Writing Songs That Matter (Part Two)
In Part One of this series of posts, I discussed the importance of having the right attitude toward what you do as a writer. In summary: Don't wait around for inspiration, but treat writing songs as a job that needs doing. Like any other job, it won't just do itself!
In this post, I want to start talking about nuts and bolts. What does writing look like in practice?
Obviously, this will look different for different writers. But all successful writers have at least this much in common: because they are not afraid of writing less-than-stellar material, they are writing all the time. To achieve what you want as a songwriter, you should be taking song notes
when you wake up
as you fall asleep
whenever something pops randomly into your head
while in line at the supermarket
in class when you should be solving for x
in your head when you should be listening to someone you love talk about something they care deeply about (kidding!)
all times not covered above, INCLUDING SLEEPING HOURS, because if you are not writing songs in your dreams, you will be out-written by somebody who is
(Side Note: Although I have said there is no such thing as a Muse, there is such a thing as Stuff Popping Randomly Into Your Head. This is actually a crucial part of the artistic process and is what is most appropriately called 'inspiration'. I concede that it is an inscrutable process that's notoriously hard to harness. However, the one guarantee is that the more you write, the more this will happen to you and the more you'll be able to make of your good luck when it does.)
The goal here is to generate a more or less huge reservoir of ideas to draw from. Once you've generated this ocean of song ideas for yourself, you can go swimming/fishing/scuba-diving (pick your metaphor) anytime you want!
Linford Detweiler from 'Over the Rhine' (go listen if you haven't) calls this 'butterfly collecting'. You can tell he's a songwriter! In an improbably-even-more-felicitous phrase, the great Harry Chapin wrote (in an actual awesome song):
"The capturing of whispers
Is the way to write a song"
I like to keep all my ideas in a single text document. I call it my Ideas File. Now, when writin' time comes (which is regularly, because remember: I am not waiting for a Muse to visit me), not only do I not have no ideas, I have way more ideas than i need. Sometimes my heart is flooded with gratitude at Past Me for giving Present Me all these ideas to build upon. Present Me would be lost without Past Me. (Of course, in some ways, Present Me would be much better off without Past Me, but that's a story for another day.)
For me, this process has been key to a highly productive workflow. At any given moment, it allows me to actually be working on many different songs simultaneously. I'll scroll through my Ideas File for lyrics and titles until something grabs my interest, beckons my curiosity, or moves me in some way. Over time, your instincts for the Good Stuff will get more and more refined. And yes, I will scroll past a bunch of utter crap. But that's the beauty of it: It's there, but a) nobody ever has to know and b) I can freely ignore it if I want.
I'll work for a while on one idea: expanding, fleshing out, rearranging, exploring new directions, free-writing, word-playing, giving the whole thing structure, etc. If the writing process sweeps me away, maybe I'll finish the song then and there. Maybe I've already done most of the hard work and I just need to tighten and touch up. At some point, I'll be happy with the progress I've made on that song for that session and scroll on down until I find another work in progress. Then I do the same thing for that one. I am rarely ever actually trying to finish a song. I am mostly just trying to generate more material for further editing.
In the spirit of encouraging you not to be afraid to write stuff that isn't so hot, here are a few choice turds culled from my own Ideas File, along with some commentary:
“when you erase a word
where does it go?”
WTF? This will clearly never become a song. But that's okay! At the time I wrote it, I obviously thought it was worth something. And if I don't write things down because I'm afraid I'm wrong about their potential, I'll never write down the stuff that actually IS the kernel of a great song.
Also, I swear I don't do drugs.
“a newborn truth
or an old-fashioned lie
either way im just gonna cry”
Pure drivel, right? This was bviously a crude attempt to do something fresh with the 'new/old' dichotomy, topped off with the single laziest rhyme imaginable. But you know what? I'm happy I wrote it, because it got my songwriter gears going so I could write (please-god-I-hope) better stuff.
“I can read your body
and that's how I know
that it's almost over
I look in your eyes
and that's how I know
that it's almost over”
I mean, this is just the worst. I don't even want to talk about it. But it's all good, because instead of sitting there paralyzed by fear of writing something this bad, I've already gotten it out of my system and am hard at work on my next Awesome Song.
THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT FIRST DRAFT
Now, I keep saying it's important to 'generate material', most of which will be of middling quality. Why is this? Well, I am more than happy to be the 94509817450298475th person to tell you that the art of writing is actually NOT writing. It is RE-WRITING (aka editing).
This goes back to what I said earlier about not being afraid to write garbage. Writing a song is a bit like sculpting, except that whereas a sculptor takes an existing, formless stone and takes away all the pieces except the ones she wants, you, as a songwriter, have to also make the formless stone in the first place. At the risk of mixing metaphors beyond all clarity, this formless stone is the material you've generated for a particular song. You've written all kinds of lyrics, notes, and thoughts. Now the name of the game is to whittle and cull, separate the wheat from the chaff, etc.
This is the real meat of the writing process. Writing is not about writing awesome stuff. It's about constantly and aggressively making improvements to the less-than-awesome stuff you've already written, until it becomes awesome. Hopefully I am driving this lesson home!
Some of the best songwriting advice I ever received was in a workshop led by the great Brooks Williams. He gave us this nugget of wisdom:
'The only way to compromise a song is to give up on it too soon.'
This may be a nugget, but it is a NUCLEAR nugget! Seems simple, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. I'm halfway convinced that the Meaning of Life lurks somewhere in those fifteen words. It's like a zen koan. Seriously, if I were into tattoos, this would probably be inscribed on my arm.
Of course, you will hear stories of songwriters coming up with smash hit songs in a single, brief burst of inspiration. However, you will also hear stories of people winning the lottery, getting struck by lightning umpteen times, or getting murdered while hiking. My point being: improbable things happen all the time. But they're still improbable, and it would be silly to arrange your life around them!
That's it for this installment of the series. Next time, I'll go into some detail about ways to not give up on a song too soon. Thanks for reading!