Songwriting Part 19 - Something Out of Nothing

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

You're sitting there feeling totally uninspired. We all need a kick-start sometimes when we don't feel like writing. (Or maybe you feel like writing, but can't get started.) In this episode I'm going to attempt to spur your creativity into gear with a little exercise.

Step 1...

We're going to think of a story. Don't write anything down yet. Here are some ideas to get you going.

something that happened to someone you know
a dream you had
a scene from a movie or TV show; a book or poem

The first rule: no personal stories. In order for you to write objectively we are going to write something that didn't happen to you. Got an idea? Stop here. Think about it for a few minutes until you've narrowed your focus to a specific idea. It doesn't have to be fantastic. Just a small thread.

Because this didn't happen to you, you hopefully won't have any intense personal feelings attached. You will be putting yourself in your "character's" shoes and imagining their personality, how they would think and feel about the situation they are in. Briefly, write a few lines on your topic. Next, choose an emotion that you think best describes the scene. (You might change this later, that's okay.) Try and keep it to a simple - find one word that describes the situation. (i.e. Tragic. Comical. Giddy.)

Thomas Uzzell wrote in 1923, "If you really see the idea, namely, understand it, I don't think you'll have difficulty making it into a good plot. Understanding, remember, is not feeling; understanding is grasping a thing intellectually."

Step 2...

Here is a warm up. Pick a colour - FIRST ONE that comes into your head. Write as many descriptive things about that colour as you can. They can be silly. They can be a reach. Put at least twenty connections down - preferably more. For example...What objects does the colour remind you of? What does the colour smell like? What would it feel like if you could hold it? What person does this colour remind you of?

Step 3...

Look at the page on the right. Some of these words are often seen in songs, some are not. Put this magazine on the floor. Get yourself ten coins (ten mini M & Ms would work great too!) Standing over the page, let them drop one by one. Carefully (don't move the page) write down the ten words on which your markers landed.

These ten words are going to be your starting point. Read them to yourself. Perhaps only two of the ten bring an image to mind, even better if it's an image with an emotion attached. Perhaps none of your ten causes a twitch, but another word on the page does. Great. Start wherever you like, but start writing.

The second rule: It doesn't have to make sense. Your goal isn't to write a masterpiece, it's to write something. Anything. Don't worry about what your chorus is going to be. Don't think about rhyming.

For example, from feeling and crashes I got

I'm feeling you walk out the door

This cup in my hand crashes down to the floor

And I walk on shards of glass

But I won't make a sound 'til you've left...

Step 4...

If you're already off and rolling, great - go with whatever idea you have. If not, refer now to your topic from above. Will all of your ten words work within your story? Sure they will. Forget about the traditional meanings of the words. Many have more than one connotation. Twist them to do your bidding. Sense can become sensuous. Year might become yearn. Expand on them. Quiet may mean unbearable quiet. Is collar the way you're going to corner someone, or is it a piece of cloth that almost conceals a neck you long to kiss? Work as many of your ten words as you can into the storyline. They don't have to be key words in your story. They might be words that only lead to part of the story that is important. Doesn't matter which. Maybe you won't even have a story, but a collection of thoughts.

Now that you've tried your darndest to use all those ten words, go back and start to assemble your various phrases and emotions into some sort of order. Shave off the bits that you don't like so much and see if you have enough to create a verse (or a chorus). Hopefully, you have enough left once you've done this editing - even in the roughest of stages - that you will begin to see where the rest of the song "wants to go". Feel free to abandon your initial plot, and initial emotional tone. You might have a better idea now than you did at the start. It doesn't matter if you ever finish this or turn it into a song. You may just have a good line to use at a later date. File it away for future reference.

enormous,trudge, cunning, torpid, delicate, shade, eternity, gorgeous, skin, soar, pound, ache, sudden, vision, rock, spring, warm, bewail, almost, beneath, garden, shadow, heave, tinged, bare, water, storm, regret, shot, platitude, scream, sea, rational, end, simple, flood, watching, mirror, given, wary, retreat, enchant, temper, nayure, unearthly, speech, instant, desire, rougue, bloom, strange, triangle, distraction, careless, roam, plenty, slowly, silver, insult, swoop, unpainted, edge, desperation, foaming, savage, sink, torrent, ravaged, switch, erect, various, grating, blow, tawdry, elaborate, crush, shake, fling, chain, messy,

Step 5...

As you go about your everyday business, make a point of writing down words that catch your attention. They can be perfectly common words, but perfectly common words can cause just as intense an emotional feeling - if given the proper context - as high-falutin' words. From time to time review your list. You never know when one particular word you stashed away months ago will be there at just the right time and catch you in the right frame of mind to trigger a whole new idea.

Make your own grid with favourites and see what happens when you try the exercise again.

Listen for words that catch your ear in other songs. You're shouldn't use the same metaphors obviously, but take a word out of its current setting and put it in your own. All of the words in the grid above have likely shown up in numerous songs, but the ideas that you just came up with are unique.

This exercise is a favourite method of mine for working through a period of "un-creativity." I hope it works for some of you as well. I'd love to hear the results! P.S. And it's a good excuse to buy some M & Ms!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published February/March 2002.

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