If your mind goes blank every time you try to put words to music, these ideas will get your songwriting process in gear.
by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
I recently received an e-mail with a familiar question: “When I am driving or in public, many thoughts go across my mind and I always say to myself, ‘That could translate into a song.’ But when I get home, and sit down with pen and paper, my mind goes blank, and all I do is stare at the paper for 15 minutes before giving up. Is that normal?”
You bet it is. The blank page and silent guitar can be as intimidating for a seasoned songwriter as for a beginner. Writing a song requires a leap of faith that your emotions and ideas are valid and worth expressing, no matter what your inner critic has to say. Every writer learns by doing, and there is no learning without the doing. Here is some advice to help you along the way, gleaned from conversations with veteran singer-songwriters, as well as from my own experiences in the songwriting woodshed.
Arrange and Rearrange
Perhaps the best way to start writing songs, and to avoid the blank-page syndrome, is to mess around with an existing song. Get in touch with your inner preschooler: Make up new words to a simple tune, graft the words of one song onto a different melody, or improvise couplets in the pattern of jump-rope ditties and nursery rhymes. Forget about being clever or meaningful—narrate your daily routine, play with sound, anything to get the words and notes flowing.
Some musical forms are so embedded in our DNA that they make perfect launchpads for a beginning songwriter. Try writing your own 12-bar blues, for instance—all you need is a couple of repeating musical phrases. The primal Bo Diddley groove, too, is great for improvising rhymes. And the basic chord structures of songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Stand by Me,” and “Goodnight Irene” can accommodate endless numbers of new songs.
Picture Yourself on a Boat on a River
It can be frustrating to feel like you’re writing from a deep emotion only to discover that your resulting song is bland and generic. The missing element may be visual: compelling imagery that listeners can see and remember. Consider the haunting old mountain song “Red Rocking Chair.” “I ain’t got no use for your red rocking chair,” goes the chorus, “I ain’t got no sugar baby now.” So much longing and loneliness is packed into the image of the empty rocking chair that the image lingers long after the song ends.
Think about connecting your feelings with pictures and grounding your lyrics with tangible details. You may find yourself coming up with vivid images that you don’t really understand but that have some kind of emotional resonance. Pay close attention to those images—they are often the basis of the most powerful songs.
Go Beyond Your Diary
“Write what you know,” the mantra of English teachers, is solid advice, but don’t take it too literally. The best songs often come when you embellish, extend, or otherwise reimagine your life experiences. “You are not limited to an exact replica of what you wrote in your diary,” says Nashville songsmith Beth Nielsen Chapman. “You can go beyond the parameters of your own experience, and still use the emotions you have experienced. That’s what I have become most interested in as a songwriter. It’s as if I opened this channel and all this assistance comes through. That sounds very New Age, but it is magical. And a lot of the time I end up learning something from my own songs.”
Set Small, Achievable Goals
In the era of American Idol, it’s easy to forget that artistic progress usually comes not in a giant media flash but in incremental steps taken over months and years. “The key is to lose your expectations of how much you are going to produce,” says Steve Seskin, who like Beth Nielsen Chapman both writes songs for others and performs his own material. “Songwriting is not like hanging sheetrock, where your boss expects you to hang a certain amount of sheetrock in eight hours,” Seskin says. “Songwriting can’t be judged that way. Allen Shamblin and I wrote ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ in about four hours. Well, we got really lucky that day. We have another story song called ‘Cactus in a Coffee Can’ that took probably 100 hours over a six-month period to write, because it just wasn’t right. If we get together for six hours and come up with one line that we love, that’s still a good day.”
Seek Out Feedback
Sharing your songs with other people is a scary but essential step that can dramatically accelerate your growth as a writer. Songwriting groups, which are everywhere these days, are a great forum for sensitive and informed feedback. Other writers’ critiques and suggestions are valuable even if you disagree with them—opposing views can help clarify your own position.
Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron leads writing workshops and often finds that participants make the mistake of only wanting to hear her feedback. “If you’re an entertainer, you’re going to have a random audience,” she says. “It’s not going to be your chosen audience. So if Sally next to you here says, ‘I like this song, but …,’ it’s just as valid as anything.”
The whole reason to write songs is to have a space of your own where you can speak your mind and heart. So be receptive to whatever wants to come out, even if it strikes that pesky inner critic of yours as potentially embarrassing, shocking, or just plain weird. “Otherwise, why bother writing?” says rock troubadour Dan Bern. “It’s a place where you don’t have to be squeamish. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder telling you, ‘You can’t say that’ or ‘That’s inappropriate.’ Listen to what’s inside and let that come out. That’s the thing to trust.”
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, a grand prize winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, is author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter and Rock Troubadours: a collection of conversations on songwriting. Rodgers’ words and music can be sampled at www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com.