[…] Be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside, even in places you hate.
— Jeff Buckley, in an interview with Luisa Cotardo, 1995 via Brainpickings
Lyric ideas are everywhere. Every new lyric begins with something that the lyricist sees, hears, or feels during her day; often some small and simple spark. From that first flash, the lyricist’s memories, imagination, and poetic training will help flesh the lyric idea into a new song one line at a time.
Although inspiration is all around us, we miss out on all of it unless we slow down, clear our minds, and make the effort to notice.
Trade distraction for inspiration
During idle moments, most of us diddle our cell phones or worry unconstructively about life’s little stressors: the light bulb burned out in the hall, the approaching tax deadlines. Walk down a city street and you’ll see that many people tend to keep both eyes and both hands on their phones, both ears stoppered with earbuds. I’ve seen jaywalkers fail to notice that a car has slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting them.
That’s so many of us: caught up in digital devices, besieged by dozens of projects, distracted and numb to the world around us. But if we want to be lyricists who consistently write new songs, if we want to notice the myriad lyric ideas that await us everywhere, we’ve got to use our senses to scan the world around us. That can be as simple and easy as tucking the phone away for a few minutes and focusing on where you are right now.
Taking time to notice the world around you can provoke sense memories and imaginative leaps that surprise you. A finch rolling its little feathered body in the dust might remind you of the time you saw seagulls wheeling over a beach in Maine. Hearing a couple argue from an open car window might tighten your chest, conjuring ghostly memories of a relationship that ended in bickering and blame years ago.
Even if you’ve been stumped for ideas for a very long time, one hour of active searching might be all it takes to find a new lyric idea. Why beat your head against a blank page? To find your best ideas, try reaching outward — out toward the world around you.
The Lyric Writer’s Sketchbook
Instead of carrying a smartphone, why not carry a small notebook or sketchbook with you everywhere you go? Practice using every sense you have:
- What can you see? Where does light and shadow fall?
- What do you feel on your skin: cold, warmth, pressure?
- What position is your body in? How does the posture feel?
- What do your breath, pulse, tiredness, and other internal sensations feel like?
- How many sounds can you hear from where you sit right now?
- What can you smell and taste?
You can try this exactly where you are right now. Take inventory of your senses, one by one. Take your time.
Using a sketchbook for this is especially fitting because, in a way, you *are * sketching. Artists practice drawing things, trying to capture them on paper as best they can: they train their eyes to see the shapes, textures, the colors in great detail. As lyricists we’ll do well to practice capturing on paper the things we see — also the things we feel, hear, smell, and taste.
You probably won’t be sure exactly how these details might fit into a lyric, but the key is that this exercise trains you to be awake and alive, actively noticing interesting things. The things you notice can be the raw material for a new lyric. Almost like a form of meditation, you can gradually train yourself to scan your body and the world around you for a constant, fresh stream of lyric ideas. At the same time
To sketch, an artist must look closely at things. To write, a lyricist must use all her senses. By all means admire the patterns on a dress in the store window; run your fingertips down the bark of a tree near your bus stop; stretch your body and see how it feels; listen for the most distant sound you can hear from where you’re sitting right now. Step into a pub and smell the onions frying. Take a deep breath, and feel your chest rise and fall.
Let the world play your inner senses the way you’d play a guitar. Explore until some sight, sound, or smell strikes your imagination like flint, or light flickers over memories that move you.
Whenever you don’t know what to write, just reach out with your senses. There’s always something going on around you that you can tap into.