This is a transcript of my first songwriting podcast, cleaned up a little and given headings. If you missed the audio version, you can download it here.
During my senior year of high school, our creative writing teacher sent us outside to look for poetry. We stood up, pushed back our hard plastic chairs, put on mittens and gloves, zipped up our coats, and struck out into the cold January morning to look for something to write about—not by staring at a blank page, but by exploring nature. The task was to write a haiku.
I remember looking at these icicles longer than my body. Finding animal tracks in the snow that covered the soccer field. Seeing pine tree branches so matted and heavy with ice that they bent all the way to the ground.
If anyone started standing too close to one another or talking, our teacher would walk over and quietly send each of them off in opposite directions.
Finally, after about half an hour, we filed back inside to read our offerings aloud to our classmates and teacher. I remember snowy footprints melting on the brown carpet while classmates read, astounded at the dramatic change in everyone’s writing—until then, most of us had written about feelings and states of mind. Our poetry had sounded like evening news weather reports, with the Doppler displaying large moving clouds of teenage hormones instead of rain. A typical offering would sound something like:
“You broke my heart. I am in deep despair. How will I live without you?”
Not the most descriptive and lifelike poems!
Writing haiku got us out of our own heads, to dig into the outside world for topics.
After we had wandered around in the Maine snow and shuffled quietly back into our seats, the ones who chose to read their haiku had these punchy, evocative little poems that awoke the inner senses beautifully.
All these years later, I’m still thinking about those poems: pine cones glazed over with ice or a single black cat stalking through the snow with powder on its whiskers. Perhaps the most amazing lesson is that although we all wandered around in the same 200 square feet or so, no two of us wrote about the same thing. We all saw differently.
This counters the conventional notion that to write your unique vision, you must dig deep within yourself. You can also search the world around you.
I think this model of teaching and writing haiku is a great one for songwriters to adapt for their own use.
Constraints Lead to Creativity
Restrictions often lead to ideas—they force us to stretch, to grow, to improvise, to tap new resources and to work around the limitations. I think as much about new, interesting constraints as I do about new song ideas. I love throwing a wrench in my own gears, defying my usual creative habits. A new kind of process leads to a new kind of song.
The haiku has a very brief, disciplined structure of about 5 syllables, then 7, then 5, so of course the very brief nature of that poetic form will give us some sense of direction. We probably won’t attempt a detailed biography within those 17 syllables, right?
The Importance of Sensory Details
Vivid, believable images help listeners connect with the experiences you’re writing about. They create common ground and sympathy for the characters and situations in your story.
Saying More, in Fewer Words
In traditional haiku, there’s often a seasonal element–but it can be subtle. A poet may mention an apple on a branch, ducks flying in a certain direction, or some other thing that subtly suggests the time of year.
Implication is powerful because it can signal important information about setting, time, and state of mind without the clumsiness of a direct statement. Instead of having to say “It was Autumn,” you can devote that space to describing something evocative, like the ring of fallen apples underneath a tree.
And of course much more can be implied than just the season…
Observation is the Root of Lifelike Description
Consider wandering out into nature for half an hour to actively search for something to crystallize in a few short, descriptive lines. The more time we spend observing the world in detail, the more likely it is that vivid pictures will emerge in our writing, both now and later.
You could also go out to observe people. Eavesdropping leads to great song ideas.
If you look at blank pages and just feel blocked and paralyzed, Get out of that stuffy room. Look around. Use your ears. Use your nose. Spend some time actively exploring the world for new sensations.
A friend or two could be fun—as long as you all can focus, and don’t follow each other around too closely. Send this article to a fellow songwriter, and let them know they’re invited to a songwriting date!
Whether or not you bring a friend, remember this: your notebook is invited. Your phone is not.
- Songwriting Podcast #001: How the Haiku can Improve Your Songwriting
- There Are No Shortcuts
- Warning: Your Songs will Outlive You
- Songs Before Breakfast: 42 Days of Object Writing
- Four Easy Ways to Begin Writing a New Song
Nicholas Tozier is an independent singer, songwriter, private music instructor, blogger, and instructor at Ampersand Academy of Dance & the Performing arts centered in Gardiner, Maine. His first album, A Game with Shifting Mirrors, is slated for self-release in Fall 2010.