Songwriters and Romancing Your Muse
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv:Well, let’s get started on romancing the muse.
Gretchen: Ok, well, here’s my preface to that kind of fanciful title. I think that songwriting, writing lyrics in particular, and songwriting falls into that, is a peculiarly integrated process in terms of the right brain and the left-brain. I think that it really takes ability in both arenas to write a good song. There are, to me, in my mind, are two very distinct phases to writing. And the first phase is much more right brain. It’s much more intuitive. It’s that moment that we talk about when we feel like the song was coming through us or we have no memory of having the idea and it’s a wonderful process. The second part of the process is the hard work. And that’s the more linear left-brain process of editing. A process that Stephen King calls the “kill your darlings”, a phrase that I love, which basically means editing away even parts of a song that you love but you realize, through the knowledge of your craft, don’t fit. And romancing the muse, to me, is just another way of saying, encouraging, and nurturing that first phase of songwriting, which, so often, we tend to want to hurry along. We get a great idea and we tend to want to, quick, make it into a song and not allow enough time for that intuitive process to take place. And I think this is partly because the way we grow up. I think we all, as children in school, we’re rewarded for left-brain, linear, logical thinking. We grow up and we go to work and for most of us it’s the same thing. And, intuitive thinking, it’s more difficult to judge. In fact judgment really doesn’t even come into play because judgment is definitely a left-brain activity. The muse, I think, feels so elusive to people partly because we tend to want to lock it down. We get an idea and we want to make it stand, make it rhyme, make it fit into a song form. And all that is necessary but I think that one of the things that can really help people with writer’s block and just that fear of ‘Where will the next song come from?” is to learn how to keep the muse in the room. And by the muse, you may call her the muse, you may call it your subconscious, you may call it your artists voice, whatever your name for it is, it’s that elusive place from which the best lyrics and music, the best songs come, or at least, the ideas for the songs. So I think there’s a lot of advice out there for structure and sort of more linear ideas about how to write songs but there’s not a whole lot of information about enhancing and nourishing this first phase which is so, so important. So I want to talk about that and it’s sometimes a difficult thing to talk about because it is so intuitive and sometimes non-verbal. In fact, one of the reasons, I’m not a big co-writer and one of the reasons that I have trouble co-writing is that, for me, that first phase of songwriting is so non-verbal, it’s so visual, it’s so tied to the other senses that it’s very difficult for me to convey an idea that I have to a co-writer. If I get fixated on a word, say, a simple word, like a song I wrote years ago called “Let That Pony Run”. That song began with the word pony. And if I’d been sitting in a room with a co-writer and I said, “Well, I have this idea: pony” it wouldn’t have meant anything to anybody. So sometimes I think that’s what makes co-writing a challenge, at least for a writer like me. Everybody’s different.
Look At Your Writing From The Side Of The Star
But, at any rate, just some things that I’ve found that have helped me stay in that sort of fluid loose play-state a little bit longer before I bring my editing skills, and my internal editor into the room. And one of them, I call “looking to the side of the star”. This is the thing that my father taught me. He was a pilot in WWII and when we used to go out and look at stars he used to tell me that if you want to keep your eye on a very faint star in the sky, and you want to look at it, you can’t look at it directly because there’s something about the way that our eyes see a very, very very faint light in the night sky that’ll make the star disappear. So if you want to look at that star and keep your eye on that star, you have to look slightly to the side of it. I always think about that when I think about when you have a brand new idea and you know it’s special and you’re trying to sort of capture it. It’s like capturing a lightning bug in a jar. You’re trying to capture it without damaging it. Without overworking it. It’s looking to the side of that star. It’s basically sort of distraction as a tool for songwriting. There’s actually evidence, scientific evidence, that people for instance study better if they distract themselves. I read a few years ago that a study in 2007 in UCLA where they tested students on word pairs and they had some students try to spend some time memorizing and then sit through a slide show and view related material but, to distract them, basically, in their efforts to memorize. And the distracted students actually performed better on the recall test, which was really fascinating to me. I think that there’s a process that our brains go through that I think, for lack of a better term, you could call it subconscious that needs to work things out on it’s own time. Those of you who have done crossword puzzles may know the phenomenon where you work and work on a crossword puzzle and you get stuck on a few things. And you put it down, walk away, do something else and you come back and look at it and there’s the answer in your brain. The reason for that is that your brain has actually been working on the problem. It’s just not the conscious level of your brain that you’re most aware of. And this same process happens in writing. If you’re working on writing songs, for instance, and you’ve got these ideas and they’re in the nascent state, it’s in the beginning state, where it’s very fluid and it’s not really, it doesn’t really make sort of linear sense to you. A lot of times what you need to do is distract yourself and let the process work. Another analogy for that, to me, is kneading dough. If you overwork the dough, you’re trying make bread, and you overwork the dough it won’t rise. It’s over-handling the idea that will kill. I guess the analogy would be that you’re scaring away the muse. You have to distract yourself a little bit from the idea. Go back to it. Touch on it. There’s many many ways to do this. A few of the ones that I like to use are to keep several songs going in rotation. I always have at least eight to ten songs in some sort of ongoing state at any given time. And if I start to feel like I’m applying too much pressure to a song, trying to get it done, trying to wrangle it and make it fit, I tend to move onto something else for a while because I think that you can over-handle something. You can overthink something essentially and over-manipulate it. Another really great distraction technique, which can help you through a difficult part of the song, is to get away by taking a walk or a nap. People laugh when I suggest napping but there’s some evidence that the state that your brain goes into just before you fall asleep and just as you wake up is incredibly intuitive, creative state. And sometimes you can get sort of the answers to problems, and I’m talking now in terms of songwriting problems. Let’s say, you’re trying to come up with a line or you don’t know where to go with a song, sometimes you can come up with answers to those problems in that state of not-quite-awakeness while you’re taking a nap. Walking is also an incredibly good distraction technique because it’s rhythmic. If you walk for more than ten minutes your brain kind of goes into another sort of state. These are all sort of things to do to distract your brain from overthinking an idea when it’s just in its very beginning stages.
Use The 24-Hour Test To Reawaken Your Eyes and Ears
Another one that’s really really useful to me and I think I would say I probably use this on every song that I write is what I would call the twenty-four hour test. And the twenty-four hour test, basically it means that you put this thing away, and you don’t think about it. You very, very pointedly and intentionally don’t think about it for at least twenty-four hours. If it’s convenient, even forty-eight hours, a weekend, whatever. And come back to the song with brand new eyes and ears as if you were the listener rather than the writer. That can be a great way to sort of internalize and integrate the song in yourself, in your brain, but also come back and listen to it and see how it strikes you, as though it’s coming from the outside rather than the inside. That can be a really, really useful thing. That, to me, that test, that twenty four hour test is really kind of the crux and the point at which the song moves from the sort of muse phase, the intuitive phase, into the editing phase. Because, at that point, you start to listen to music as a listener and then you put to use all of your skills as an editor and all of that sort of more linear skills that you’ve learned: songwriting, song structure, rhyme, flow, all of that sort of thing, melody, tricks and techniques, all of that. Basically looking to the side of the star is a metaphor, to me, for staying off of yourself and letting your intuition and creativity work for you and kind of getting out of your own way.
Songwriting Tip: Write About What You’re Interested In
A few other things I would really love to touch on. These are related to that first segment of songwriting. I think they apply all through the process of writing a song but especially in the first half. First topic is about telling the truth, sort of. And what I mean by sort of is, I just read last night the old, a writer, I can’t recall who it was, who said that she hated the old axiom “Write what you know”. It was Annie Proulx actually, I read that last night. And she said one thing I found really interesting, it’s not about writing what you know, it’s about writing what you’re interested in. If we all only wrote what we knew we would sort of disappear into ourselves. I think “write what you know” actually means what I’m about to talk about. About telling the truth, which is that it’s not what you know factually. It’s what you know to be authentic and true. And, in that sense, you could write about a character that has done things that you’ve never done. It’s not about telling your autobiography, it’s about telling the authentic, honest truth. The truth, or so-called honesty, and the facts are not necessarily the same. And they’re not necessarily equal and actually one often requires the suspension of another. This is a quote I loved from one tremendous lyricist Rosanne Cash about this, “The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted, in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves. A seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot in the ocean when it all came clear that you were in the right place with the wrong man. The letters, the photos, the marbles and the jewels. All these physical, material real world artifact carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me. The exact words he said. Who was right or wrong? Whether he relapsed on the seventh or the tenth. Why exactly she does what she does. The depths, and weights, and the timber of the feelings and whether love heals everything. These aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury and when you were working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room.” This is what I would call the distinction between the truth and the facts. And, really, I think the most powerful thing you can do in songwriting is to tell the truth. And the way that you know that truth again goes back to the intuition, it goes back to the muse. Does it resonate with you? Saying “I Love You” in a song, literal using those words, really bears very very little emotional weight, But revealing a picture of some very small details that conveys that, and brings that emotion up in your chest, physically in your body, that’s the truth, and that is what I hear maybe more in beginning songwriters songs more than anything is the hesitation to include details because they’re afraid that it will mean that their song is not universal and it’s quite the opposite. And those details, though they may be details that are very very particular to your song, to your scenario, those are the little things that, as Rosanne Cash said, that carry poetic weight. A lot of times in that beginning phase of songwriting, lines will come to you. Now, obviously I’m talking mostly about lyric writing now. For me, that’s very much my emphasis so a lot of this is going to be very lyrically heavy. A lot of times though in that beginning phase of songwriting these kinds of lines will come to you and you will wonder, “Well, what am I supposed to do with this?” I wrote a song called “On a Bus to St. Cloud” full of details like that and at the beginning of a song those were the lines that I had. They were very specific and if I hadn’t trust in my intuition about those details, the song wouldn’t be what it was. And the details really seem to, far from making the song too specific and not universal, they’re like a dart to the heart, they get in because of the detail.
Sometimes It’s What You Don’t Say In Your Lyrics
Now I want to talk next something that’s going to seem completely contradictory to what I just said. But it’s not and you’ll have to trust me on this while I go through this. The next thing I think it important for writers to know is its what you don’t say. It’s what you leave out that really probably says the most. Ernest Hemingway wrote a theory, or stated a theory that I think was brilliant, I only discovered this a year or two ago but I think it’s what every writer sort of intuitively knows who’s been doing it any length of time. He called it the “Iceberg Theory”. And the “Iceberg Theory” goes basically like this: “If a writer knows enough about what he’s writing he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, this goes back to authenticity, the reader will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” I think this is incredibly important. This is, what I would call, the idea of the backstory. And this also ties back into telling the truth. If you’re writing a character, for instance, it’s very important to know who that character is. What they feel, what they do. Even what they ate for breakfast and what their habits are. It’s not important to put all that in your song. It’s not important to tell everything. In fact it’s important not to tell everything. But as this Hemingway theory states if the writer is writing truly enough the reader will have a feeling of those things. I liken this a lot, there’s a great analogy here to acting. In fact, one of the very few TV shows I watch is called Inside the Actor’s Studio and one of the reasons is every time I see it, I get some sort of insight about songwriting through an actor talking about acting. I think that actors, one of the first things that they learn is that they have to know the full story of the character that they’re playing. They don’t necessarily need to expound on that in the movie or play or whatever it is they’re doing but they need to know it in order to inhabit that character. You need to know it to be the writer. To tell the story. It’s not so much that you have to tell all those details, it’s that you have to know them. I’m going to refer back again to “On a Bus to St. Cloud”. For me, that song, there are a lot of things that I know about the characters in that song that I never stated in the song outright. The foremost among those things is that for me the story was about someone who committed suicide. I’ve had people ask me about that. Some people have sort of tuned into that anyway. Quite a few people and I’ve had quite a few people ask me, “Is that what the song’s really about?” And for me, it was, but the reason that it was because I needed that scenario. I needed to know that story in order to get emotionally into the heart of the song and to write from that standpoint. It’s not that it needed to be about that and it’s not that I needed to tell in the song that that’s what it was about. It was necessary for me that was what the story was for me. And, in order to write truly and honestly, that was the backstory. Another quote I’m going to through at you which I love, which relates to this, this is by the American poet Yusef Komunyakka, I hope I said that right, he said “Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.” And I guess that’s what I’m getting at is avoid the full frontal assault. Don’t say everything. Referring back to those details that Rosanne Cash talks about. Talk around that. Paint the picture. Avoid the full frontal assault, whatever you can do. Hence it’s about what you don’t say. The next thing I think seems obvious but I think it’s important to state is that it’s about the story. The oldest thing in the world, I think the oldest words in the world, must be “Tell me a story”. All of us want to be told a story. All of us want to be caught up in a story. And all of us really are storytellers. At the same time. So never loose sight of the story. I even think about this not just in terms of songwriting but in terms of singing. If I have some anxiety over a technical, being able to sing something, technically correctly, and this also goes to writing, I always go back to the idea that it’s a story. And it’s not about whether I sing it perfectly, It’s about whether I tell the story honestly. This can be immensely useful for performance but it can also be useful, very very useful in writing. If you ever get so caught up in your technical stuff, and whether things stand and whether they rhyme and do they fit a structure that you’ve been told is a commercial structure or whatever, any of that stuff. Go back to the question in your mind: am I telling the story? If I were listening to this story, would I want to know what happens next? It’s really much more important. And again, this ties back into the idea of that first section of, that first phase of the writing where you’re talking with the muse. It’s about the story; it’s not about your technical ability. That will come later. But put everything in its proper order. In it’s proper place. And let the story lead you.
If You’ve Written A Great Song You Can Write Another. It’s Not Magic
I guess this next section of things I’d love to talk about comes under the sort of general heading of reassuring facts. I think sometimes songwriters who are beginning in the process, who are newer at it, sometimes think that those of us that have been doing it a long, long time have some kind of secret or key that, you know formula, that means that we know what we’re doing and we know how to do it every time. And I want to just disabuse everybody of that notion right away. I think we all start out with the same blank piece of paper and we all wonder if anything will ever come again. I think the only thing that you learn through doing it repeatedly over years is that you learn that that sense of where does it come from? And will I ever do it again? Never ever changes. That may or may not be a reassuring fact, I’m not sure, but these next few things all come under the heading of reassuring facts in one way or another. Number one was that it’s mysterious. None of us really know where this thing comes from and part of that is getting back to what I said earlier is that we don’t really, I think, know how to trust our intuitive brain as much as we do our linear brain. We know how to balance a checkbook. We know that we can call up those skills every day. I don’t have any anxiety about will I be able to balance my checkbook tomorrow. I know how to do this. I know how to add and subtract. But I think when it comes to our subconscious brain we tend to dream up ideas such as the muse which I really think is just our subconscious brain because we don’t have a handle on how it works and it is an intuitive and it’s not something we can really manipulate and control. So, accepting the idea that it’s mysterious is somewhat reassuring I think. A couple of wonderful, wonderful quotes on this idea that I’ve collected, Stanley Kunitz said that the poem comes in the form of a blessing like the rapture breaking through on the mind. That, to me, describes the sense of getting an idea. A brilliant, wonderful, light bulb moment that’s better than anything. Another great one I love by Robert Frost: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat. A scent of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching out towards expression. An effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” And I think that’s just a lovely description of what we’re talking about here. People will oftentimes ask, “Where did that song come from? Where did you get the idea for that song?” And, I have to say, for pretty much every song I’ve written that I feel is a worthy song, I don’t have any memory of the original idea and this is partly due to the fact that it’s a mysterious process. It begins as a lump in the throat. It’s a non-verbal feeling. It’s something that is needing to get out but it’s not anything that you manipulate or control. And I think that can be reassuring to writers who think that they have to sit down. They take to heart the advice, ‘sit down and write four hours a day, or six hours a day, or whatever, or write everyday’. And that is all very true and very good but the object of that exercise is not that you need to come up with this brilliant idea every for four hours a day or that you’re going to somehow get into that that state every time you do it. It’s to do, what I call, ‘assuming the position’. In other words, develop the sort of physical and linear skills to capture that idea when it does come. The fact that you sit down for four hours a day is not going to make you write brilliant songs every single day, no matter if you do it for a year or ten years. But it is going to get you to develop your muscles so that you’re ready to take that idea when it does come. But always retain that idea that it’s mysterious because it is and that’s something that, although it can be frustrating when you haven’t had a good idea for a while, it’s also reassuring because I think you begin to trust your intuition and know that it’s within you. Another I think that’s reassuring to know, coming from a more seasoned writer, is if it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right. I think it’s misleading sometimes to hear writers talk about, oh, how much they love writing and how great it is, and how fun it is. I always felt, when I heard some writers talk about that, I always felt sort of inadequate. I always found songwriting to be really difficult. And the better I got at it the more difficult it became. And so, I found it more reassuring to hear from writers, here’s another quote from Thomas Mann, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I think that’s funny but I think that’s also dead honest. William Styron, another great writer, says, “I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it: writing is hell.” That may not sound reassuring to you but it is in a sense. Even writers who’ve spent a lifetime doing this. And they understand that if it’s not hard you’re not doing it right. Assuming that position and waiting for the muse to come can be incredibly excruciating but it is part of the muscle that you need to develop in order to be ready when it does happen. It’s also conversely, and maybe this is contradictory, maybe not, it’s also supposed to be easy. What I mean by that is that it’s supposed to be easy when you’re in that first stage of writing, when you’re playing. It’s really more like play and sometimes if it’s not easy in that phase, you’re thinking too hard. I think that if you think of yourself, if you’re in that stage and you’re trying to, what I would call, ‘lock down’ too early, get a great idea, you know it’s a great idea and you’re trying to lock it down into some sense of structure, sometimes what you’re doing is you’re not playing enough. I’ve often told people that are in songwriting groups and so forth, there’s a reason they call it playing music. It is play. Creativity in general is play. And the surest way I think to chase the muse out of the room is to work it too hard and not have that sense of play. There’s a lot of things you can do to help yourself when you’re in that phase. To help yourself with that sense of play. Shutting out the outside world is key to doing that. Another tip that I think is great for that is don’t consume and create at the same time. Realize that there is a difference; there is an ebb and flow between taking information in and putting it out. And consuming, or taking information in, is going to kick your linear brain in to play immediately. So shut that out and make sure that there are no rules during that first phase of writing. Make sure that your brain isn’t saying, your internal editor isn’t saying, ‘no no no but that doesn’t rhyme’ or ‘no that’s a nonsensical idea’. Let it be play. Let yourself free associate. Get it out on paper. Write it down. There’s no rule that you have to use it but some of the most inspired and brilliant lines are going to come out during that phase when things aren’t totally making sense. You may be writing a song that you don’t even know what it’s about. That happens to me frequently. In fact I would venture to say most times. Letting that sense of play stay in the room with you and don’t let your internal critic come in. Set a time limit if you need to. You can say, ‘for the next three hours, I’m in here with the muse, I’m playing, and there’s no criticism allowed, only ideas are allowed.’ One of the other ways that is a great way to sort of see how it works is playing with small children. If you spend fifteen minutes playing with small children you can see how this process is. It is their work. Play is their work. But you can see how the imagination runs free, how the voice inside that says ‘well that’s not real, that’s make-believe, that can’t be real’ that doesn’t enter into the process. It can be an incredibly enlightening thing to do this if you’re sort of trying to figure out how to stay in the room with the muse and let your ideas blossom before you get in there and start editing and sort of hacking away at them. A lot of things I’ve touched on before—napping is a great way to stay in that state. Don’t force it. Relaxing, anything you can do to put yourself more in your body–like yoga, walking, anything like that. In your writing room while you’re writing. And speaking of writing rooms, another thing I wanted to say is, thing one, and it may seem overly obvious, but you have to have a place where you do all this. If you haven’t actually made a place in your life, I mean a physical space in your life to write, neither you nor the muse have a place to go. So obviously there has to be a place and it needs to be–I hesitate to use this word because it may turn some people off–but it needs to be a sacred place. It needs to be a place, whatever that means to you, where other things don’t come in the room. Other things like perhaps the Internet, your phone. It needs to be a place where this is what happens. This is where I create. Even if it’s your bedroom. Even if you shut the door and by shutting your door you shut out the rest of the outside world. You need to have a place to do it. A few other things I just wanted to touch on and then we can do some questions possibly. Trusting yourself–a couple of quotes, I don’t even know where these came from but I collected them because I love them. One of them is, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write”. I think that’s a lovely way of saying, “Trust your intuition”. When you have a thought like that–a sort of lightning bolt kind of a thought, that’s the thing that you need to cling to. That’s the nexus of a great song. Another one, that I love, this is coming from a writer and I’m sorry to say I didn’t write down who it was, “I discovered that rejections are not all together a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts: to hell with you.” I love that quote because I think this goes back to the idea of trusting your intuition as well. I’ve often been asked about taking criticism and what’s the way to take it song critiques and that sort of thing. I think the only way that you can take criticism and critiques is to see how they resonate inside you. If there’s a line, for instance, or a verse or something in your song that you have been maybe secretly, and maybe you’re in denial about it, wondering if it works. You’re not quite sure about it. And someone critiques your song and they point out–they go straight to that line and it causes a sort of sympathetic vibration in you–like a cringe, something like that. That’s a criticism you can use. That’s a criticism that’s basically just honing in on a thought that you’ve already had. Or a feeling or an intuition that you’ve already had. If, on the other hand, you receive a critique and someone goes for a line that, to you, is the most magical line in your song, that’s a criticism that you need to defend. You need to defend yourself against. You need to stick to your guns and you need to learn to fine-tune your intuition as strongly as you do your linear synching. You need to be able to say, “Nope that’s the line that I love. I know it doesn’t make sense. Maybe I need to work the rest of the song around it, but that’s the line that I love.” You need to defend the line. That’s your intuitive sense about your own work. And that’s the ‘to hell with you’ line. I think sometimes writers aren’t encouraged enough to stick with those things, partly because our commercial sensibilities were trained, because of the songs we hear on the radio and so forth, we’re trained to believe these rules. The truth is a lot of the biggest commercial successes have broken the rules. There’s scores and scores of examples of them. But, more than that, I think what you find if you defend those songs and those lines and those moments of brilliance that you have is that years down the road those are going to end up being your best work. The only thing you really have to go in the end on is your intuition and I think it’s important for writers to work on strengthening that part of themselves absolutely as much strengthening their knowledge of craft and ability. I think that’s something that gets overlooked oftentimes in songs camps and song workshops. Sticking with your intuition is probably the most important part of the whole process.