Nobody is born a poet. Creative writing workshops are filled with aspiring Dickinsons and Whitmans suffering through the same mental blocks that musicians experience. These writing exercises can help you do something about it.
Let’s be honest right from the bat. Some musicians just don’t know how to use language.
You may be able to play jazz chords up the neck with your eyes closed. You may be able to hit whistle tones first thing in the morning. You may be able to grow locks that rival Robert Plant’s. But, for the life of you, you can’t seem to write a song that anybody wants to hear.
Don’t worry! Nobody is born a poet; it’s a learned trait. All across the world, creative writing workshops are filled with aspiring Dickinsons and Whitmans suffering through the same mental block that musicians resign themselves to when they decide they’re simply not songwriters. The difference is these folks are doing something about it.
Try a few age-old writing exercises to unlock your inner Dylan.
A favorite of drunken creatives (and Wilco front-man, Jeff Tweedy), the exquisite corpse uses the wisdom of the crowd to craft chance ordering of words. The end result can be either a non-sensical rant on pizza or a profound diatribe on the nature of said pizza.
First, gather a group of friends and arrange yourself in a circle. Light some incense. Put on some deep house. Do whatever you need to do to relax into your mind. Begin with a blank piece of paper. One person will write a single line. It neither has to be a complete sentence nor a sensible thought.
For example, you may write “Now, I am a winged radio who…”
Pass the paper. It is upon the friend sitting beside you to complete your thought on the line below. After he or she finishes – this is important – they will fold the original line back to keep it hidden from the next in the circle. Continue passing and writing based only on the previous line until the page is full. When it’s finished, unroll your accordion of paper and gaze upon your work.
In a recent interview, Ryan Adams explained his use of an exercise he calls “Stacks,” where he borrows language from existing texts to synthesize into songs. The process has been called different names by different artists, but the idea is essentially the same.
Get a hold of a couple books. Any books will do you. Place them on either side of a blank paper and open them to random pages. From one of the books, find a line that sticks out to you. It doesn’t have to be poetic in and of itself; the purpose of this exercise is that you will combine it with another sentiment to create significance. Steal that line. Write it on your page.
Now, go to your other text and do the same. The two lines together will be the start to your new set of lyrics.
Some will continue going back and forth between the books to craft an entire song. Some will use the first two lines as inspiration for a more personal piece. It’s important to remember to never force the words out. Let them guide you through the process.
No, this exercise does not require a fifth of whiskey, though maybe that wouldn’t hurt. Grab yourself a newspaper and a strong, black marker. In school, you were taught to scan texts for important information and underline, remember? In this exercise, you’re going to scan the text and delete words, phrases, or whole sentences to create a completely new piece.
The end result resembles a declassified document, but shows promise.
An idiom is a phrase or expression that tends to be overused and should never be the basis for a song lyric. For example, one might say, idiomatically, that “the chickens have come home to roost” to express that somebody got what they deserved. Not the most original string of words for a rock anthem, is it?
Instead, try flipping an idiom around, changing words entirely, creating new and subversively clever meanings. Christina Aguilera famously sang “you gotta rub me the right way” as a witty alteration on rubbing someone the wrong way. You might say, if you’re a creep, “the chicks have come home to roost.”
Debasing blasé turns of phrase with which audiences are already familiar is sure to surprise and excite.
One of the best pieces of advice a writer will ever receive is to get yourself in the chair and write, day-in and day-out. Sometimes the result will be drivel; sometimes, a learning experience; and sometimes, the beginnings of your next project.
Set aside a block of time to sit and write without distraction. Turn off the phone. Close the windows. Experience yourself, the page, and the endless possibilities they provide.
Truly, what musicians who claim to not be songwriters lack is the self-assurance to turn on the faucet and let it all flow out. Using any of the writing exercises outlined here – combined with a real, disciplined desire to create – will ultimately lead to success, even if that success is manifest as one song to perform for your friends and family.
Never stop writing. Never stop digging for the nugget of brilliance inside you. It will make your creativity all the more remarkable.
Bob Barrick is a musician, poet, and freelance writer. Dealing heavily in traditional American folk and rock forms, Barrick’s cutting voice weaves personal stories of travels and failures over solo acoustic guitar. His poetry blog, Rules of Verse, is consistently updated with new works from his personal journals. As a freelancer, he writes with a tone distinct from that of his peers, carving out a niche for himself in the arts, culture, and travel, all the while considering their immaterial weight.
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