Read Poetry to Escape the Clichés of Lyric Writing

Photo of a woman reading poetry.

You may have heard the phrase “Music is a language.”

The inverse is equally true: language is music.

Have you ever spent time listening to a language you don’t speak? The cadences, the sounds of the consonants and vowels, the inflections…I could listen to French, for example, all day. Go find a French person, give her a big stack of legal fine print to read aloud, and switch a microphone on — I’ll buy a 10-disc set of that. I don’t understand a word of French, so it all sounds like poetry to me.

And actually that’s what poetry is all about: the sounds. The rhythms. The cadences. The beauty of language itself.

As songwriters we share whole horizons of common ground and history with poets. There’s a long tradition (we’re talking centuries and centuries) of classical composers setting poems to music. The word “sonnet” literally means “little song”. The word “lyric” itself originally referred to short, personal poems starting about five centuries ago. More recently, Leonard Cohen published several books of poetry before ever releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. And this is just skimming the surface.

There are countless intersections between poetry and lyric writing. The two art forms are simpatico.

As a songwriter, anything you can learn about the craft of poetry will put you at an advantage in writing lyrics. Even the simple act of reading poetry will dilate your sense of what’s possible in lyric writing far, far past the limits of mainstream music. It’ll infuse your mind with fresh images, connections, and ideas. It’ll trigger memories and ideas that are uniquely yours.

All that, yes—and aside from all that, reading poetry is a joy in its own right. [Read more...]

“Inspiration” is a Myth — Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing Songs

“I just don’t feel inspired”, songwriters often say. Yet we still find ourselves inspired to watch TV and poke around on Facebook. Funny how that works, eh?

You can always put off songwriting until tomorrow, but don’t kid yourself — if you put it off, you’re not gonna feel any more motivated tomorrow. Days go by, weeks go by, a season goes by. Before you know it, years have slipped through your fingers and you realize you’ve made little progress toward your musical goals. It can be quite an unhappy realization.

If you’re serious about writing songs, though, you can still find ways to make it a priority. Life is short. None of us knows how much time we’ve got left in a lifetime, and getting good at songwriting takes a lot of time —better get started.

Songwriting’s hard work, and you’ll find yourself inventing reasons not to do it today. “Inspired” or not, write songs anyway. Read on for ideas on how to jump back into the craft.

 Songwriting is work

Right about here is where a lot of people push back. They say: “I don’t want songwriting to become like work! It sucks all the fun out.” If you’re just writing songs for occasional kicks, or for therapeutic reasons, that’s absolutely fine. Just be aware that casual effort brings small, casual rewards. If you want more from this craft, you’ve got to invest more time and effort. And that usually means that you’ll have to show up every day, even when you “don’t feel like it”. Buckling down and getting serious is kind of scary, right? It raises the stakes. But raising the stakes is better than letting time slip away from you and ending up with deathbed regrets someday.

Things you can do without inspiration

You don’t have to feel like writing in order to write. Here are some tricks I’ve learned for tricking myself into writing songs, even when I didn’t feel like it:

  • Set a timer when you begin a practice or songwriting session. Start with small sessions: just 10-15 minutes to begin with.
  • Set some small short-term goals. Take pleasure in working on little things: like learning the notes on your guitar fretboard, practicing your notation reading skills, or free writing in search of a lyric idea.
  • Give yourself a deadline. “Thursday of next week, I’ll attend an open mic and play one original song.” Mark it on the calendar. Write it on the wall.
  • Turn off your phone. While you’re supposed to be writing songs or practicing, turn off your cell phone’s ringer. Turn off the vibrator, too, and put it where you can’t see the screen. Even momentary distractions break focus. Your creative focus is sacred — protect it from distractions!
  • Bribe yourself. Some of the dirty work of songwriting isn’t especially exciting. I’m never thrilled to do half an hour of ear training. Offer yourself an immediate reward that you can have after you do the work today: personally, I’ve bribed myself with cookies, beer, TV time, and other things that I would be embarrassed to even mention.

The following activities require zero inspiration. You can sit down and do them anytime.

  • Follow a writing prompt
  • Take out a book and learn some new technique on your instrument
  • Take out a book and study some music theory
  • Free write
  • Read about a musician you admire
  • Listen to a favorite song — analyze its chords, melody, and lyrics

Set a timer for just 10 or 20 minutes and work on something — just to get it started. The funny thing is, once you’ve gotten started, you’ll often find yourself wanting more. You’ll get a little kick of satisfaction from doing creative work, and you’ll find yourself craving more of that. For now, though, put just 20 minutes on the timer. That’s all you’re committing to today.

Start Now.

Songwriting may be tough to work into your daily routine, but it gives you lasting satisfaction, self-expression, and self-respect. Time spent writing songs is time well-spent. If you’ve been procrastinating about some area of your songwriting or music-making, take five minutes right now to set a daily goal for working on it. Use everything you’ve got to combat procrastination: Set a timer. Set some small goals; go for the small victories. Give yourself a deadline. Lock your phone in a desk drawer. Bribe yourself with guilty pleasures. Do what it takes to get the work done. Sitting down to work isn’t a sacrifice; it’s a trade. Give it your time and attention, and the craft of writing songs will eventually pay you back. With interest.

stopwatch photo courtesy of Nick Olejniczak

4 Steps to a More Focused Practice or Songwriting Session

 

by ilkerender

Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.

-Junko Tabei, first woman to summit Everest

1. Clear distractions.

When sitting down to practice or write, find a suitable space: someplace quiet, uncluttered, and free of distractions.

Gather all the tools you’re likely to need and leave everything else behind. Nonessentials will only distract you and weigh you down.

Cell phones should be out of sight, out of earshot, and out of reach. If you absolutely must use a computer, disconnect it from the internet.

In addition to a welcoming and functional space, strive for the right headspace: take a few deep breaths, clear your mind, and commit to the day’s work.

He must be made to concentrate, otherwise he gets all mixed up. It is not genius he lacks, but the capacity to sit still.

–Franz Liszt’s paramour, Caroline

2. Define your objective.

Remain aware of this task during your session. Write it down in bold black letters if you have to. This especially applies to practicing your instrument. Guitarists especially tend to noodle and fidget.

It’s perfectly alright to veer off your intended path and crash around in the woods a bit—experiments teach better than rote learning—but make sure you’re able to find your way back when you’re done exploring.

3. Decide how much time you’re going to spend.

Setting a time limit helps for two reasons: a) it prevents you from giving up prematurely and b) knowing that your labors have a reasonable end will help you give yourself fully to your task.

Choose a duration, set a timer and don’t let up until it runs down to zero.

4. Encore!

The best way to follow up a productive day is by having another productive day.

Keep a practice log to track your progress from day to day. Just a few sentences about your challenges, obstacles, questions, and victories (large and small) will do.

5. Enjoy the process.

Is it always going to be fun? No. If you’re working hard and pushing at the edge of your abilities, expect to feel like you’re in over your head. Relish that feeling, because pushing limits will make you a better songwriter. It’ll also enrich your life.

Your battles as a songwriter may be more abstract than summiting Everest, but the trials of a serious artist are every bit as trying. Take pride not only in your results, but in your effort.

Believe in yourself. Stay determined. The steepest challenges reward endurance, so keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Recap

  1. Clear distractions.
  2. Define your objective.
  3. Decide how much time to spend.
  4. Do it again.
  5. Enjoy the process, even the temporary failures.

photo by Ilker Ender.