tune, a hymn must be easily singable by a group of varying abilities. There's also a lot more leeway in subject matter in poetry than in hymnody. Hymns, by definition, are religious songs meant to be sung and to have meaning for a specific religious group. Mine happen to be Christian. 

Have you been formally trained in hymn writing?  (How did you learn to write hymns?)
Besides the initial workshop I attended at age 15, for which the hymn-writing was taught by a wonderful Saskatchewan hymnist, Walter Farquharson, I've attended other workshops over the years, but I haven't formally studied hymn writing. I do have extensive experience as both choir member and organist/choir director, which has exposed me to many different hymns and hymn styles over the years. Other than that, it's been a process of working at my craft and honing my skills. I used to be in 4-H, and have embraced wholeheartedly the motto "Learn to Do by Doing."

 Anything else you would like to share?
I'd just like to say, if anyone would like to see the hymns I have published thus far, they are "By The Well, A Thirsty Woman" and "Great Sorrow Prodded Jairus" (published under my full name Elizabeth Stilborn) in "More Voices," a supplement to the current hymnbook of the United Church of Canada, "Voices United." It is a compilation of about 200 hymns and songs from many different viewpoints and ethnicities. I submitted eleven texts to their search, and was honored that they chose two of them to be published. New tunes were commissioned for both texts, and I was amazed at how well the composer in Ontario -- whom I have never met -- expressed my thoughts through her music. (In that, it was rather like the process in which a publisher matches picture book author with illustrator.) For information about the book "More Voices", you can check this website:

Thanks, Rena, for inviting me to do this interview. I've never had a chance to talk specifically about my hymn writing. 

--Imagine that you are member of the Glee club who has to write a song for sectionals. Write a poem that can be sung. Or
--Using today's prompt "geek" write a poem. Or
--Write a poem about something that makes you gleeful. 

--For a brief bio of Walter Farquharson, the man whose writing inspired me (Beth) to begin writing hymns, check out
--If anyone is interested in learning more about hymns and hymnody, there is an organization in the United States called The Hymn Society. Their website is

If you liked this post please let others know. Tomorrow, I will post all the poems I wrote this week and offer a tip or two for revising your poems. There will not be a poetry challenge tomorrow. On Monday writer and poet Cindy Perrault, will join us to talk about haikus. I hope you come back for that. 

Beth Stillborn
I am a published writer of hymn texts, and a pre-published writer of fiction for children and adults. I have lived most of my life on the Canadian prairie. Much of my fiction includes a focus on the arts, as I believe so strongly in the power of the arts to enhance the lives of young and old. You can find my blog by clicking here , my facebook author page - click here , and my twitter account - click here

Julie Rowan-Zoch is a graphic designer morphed by motherhood into a super-volunteer, spun into a pre-pubbie cocoon, soon to emerge writer and illustrator of children’s books! To learn more about Julie check out her fabulous blog by clicking here, or find her on Facebook by clicking here. Stay tuned to see more illustrations from Julie. 


  1. This is really interesting, Beth! I'm not a religious person so I'm not familiar with a lot of hymns but I LOVE Amazing Grace - it's beautiful!

    1. Thanks, Lori. I'm not in the league of Amazing Grace, but I try!

    2. Beth is the first person I've "met" that writes hymns. Amazing Grace is a beautiful song.

  2. Me too! I love Glee. Definite Gleek here. Awesome post and happy A-Z blogging.

  3. Loved finding out more of your beginnings and process as a hymn writer, Beth!

    And I love Julie's illustration.

    1. Thank you, Joanna!

      Isn't Julie great? All her illustrations for this challenge are so cool.

    2. Thanks Beth! I learned a lot. I'm pleased with all the illustrations Julie has done!

  4. This was a wonderful interview. Beth, I knew a bit about your writing hymns, but I am glad I stopped by to learn more about you and your craft. So Beth, I'm looking forward to seeing what you produce with today's challenge.

    1. Thanks, Pam. I'm glad you stopped by, as well! Now to try to come up with something for the challenge... hmmm...

    2. I second Pam. Thanks for letting me interview you. I haven't tried writing a song since I was teenager so it should be interesting to see what I come up with. My husband told me last night that when he was younger he used to make up hymns. I'm going to see if he can remember any of the words.

    3. Oh, it would be so cool if he could remember some of what he wrote!

  5. It's lovely to hear more about you Beth and congrats on your hymn success! I used to sing in the church choir and once accidentally did a duet with my sister who went on to play the church organ.

    I thought for a minute we'd have to write a hymn, that's so hard! I look forward to seeing what Beth comes up with too.

    And Julie, your illustrations are fabulous!

    1. Thanks, Catherine. Okay, I'm really intrigued as to how you can "accidentally" do a duet! Do tell...

      I'm kind of wondering what I'll come up with as well. Hmmm....

    2. I love to sing, although I'm not very good at it. I don't think I could write a hymn, not in day anyways. I do hope someone in the group tries writing a poem that can be sung.

  6. I enjoyed your interview ladies. Beth, I didn't know you wrote and published hymns. That's wonderful. Thanks for sharing a bit of your writing process with us. I've never written a song, let alone a hymn. This challenge is going to be a hard one, I know it. Haha.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I don't do much these days in the hymn-writing field, since I'm so busy writing other things!

      Good luck with the challenge!

    2. I've never tried writing a hymn. I did write songs in my teens year. I did look into becoming a song writer, but I don't have the training to write music to go with it. I am tempted to start playing guitar or saxophone again. Like Beth said sing the words in your head while you write and hopefully that will make creating a song-poem easier.

    3. Thanks for the advice! Best of luck deciding on the guitar or sax, I wish I had the time and talent.

    4. That is the problem. I don't have time to take guitar lessons. Writing comes first.

    5. All done (I think)

      Take my Hand
      by Jennifer Young

      Take my hand, take my hand.
      Now take my heart and hold my hand.
      It’s in you.
      All up to you,
      To take a chance,
      And do what's true.
      Don’t think it over.
      Thoughts cloud the heart,
      From opening up,
      And letting it start.
      Let go of the chains,
      That bind you blind.
      Now take a chance,
      Your heart won't mind.

    6. I second Beth, lovely! Your song-poem has a nice flow.

    7. Thank you Pam & Rena :) Happy Holidays

  7. Okay, I've written a something. It's pretty sappy -- pretend it's from a frothy Broadway musical in the 1940s or 1950s. A glee club *might* sing it, if they were desperate. It can be sung, I made up a tune for it as I wrote it, but it isn't a tune that exists outside my head...

    From Where I Stand

    From where I stand the world is suddenly brighter –
    You took my hand and all around me got lighter!
    Because my friend is here beside me all the way
    The world became a better place for me today.

    From where I stand the sky now looks a bit bluer –
    In all the land no friend could ever be truer.
    Tune up the band and everybody start to sing
    From this day on my life will have some zest and zing.

    We all need friends like this, I’m sure you know,
    For with a friend beside us we can face life’s undertow.

    From where I stand the world is feeling much warmer –
    I’ve learned firsthand a friend can be a transformer.
    The joy is doubled, sorrow’s halved when you are near,
    So here’s to you, my friend, no one could be so dear.

    1. Beautiful! I love musicals and black and white movies so this is right up my alley!

    2. Beautiful song Beth :) Love your line, "The joy is doubled, sorrow’s halved when you are near"

  8. Beth, It is wonderful to learn about your hymn writing. I have always wanted to hear more about it, and this was the perfect chance.
    Thanks for posting From Where I Stand. It was great!
    Your post inspired me to write a children's hymn for my post today. It's my first song! Yea! See how inspiring you can be!

    Rena, Thanks for another prompt for our A to Z Challenge.

    Julie, You are awesome and your art makes me gleeful.

    1. Thanks so much, Penny! From Where I Stand was pretty hurried, but ...

      I'm delighted that you've written your first song!

    2. I'm glad that you are enjoying yourself. Wonderful hymn by the way.

  9. Mine's finally up! I started scribbling in my notebook this morning and finally got back to it a bit ago. Too many Saturday chores.

  10. Rena, thanks for interviewing Beth about hymn writing! I wrote one hymn, and the process was fascinating, especially since I am a poet, and as Beth says, a hymn is distinguished by people needing to be able to sing it!

    1. Margaret -- delighted to hear that you, too, have written a hymn.

  11. Beth is the first person I've met who writes hymns so I had to know more.

  12. Replies
    1. Thanks, Pammypam, for following the link over here! Are you going to try a poem?

  13. Beth is a woman of many talents. I am so impressed. And I am enjoying Julie's illustrations. Thanks for sharing so many talented folks with us, Rena.

  14. You know, I never even thought about hymn writing and what went into it, so this was particularly fascinating to me. You are a woman of wonder, Beth! Do you find that the discipline you bring to bear in writing hymns helps with other forms of writing - PBs in particular?

    1. Thanks, Julie. I find I'm in such a different frame of mind when writing a hymn than when doing any other sort of writing, that they have not intersected much. All the writing I've done has certainly been building skills, but I hadn't thought about how the discipline inherent in writing a hymn could inform the writing of a disciplined form such as a picture book. Hmmm... I'll have to put my mind to working on that!

  15. The Pitcher

    Each day I pour.
    Each day you fill.
    I overflow with you
    and as I spill__

    Right in the bend of me,
    you gently hold__
    All of the secrets
    I've ever told.

    Oh, let me pour!
    Oh, let me fill!
    You are my overflow
    and as you spill__

    Into the hearts of man
    oceans of love.
    Now overflowing.
    Poured out from above.

    Hmmmm...sorta got lost along the way. Anyway, thank you for this challenge, Rena!


Thanks for your comments. Remember to keep them kid friendly.