Sometimes you may need a prompt or a process to keep the creative juices flowing and get your critical mind out of the way. Here are three strategies to get your songwriting on track.
Human beings have been writing down their musical ideas for millennia. I once visited the ruins of Delphi in Ancient Greece where singer/songwriters from all around the Greek-speaking lands came to perform and worship the god Apollo in the amphitheater equivalent of Carnegie Hall. They had some ancient song transcriptions in the museum; imagine your lyrics sitting on display 4,000 years from now! No pressure.
Many years later, the advent of popular sheet music and recorded music made “songwriter” a viable career for most of the 20th century, albeit generally as someone toiling in an office building churning out whatever the publishers and moguls wanted. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan showed us performers could write their own songs – they weren’t the first to do it, but they were the first to make it mainstream. They also set the bar super high, as master performers and songwriters, but it has been proven time and again that a well-written song, done simply, will always appeal to people.
Why the history lesson? Well, as you know, maintaining your creative output can be tough. It can be daunting to have a creative impulse and look at the blank canvas/paper/new ProTools or Logic file and think of what could go wrong. My own personal bugbear is the train of thought that goes like this:
- this matters to no one
- I am screaming into the void
- no one’s going to like this
- it’ll never be heard
- I’ll never make any money
So the brief songwriting history is a reminder that you are part of a great, long-standing human tradition which began long before you were born and will continue long after you’re gone. Why not be a part of it? People have been writing songs for many years in the direst of circumstances (prisons, hospital wards, abject poverty) and the loftiest of situations (mansions, palaces, yacht clubs). So wherever you are, if you find yourself with a creative urge, GO FOR IT.
Creative block solved, right? If it were only that easy. Here are three strategies I use to blast through that critical, anti-creative voice and the lethargic feelings that kill the creative spirit.
Free write: all songs count
Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan have a wonderful tool in their book The Artist’s Way called “morning pages.” I highly recommend this book and any of their subsequent materials as a long-term investment in your own creativity. The morning pages tool requires you to write three pages first thing in the morning, preferably longhand. What do you write? Anything that comes to mind. Free associate. Write three pages of gibberish. Write your dreams. Write whatever you want or think of. It’s about quantity, not quality. In this way you can outrun the critical voice in your head because you will be too busy writing. Or you can write what that critical voice in your head is saying.
This applies to songwriting as well. I have adapted The Artist’s Way tool for my own purposes and write “morning songs.” I wake up and go to the guitar/piano and lyric page and see what comes out. I usually set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes depending on how much time I have. With the new Music Memos app for the iPhone, I can even add bass and drums to my ideas instantly.
The idea is not to judge. If you write a polka song, so be it. If you’re an accordion player and you write a rap, let the rhymes flow! Whatever comes out, comes out. It’s up to you if you ever want to show it to anybody. But free yourself to make what you consider to be “bad” art.
The creativity coach Eric Maisel has a suggestion for finding your own original voice as an artist. The artist needs to detach from his/her internal library of “good” art and his/her personal skill set to express what it is they want to say. The experience of free writing can help with this. Don’t judge, don’t think. Just write. If the morning songs idea is too daunting, start with the morning pages. Anybody can write 15 to 30 minutes and fill three pages. It’s like any other daily task: brushing your teeth, taking out the garbage, working out. You can do it, and it’s a great habit to get yourself into.
David Bowie used to paint when he felt stuck musically, and said often in interviews that he would work out particular challenges, blocks, or problems visually. He would then return to the music and have a solution for getting past the challenge.
The artist René Schuler says she has to have projects in multiple mediums going on at once (sculpture, paintings with different materials) in order to maintain the relationships in the work. Many articles on overcoming writer’s block suggest drawing or coloring as a way to distract your attention from the frustration of being blocked.
So, if you can’t write lyrics at the moment, play guitar! Play piano. Play your didgeridoo or zither. Paint. Draw. Sculpt. Take photos. Do anything that is not the particular thing where you feel blocked. Again, the point is not to suddenly be Rembrandt or O’Keeffe; the point is to enjoy yourself a bit and have fun creating something else. Make a stupid meme and share it with your friends. Cook something, bust out the clay and potter’s wheel, or pick up the ukulele and play a couple of Woody Guthrie songs.
Like in the first suggestion, the idea is to keep moving and do something to outrun the critical voice. This tool should be light, fun, and focused on process rather than result. Free your mind and the rest will follow. Let yourself play and have fun being creative in something that is not writing a song. You will find that the spirit of play and fun will eventually carry over into your songwriting if you practice this tool often enough. The process of writing will become easier and lighter when you see that your only initial goal is to fill the sound file/page with a song and not judge it constantly as it’s coming out.
Often when children play, they aren’t just always free-associating and randomly wandering about. When my friend Isaac and I would play with Star Wars figures as kids, we would make up elaborate adventures within the Star Wars universe. My daughter will make up games with her friend next door, and almost always with the games come rules. Structure allows for kids’ imaginations to run wild within the boundaries they set for themselves, they crave structure to make sense of things. The same goes for adults.
The great producer Brian Eno and his painter friend Peter Schmidt came up with a series of randomized cards called Oblique Strategies. The original concept was for the cards to serve as prompts in pressure situations, like an intense painting session or when the recording studio clock was ticking. The cards have different suggestions on them like “Listen in total darkness,” or “Listen in a very large room, very quietly,” and “Imagine the music as a moving chain or caterpillar.” Later versions of the deck have more general instructions: “Emphasize the flaws,” “Consider different fading systems.” The idea was to move the mind into lateral thinking and remember that shifts in attitude were possible.
So, if you are feeling blocked in your songwriting, give yourself new rules. Maybe you have to start each line of the verse with the letter “r” and each line of the chorus with the letter “b.” Maybe you have to write a George Jones-style song on Mondays and a Bruce Springsteen story-style song on Thursdays. Maybe your rule is to write songs in a different genre for a week. You could also bust out the Oblique Strategies decks (available as an app) and take the instructions as writing prompts. Maybe if you are a rambling songwriter, your new rule is to write songs with verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge structures like an old school Brill Building pop song. Maybe you have to write a chorus in haiku, like the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”
The specific rules are unimportant, it just matters that there are rules. Generally speaking, even in experimental music or free jazz there are still rules. Often the rules in those situations are the strictest of all, i.e. don’t play anything vaguely familiar, don’t play scales or riffs, etc. Of course, too many rules can often kill games and creativity for kids and adults. I think it must have been very difficult being in James Brown’s band where he fined you when he didn’t like your performance, despite the quality of the music being made.
Bowie and Brian Eno gave themselves very intricate rules for their Outside project. Eno would hand the musicians a card at the beginning of the day that said something like “You are the disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes that were suppressed.” The idea is to stimulate a performance or output from your unconscious that your conscious, critical mind is standing in the way of.
Start with one rule for one song. Give yourself another for another song. Write the song that a band might play on the spaceship version of the Titanic going down. Draw from books, movies, and other media that interest you. Write in the spirit of Nick Drake sent back to pen one more song to save humanity. The possibilities are endless, limited by only your imagination. No idea should be discounted. Try it and see what happens. Explore, experiment, expand.
Remember, these tools are just what they appear to be: tools. They may result in songs that you think are worthwhile, and they may not. They are meant to disengage the critical mind and engage the creative, playful mind from which the really creative words and music will come. The point is to keep writing despite the critical voice inside that tells you not to, focusing on process and letting go of the results. It’s harder than it sounds! But the only way to get to the great songs is to write what you consider to be crappy songs; almost no individuals hatch from the egg fully formed.
The point is to get writing and keep writing. Hopefully these tools will help.
Things I learned being a fan of David Bowie
The creative genius of Paul McCartney’s bass lines
Songwriter’s block: where does it come from?
Songwriting and writer’s block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck
Ask a songwriter: 5 questions for Byron Hill