The most daunting obstacles we face in beginning any creative project are often the ones we place in our own way. In working on songwriting in the past few months, I’ve found myself getting tripped up by own my ideas about how a song “should” come into being. Like many people, I have a stereotype of songwriting as a kind of emotional outpouring. Someone’s passionately in love, but they can’t express the feeling in ordinary words, so they sit down and write a love song. Someone’s outraged by an injustice, but they can’t fix the injustice on their own, so they channel their outrage into a protest song. The writing starts with a powerful emotion or a deep-seated conviction, and everything flows from there. Words are written that express the songwriter’s inner thoughts, a melody is formed that captures the songwriter’s mood. I’ll call this a “forward process” because everything moves forward from the songwriter’s initial inspiration, be it a feeling of love, despair, joy, or rebellion.
In a few special moments, I’ve experienced the “forward process” working as described. I knew what I wanted to express. I felt so deeply in touch with my feelings that when I put my pen to paper, the lyrics seemed to flow effortlessly, and when I touched my guitar and started to sing, I could quickly find notes that matched. The problem is that most of the time, this doesn’t happen. I’ll have worked at my day job all day and managed to carve out an hour or two in the evening for songwriting. When that time comes, I’m not feeling a sense of communion with my emotional self. I know I want to write a song, but there’s no upwelling of sentiment that would propel me along. I’m not sure what I’m feeling at all, aside from tired. What I know is that I’ve got a block of time to make some progress on songwriting. I could give up and try again the next day, but the next day might bring the same situation. If songwriting is about expression, how can you work on it when you’re not presently haunted by a feeling that you need to express?
Because I’ve tended to think that songwriting should start with a strong emotion or conviction, I’ve spent a lot of unproductive songwriting time waiting for such an emotion or conviction to spontaneously overtake me. But what I’ve come to realize is that a “backwards” songwriting process can work just as well as a “forwards” process. In the backwards process, you don’t start with emotion, you just start with the technical nuts and bolts. You begin assembling the song without knowing what it’s going be about. If you’re not feeling a surge of inspiration, you allow yourself to proceed mechanically. A song needs some chords, so you pick some chords. A song needs a tune, so you choose a few notes that work over the chords. A song needs some words, so you create some nonsense lyrics – total gibberish is fine – that seem to go with your tune. Now what you’ve got is a little something. It’s more than nothing. You sing it to yourself a few times. You notice a way to make the tune a little more interesting. You notice a way to make the chord progression a little more fluid. As you sing through the temporary lyrics, perhaps you get an idea for a meaningful phrase that could replace some of the gibberish.
You still don’t know what the song is going to be about, but now you’re in motion. The trick is to stay in motion, to keep making these little adjustments until a direction for the song becomes clear. If you persist with this mechanical tinkering, you’ll reach a point where you know what kind of song it’s probably going to be – maybe it’s starting to sound like a love song – but perhaps the details – who’s in love with who – aren’t known yet. There’s still no wave of inspiration to propel you forward, so you force yourself to make an arbitrary choice: you’re going to be singing to your high-school sweetheart. (While I hesitate to suggest forcing anything, sometimes force is indeed necessary to overcome inertia.) Perhaps, at this moment, you’re not feeling a great sense of affection or longing for your high-school sweetheart, but you’ve made the choice to write about him or her, so you go ahead and construct some lyrics about the relationship that the two of you had. A few hours later, perhaps this direction still feels like a struggle, but now you’ve got some material to reflect on. Instead of staring at a blank page, you’re now looking at a page with scribbles. Maybe you realize that the whole thing can be restructured, not as a song about your high-school sweetheart, but as the memory of a home or other place that you left and were never able to return to. So now you begin draft two, completely new lyrics, the high-school sweetheart goes away, a few more modifications to the tune, a different strumming pattern, and you keep going.
What’s remarkable about the backwards process is that if you persist, all this mechanical experimentation can result in something that you begin connecting with, even though that connection was not present at the outset. The first stages of the process may feel soulless, as if you’re just pushing words and notes around without any guiding force, but eventually you land on something that surprises you. The words, melody, and chords start taking effect, like the ingredients of a magic potion. You had been coldly assembling a love song, and you had thought that no good song could come from such a passionless process, but at some point you sing it and notice that it does something. You think, “Wow, that’s a pretty good love song. Where did it come from?” Or, “Wow, that’s a horrible love song but there’s one phrase that really speaks to me.” Your initial challenge had been that you weren’t feeling an emotional thrust to guide you forward, but now, this thing you’ve created starts to arouse your feelings in unexpected ways. The song begins to wake you up as it wakes up. And now that this waking is underway, you can try to tune into the components of the song that speak to you most powerfully, expand upon them, and use them to set the direction for your next revision. With your feelings aroused, you can now follow more of a forward process to bring the song to completion. A process that began mechanically can be carried onward by the heart.
In summary, if inspiration isn’t there to guide you at first, forget about inspiration. Force yourself to make something, anything, not knowing what it’s going to be about. Then notice your reaction to what you’ve made. Perhaps, even though you constructed the thing mechanically, an aspect of it happens to move you. (If nothing about it moves you, keep tinkering with it until something does.) Now tune into this aspect that moves you, and proceed from there.