Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Songwriting 101: Writing From Experience / Object Writing


The Creamy Nougat of Inspiration
By Spencer Michaud

Over my many years of teaching songwriting, I consistently hear one thing in a certain ear-grating tone: “Ughhh, I don't know what to write about” You know the voice. That whiney toddler in us all rears it's ugly head and refuses to play nice. We've gone to the grocery store of ideas and been told we can't have a candy bar. A total creative meltdown usually ensues. This is a common occurrence among fledgling songwriters. But why does it happen? What is stopping us from attaining that creamy nougat of creative inspiration? What secret spell will jog it all loose?

Well, much like a developing human, the developing artist usually starts out with a frame of reference that rarely extends beyond themselves and how they are feeling at that given moment. Like a baby, they lack the ability to focus beyond the breast or the bottle that is a mere few inches in front of them. The key is in expanding your awareness. Start thinking like an observer. Use your senses to interact with the world. Let the external details (AKA: sensory input) of the world inform the internal details (AKA: emotions) that you write about. Find a balance between the two. In the life cycle, we start with a very subjective view of the universe and hopefully start expanding outward into greater and greater objectivity. Use that knowledge to your advantage when coming up with creative ideas.

One of the exercises I like to use in my college songwriting classes is called “object writing” . I borrowed this idea from Berklee School of music instructor Pat Pattison and his book Writing Better Lyrics. Object writing involves taking a tangible object / noun (person, place, or thing) and doing a “free write” or prose piece about it using all five of your normal senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) and two generally less thought of ones, your organic sense (how your body feels, ie: “Butterflies in your stomach”) and your kinesthetic sense (how your body moves in or relates to space, ie: “The room was spinning”). 

 When doing an object writing you want to make sure you set yourself a time limit, say 10 minutes or so, and STOP writing when the timer goes off. Don't be obsessed with structure or rhyme, open up as an uninhibited channel while doing this exercise. The revision will come later. Regular training with this technique will allow you to access your own personal pool of sense memories faster and more consistently. Remember, no one has experienced the world quite the same way as you have. Two people thrown into the exact same circumstance will relate to it totally differently based on the accumulated life experiences and subjective preferences they bring to that moment. This is your key to creating an original voice all your own.

Here is excerpt from an object writing I did before I wrote the song “Tightrope Walker”, which was inspired by the movie Man on Wire, the true story of a man who tightrope walked across the twin towers in 1974:


The wind tousles his wild bramble of red hair as a small smile cracks his lips. He takes a knee and sprawls backwards, staring up at nothing but sky, an endless blue expansion, the jupiter infinity. A gull swoops by and tips it's wing in recognition. They are one, flying side by side, surfing the gentle wind, manifesting a dream. There is chaos at both ends of the tower and below. Voices echos through bullhorns, while their feet stay firmly planted away from the edge. He rises and spins, playing with his audience like a magician. Toying with their emotions, he holds their breath in the palm of his hand and blows it away like the the top of a dandelion...watching it float away into a curling invisible stream, wondering where it will land next.

As you can see, the point of this exercise is not perfect grammar or punctuation. We're not trying to write a polished piece, we're trying to jog loose imagery and open up the flow of creative ideas. When choosing a subject for an object writing, make sure it is something concrete rather than abstract. For example, a “wedding ring” is more concrete than “marriage”. It is a symbol of an abstract idea. This helps us create imagery in the listener's mind, making it instantly more memorable and relatable. Use that object as a prompt for telling a story, take us to that moment by allowing us to see and hear what is going on around you. Show us rather than tell us. Once you have created a world that we can inhabit, search for images and phrases that stand out. Cull them for lines in your songs.

Here is the chorus from the song “Tightrope Walker”:

Now he's a Tightrope Walker
Up between the towers
Toying with the crowd
Like a circus clown
Side by side with the seagulls and the sky
Walking off into eternity

If you look closely, you can see that I took imagery directly from the object writing I did above. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I moved the pieces to fit and changed some phrases so they could sing, but the essence I uncovered in the original prose is there. Do this before and after writing your first song draft. Write multiple object writings on your song topic. Sometimes you will come up with the line you need the second or third time around. Be fearless when doing these exercises. Embrace your beginner's mind, that creative toddler in you will be up and running before you know it!

What are some techniques that you use to find creative inspiration? I appreciate your feedback and welcome your comments!!

Need more help with your songwriting or creative process? Click the lessons & coaching links above for more info!

Like this article? check out part 1 of my songwriting 101 articles:

Songwriting 101: The Will To Start / Showing Up For Your Art