I am gradually going to be moving my old tips and articles into this blog over the next few months. Here are a bunch of the oldest articles and tips from the original website, started in 1996!:
INSPIRATION VS WRITER’S BLOCK
Sometimes, we just can’t stop the juices from flowing and others, we are absolutely certain we’ll never writer another song again. What causes these extremes? Any number of factors, both within our power, and out of our control.
Now, you don’t need anyone to tell you what to do when the song ideas are flowing one after another–other than to try and hang onto as many of those ideas, lyrically and musically, as you can, even if you don’t get to “finish” them. They just might come in handy when you hit a dry spell! Tape recorders and bits of paper are sources for sudden inspiration when times are tough. I try to record little pieces of music I create on one of those micro-cassette recorders. I remember once finding a tape and wondering what was on it. I found a melody that I’d forgotten about and BANG! Out came a new song. That’s how “ONE MORE” was born.
But what if…what if you’ve been sitting in front of a blank page for days, or even weeks? What can you do? A vicious cycle begins–the less you write, the more you panic–the more you panic, the less you write.
If it’s to a real extreme, I’d suggest you first STOP TRYING so hard for a couple of days. Sometimes it works like reverse-psychology, if you tell yourself you can’t write…well, you never know!
Here are some other tips to get past writer’s block:
- Get into some reading–new books, fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles, anything
- Try another instrument–sometimes the sound of a different guitar or a new keyboard sound will get the ball rolling. Play an instrument you don’t normally play!
- Go for a drive, do some housework or garden work, something that will allow your creative mind to wander.
- Find a new coffee shop or hangout you haven’t been to before. Go alone and be an observer and open yourself to everything you see and hear (and bring that notebook!)>
- Listen to some music you haven’t heard much of…classical, alternative, jazz…it just might point you in a fresh direction.
- Learn a new chord, or progression, or even a whole song…the bigger the challenge the better.
OTHER WRITER’S INSPIRATIONS
Benn Skender from Australia writes:
“I have been writing songs for 6 years (I was 13 at the time, and it felt like a good way to channel all the things that go on in your life as an adolescent!). When I first started writing songs, Mum would take me to concerts and acoustic performances here and there for inspiration. I always left the venue inspired to write. However, I feel now that the music I wrote immediately after visiting these venues was derived from the songs I had just heard. Even if I didn’t know the words to the songs I’d heard, I could always mentally envision the melody line or the syllabic structure of the song. This would cloud my clear, individual ideas and rub off on my songwriting. Looking back upon the songs I had written at those times, I feel that listening to others music and then writing was a bad thing. I threw away all of those songs.
“I feel my most original work (which is always what you should be most pleased with) was created when there were no ‘melody lines’ in my head, so to speak. I could sit in the stupidest of places (like on a 20 high stack of potato sacks during my nightshift tea break, or listening about control systems in an information systems accounting lecture!), and as long as my mind was clear, I would always write well.
“In short, the best way to draw upon your own individuality is when you want to write DO NOT LISTEN TO ANY MUSIC, until you have difficulty remembering any of the tunes you’ve recently heard. This usually takes me a day at least.
“I hope this helps any of your readers, as I’d like to feel I made a contribution to the source that gave me a lot of helpful advice when I was stuck.”
Tom Barber from Essex, England writes:
“I find it helpful if I have an idea, to keep it in my head just before I go to bed. When I’m trying to get to sleep I find myself thinking about the idea, so always keep a notepad by my bed to write down my thoughts. Its amazing the next mornign what you find you’ve written!”
Michael Martin writes:
“I have four things to mention as solutions to writer’s block.
“One: Force yourself to go out there in the world and do something completely new. But it has to be large enough to invoke inspiration. Hike up a new mountain ridge (geographically permitting), see a big outdoor music fest, meet a new love/friend, take a vacation (and a mini cassette recorder). When you get back, sit down and see if something flows. Or quit an old habit or take care of something important you’ve been putting off. Inspiration strikes me when a new and impacting change comes along. So, sometimes I just help it come along quicker.
“Two: Be patient. If you’re not feeling inspired, don’t worry, it will come out of the blue if you’re progressing naturally in your life. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. So play scales or your top 5 favorite songs. Work on the arrangements for other instruments. Don’t be impatient, be faithful that you will see the lull pass. Don’t force yourself here. Good work takes time. You rush a miracle and get bad miracles. And remember, when it rains, it pours…try and milk the inspiration for as many songs or song pieces as you can and refine them later. Pieces may fit together later, atheme may emerge, or whole, perfect songs may pop out almost faster than you can write ’em down.
“Three: Get out of your typical style or genre. Dig back in your distant past and try and learn to play or sing songs from your early influences. New progressions and styles will inspire me almost as much as playing on a newly acquired instrument.
“Four: This may sound silly, but I drink sometimes to help me loosen up and be less rigid in my songwriting style. I seem to be better at making up spontaneous but original lyrics when I slacken my inhibitions and seriousness up a bit. Just enough to see things in a different way. Again, having a new view of the world will present new avenues for content near as much as playing on a new instrument.”
Tim Floto writes:
“Here are several things I do to get new ideas.
1. Go to the beach. Theres always a tune or lyrics to be had there. It’s life at an edge, interesting things are always happening.
2. Try going some place you’d never go. For me a bowling alley, pool hall, shopping mall stores are a source of new and about face ideas.
3. Read through random entries in a dictionary. This will kick in new words and word connections.
Also, I always carry a notebook (it’s the law!). I can’t always have a guitar with me but I always carry an emergency harmonica or two, and a microcassette recorder.”
Scott Cairns of Australia writes:
“Dear Irene, A great way of getting song inspiration that is simple and fun is to simply go to the movies! I heard that Buddy Holly wrote ‘That’ll Be The Day’ after watching the classic John Ford western ‘The Searchers’. A famous musician in Australia, Jon Stevens, wrote a song called ‘Burning Crosses’ after seeing the movie ‘Mississippi Burning’ How often have you walked out of a movie theater and felt emotionally charged? This is when the most powerful songs come about. I would find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t be moved after watching ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Beaches’. You don’t have to write about the movie specifically. You might write about a man who never got a fair deal in his life after watching Mel Gibson portray William Wallace in Braveheart. The possibilities are endless. Don’t forget those classic novels too! Even the newspapers can stir up some strong feeling about what’s happening in the world. Bruce Springsteen reportedly wrote the album, ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ based on what he read about hispanic immigrants etc in the Los Angeles Times. I hope your readers find this of some value.”
Brian Allossery of Toronto writes:
“I like to turn on the tape recorder and just start playing, pick any idea that is hanging around in my mind, and keep banging away at it, even singing nonsense lyrics for parts that don’t occur to me right away. I often find the final polishing gets done at the session because the pressure to finish it is very great. Another way I’ve come up with some of my best material is to hire a producer I really respect, and it seems to inspire me to focus and come up with the best of what I have at the moment. Partly because I want to impress them and partly because I don’t want to embarass myself.”
Seth Davidson writes:
“Inspiration Tip: Live in a shitty situation for half a decade or so, then discover that life is really pretty damned good. Works every time.” (I e-mailed Seth back with a one-word response…”yikes!”)
Donald C. Dees writes:
“Irene; I fully agree with you about carrying a ‘mini-cassette recorder’ with you at all times. It is simply not feasable and too dangerous to try to write a new lyric or chord progression while driving down the road at 70 mph. Sean Holland suggested taking a trip and leaving your guitar at home. On this point, I disagree. I go by this philosophy, ‘I’d rather have my guitar and not need it than need it and not have it’ You never know when you might be inspired to write a new song or just play to entertain yourself (and maybe others) at a dull party or some other gathering.”
Brian Hutzell writes:
“Take a walk on a crowded street, or sit in a busy diner, and LISTEN. Eavesdrop on conversations. People are interesting creatures and often say interesting things that might spark some ideas. Lots of listening will also help make lyrics more conversatonal.
OR A game I play when I’m stuck is simply to rip myself off. I’l take an old song of mine and try bizarre things with it: turn the page upside down, switch cleffs, change key and/or time signatures, play it backwards, randomly dot some notes. The result is usually on the strange side, but it opens up new melodies and sounds which I might not have discovered otherwise.”
Sean Holland writes: “How about this: Go on a trip and neglect to take your guitar. Go crazy for a few days or a week without playing a note. Come home, grab the axe and VOILA, something new pops out. Well, sometimes.”
I’ve heard all kinds of strange tricks for inspiration. What are yours?
Add your tricks to the Comments section below!
I went to a Power Songshop weekend back in November, put on by the Songwriter’s Association of Canada, and met three very talented songwriters: Cyril Rawson, Dean McTaggert and Tom Wilson. Each of them took four of us under tow, and in smaller groups we worked diligently on our songs…what a hoot! Imagine a whole weekend hanging out with songwriter’s and doing nothing else but focusing on your material! These workshops I would highly recommend, and I would also like to share with you a lyric framework written by my group leader, Cyril Rawson. Go through this list when you are at the re-working stage of your writing, it’s well worth it!
1. Memorable Title: identifiable, memorable, substantial for music, puts singer in favorable light, makes you want to hear it again.
2. Strong Start: pulls listener into song, established who, what, when, and where, immediately.
3. Progression: arranges things in a logical, meaningful sequence. Draws a conclusion, stated or implied.
4. Appropriate Music: supports and enhances the lyric content. Desired effect: happy, sad, angry, etc.
1. Attitude: an emotion or attitude is expressed.
2. Situation: the attitude is given a situation.
3. Story: the plot has a beginning, middle and an end.
1. Simplicity: keep to one idea, eliminate sub-plots.
2. Clarity: make clear who is doing the talking or thinking. Him, her, they, them, it–make it clear, show any changes of time, setting, viewpoint in a transitional line. Don’t assume!
3. Emphasis: use important words at the end of the line. “Active” voice verbs over “passive”. Rhyme words you want to stress.
4. Consistency: keep the tone and language style the same throughout. Keep theme words the same meaning: eg. “rain” – real rain or trouble.
5. Gender: choose the appropriate gender for the story.
6. Viewpoint: 1st person (I), 2nd person (you), 3rd person (he, she, they)…don’t change without explaining or introducing the new person.
7. Form: verse, verse chorus, verse chorus verse, bridge, chorus, etc.
So, there you go, and thank you Cyril for a great guide to combing through lyrics with a sharp eye to polish those wonderful songs!
So here I am offering to give you some advice, and then telling you not to listen! Actually, what I’m trying to say is that ultimately the most important thing you have to do is to PLEASE YOURSELF. Nothing can put out the creative flame more quickly than second guessing before you’ve even begun to put the pen to paper or the fingers to strings. Try it sometime…take in a book on songwriting and then sit down to write. You’ll probably have big wet marks on the armpits of your brand new writing shirt in no time.
What pleases you? Certain chord progressions? Certain lyrical turns of phrases? Whatever turns your crank, do it. Then when you have a rough idea of the song, that’s where the work comes in. Are you going to perform it? Try to get it to a publisher? If you answer yes to either of these questions, then you have to start considering your audience and what they will hear (see below). And MOST importantly, you have to finish it (even if you don’t like it!) Why finish a song you don’t like? Because you really don’t know if it’s a write-off until it’s completed, AND because the discipline of finishing what you start will be most helpful to your songwriting skills. Do you have a bunch of unfinished songs lying around? There you go! Hasn’t got you anywhere, has it?
…AND HOW ABOUT THAT AUDIENCE?
There are many schools of thought as to how much or how little you hit the audience over the head with your lyrics, for instance. This will also depend upon your style of writing. Country songs are usually (and I do qualify that!) straight-up-the-middle lyrically, whereas progressive rock may be almost completely obscure. The music will also be most effective if you take into consideration the audience you’re writing for…do you want to take them on a trip, make them happy, miserable?
Of course, the quickest way to find out if a song has any impact is to share it with an audience. I go to a local folk club on occasion and try out my new stuff. I know I’m not going to please everybody, but if somebody approaches me afterwards to mention how much they liked something, I take note! Another option is to join (or begin) a songwriter’s group in your area. A few people you trust may really help to define the strengths and weaknesses of your material. You might take turns critiquing each other’s work. But do remember that these are opinions…if somebody points out an area that you already had trouble with, then that’s exactly what you’re looking for. If somebody says something that seems totally off-base, then you politely thank them and move on! Don’t always trust that your friends or family are going to be able to give you a good evaluation of your work…unless they are absolutely into your style of writing, most of the time they will want to encourage and support rather than point out the problems, which is nice but not helpful.
This has to be the most frustrating part of writing lyrics…how to say the same thing, but not the same way. How many times have we heard “I love you” or “I never want to leave you” in a love song? Now actually, in some genres, such as country, cliche’s can be used quite effectively in a twist, but more commonly (good word!), we use those old lines or phrases because we haven’t been able to say it in a more creative way.
Here’s one solution: in workshops, I get people to sit with the “offending” phrase and off the top of their heads, write free hand everything they can think of relating to it. Try using metaphors, describing physical feelings, visualize a moment, use long sentences or just one or two word descriptions, anything that will take you away from the temptaion to use it. Once you establish a fresh feeling about what you are trying to put across, then try to fit it within the meter and the rhyme of your song. You might end up changing a whole verse because of it, but that’s okay! What you end up with will be more unique and ultimately stronger. And don’t forget to read, read, read. Reading fiction, non-fiction, poety, and lyrics helps to expand your vocabulary!