In order to be a writer, you need to write. Just as you would make art if you are an artist or take photos if you are photographer. You don’t need to be brilliant about it all the time. You just need to DO it all the time. The equation is basically as I heard Ellen Burstyn put it in an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money: “In order to become the noun, you must do the verb.”
I’ve read or watched interviews with songwriters, poets and journalist who have all said different versions of the same thing: “Write, Write, Write. And when you aren’t writing, write.”
Jack Hardy, who ran one of the longest running songwriting workshops in New York City put it bluntly in his Songwriting Manifesto: “Everything about writing is a process. It is a process that one must immerse oneself in to be good. We have to stop thinking of the song as a commodity. We have to stop getting hung up on the song itself, as an end in itself, and pursue the process. Young writers (or middle-aged writers) who come to our workshop for the first time are always looking for recognition of what they have already written. They are looking for validation. The first thing we do is humor them. Let them get it out of their system. “Play your greatest hit,” “play your latest song.” If we had the time we would say “play every song you’ve ever written.” Then we say, “Throw them all out. Start over.””
The writing process is different for everyone and a lot of times, an individual’s process can vary depending on how and when the inspiration strikes, what materials you have available to record said inspiration and so on. We develop our writing habits over time and tend to gravitate towards a method which gives us a high ratio of work/satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment.
For example, my songs are heavily rooted in story and metaphor. Lyrics are an important feature in my work and for that reason, I generally start my songs with words or phrases that strike me.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t written songs leading with the melody line or chord progression. That also happens. Especially when I’m practicing new fingering patterns or learning a new batch of chords. That being said, because my strengths lie in storytelling and lyrical work, I will most likely start with that.
The process of developing a piece can vary greatly and some songs take a little more work than others. Sometimes a song will come into the world struggling and will require a significant amount of time and attention. Other times, a song seems to write itself. Neither version is bad or wrong. Neither version makes any one writer better than another. There are some epic examples of writers who have written some beautiful pieces who come from each end of that room. I say “room” because I believe the process, as with anything else, lies on a spectrum and isn’t delineated. A room implies space to move in and out of a given process. I personally have experienced many versions of the process in my time as a songwriter. Which brings me to my personal theory of creativity.
Lately I have been comparing the creative process to (for lack of a better term) taking a poop. I’ve done this for a few reasons:
- It simply must be done. You can’t not do it.
- There are many ways it CAN be done.
- Once we’ve made a “move”. We move on. “Throw them all out. Start over.” It Simply MUST be done: Creativity isn’t always something that you DO. Sometimes creativity happens TO you. You could be having a conversation and something strikes you as SO meaningful and SO poignant that you simply MUST locate a record making implement in order to not lose the creative thing that happened to you! This feeling is not unlike the feeling of needing to locate the facilities STAT!! There are many ways it CAN be done: Other times you may feel a song coming on, but it’s more of a distant, low rumbling. You know it’s almost here, but you have time to find just the right place and time to give it your full attention.
Sometimes (if you’re really lucky) a song will basically fall out of you in one piece. No muss, no fuss. You may not even need to wipe. But you do anyway because you weren’t raised in a barn. And because process. And because gross.
With the more collicky songs, they require time, agonizing over thesauri, MANY used sheets of paper and exhaustion.
Like I said before, none of these variations are better than another. One of them may feel better than the other, but they both can be equally as rewarding. Be kind to yourself and your process. Give your pieces the proper time and attention they require to come into this world in whatever state they must. Besides, they HAVE to come out anyway. Because just as there is no “not pooping” if you’re a human. There is no “not writing” if you’re a writer.
“Once we’ve made a “move”. We move on. Throw them all out. Start over.” – Jack Hardy” Sometimes it’s hard not to take a moment and “look” at what we’ve just done. It’s also a part of the process to say “I just made that! That came out of ME!” What we sometimes struggle with is the decision to flush and move on. Get to the next project. Especially if we’ve just had an epic battle or if we are particularly proud of a certain piece. It can be daunting because it’s never certain which shape the next process will take and there is a very real possibility that it will be exhausting. Or terrible.
But as writers, we must write. And flush and write. And write and flush. Because no matter how many times you repeat this process and finish or don’t finish a piece, the awesome thing is: There will always be another one on deck.