In a recent newsletter by one of my favourite writers, George Saunders, he writes of one of his characters in a short story, The Falls:
“A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.”
I believe (and experience) songwriting to be similar. As Janis Ian has said, often we write not because we have Something To Say; we write to find out what we are writing about.
We often need to go spelunking through the dark and lumpy caves of the mind and imagination to arrive at some smooth pond that reflects a meaning back to us (that’s me, not Janis Ian, although I suspect that she, like me, has never been spelunking).
Paul Simon has framed a similar idea in a different way. Simon says that in his songwriting, he feels that his songs don’t need to have “meaning,” and probably benefit from avoiding it as the instigator of an idea. Instead, Simon says (in his wonderful interview with Paul Zollo, in Songwriters of Songwriting), songs simply need direction. Connect one idea to a second, and an idea has movement; connect it to a third, and the song has direction. Meaning will attach itself to direction, without needing to force it, plan it, or even mean it.
I like the idea that meaning is emergent; it takes the pressure off having to have ‘something to say’—or instead, it trusts the intelligence of a listener to bring their own experience and meaning to a story. It also encourages a trust in oneself as a writer—where there is story, there is meaning, and sometimes that meaning might be more complex, subtle, and personal, if we don’t set out from the starting point of ‘meaning’, but from the starting point of story.
…because an awesome person you didn’t know before creates a beautiful graphic recording of a video you made, not knowing who would receive it, or whether it would be helpful:
As I was checking in on Instagram the other day, I saw that Chris had tagged me in a post, and saw this incredible drawing. Chris made this one-page recording of my YouTube video “The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs”. It’s such a lovely representation of the ideas. I’m humbled and grateful that putting the ideas out there has impacted even a single person. Thanks, Chris!
Christopher Malapitan is an independent creative facilitator and trainer based in Brussels. With many years of experience working in creative industries, he supports communities and teams to explore and unlock what drives them. From big-picture thinking to storytelling, from body movement to collaborative arts-based approaches, he applies a unique blend of innovative processes and practises to his facilitation work.
In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.
Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.
…you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practising a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
For songwriters, we are tasked with building mansions in the mind of a listener on limited real estate. Each word must be necessary, otherwise it’s a loose nail. Often the right choice of an image, expressed simply and clearly, is so much more charged with emotion than verbal ornament.
As Jeff Tweedy says in “How to Write One Song”,
An “impatient red fiery orb loomed in the whiskey-blurred, cottony-blue sky” is rarely going to hit me anywhere near as hard as “I was drunk in the day.”
Professional songwriters often need or want to write in specific genres. This video explains 5 different ways to understand and emulate musical genre.
This video was made for a Songwriting class I teach at Collarts in Melbourne, Australia. A major project during the semester is to write a song to a specific brief provided by a music publisher, which asks for songs in a specific genre.
In order to write for this aspect of the commercial industry, it’s important to know how to listen to songs, and define the necessary characteristics of the genre so that you can emulate those characteristics, while still bringing in your own creativity to the project.
Genre is notoriously difficult to nail down, but in this video, I go through five concepts that are often at the heart of defining a genre.
A student emailed me this question today, and I thought it was beautifully simple, direct, and honest. Here is the answer I gave her (unedited):
The basic ingredients to getting better at anything are all the same: deliberate practice. The ‘deliberate’ part of that is key, though! Simple repetition of something is not enough to improve, or at least to improve past a certain plateau. You have to focus in on areas that you know need work, and then strengthen that muscle. You also need to get good feedback (which is where I, and other teachers, come in, of course), but good feedback can also come from your own practice. There is absolutely a way to be able to tune in to the things that are and aren’t working in your own songs, and the best way I know is to simply write A LOT OF SONGS. Get less attached to any one particular song, and more interested in the process of writing.
Here are my other hot tips for improving your songwriting:
Learn a lot of covers! Learn classic songs, but also anything that you just love. Seek to understand the chord progressions, the song forms, and the relationship of the melody to the chords and song forms. The Beatles played covers for a year in Hamburg for 8 hours a day before anyone had ever heard of the Beatles. Bruno Mars played covers in cafes in LA for 5 years before anyone knew who he was.
Keep getting better on your instrument. The more you can do on your instrument, the broader your palette of choices will be.
Integrate music theory concepts immediately into songwriting (do not wait; do not think, ‘I will store this away, and use this concept next month/year…do it in the same few days that you learn something). For example, when you learn a particular inversion, or chord pattern, or bit of non-diatonic theory…write a song that uses it.
And most importantly, WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Did I say that already? WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Aim for 1 a week. You can also set yourself a timer, and make it ‘one song in one hour’ so that you are not laboring over it all week to the exclusion of all else. For 2 weeks of every year, you should have a period of ‘write a song a day’. You could pick a month each year, and do it at the same time; that way you can claim that it is your job. Draw a boundary around it. Someone asks you to do something else, and you simply say to them (and yourself), “I’m currently doing a Song-A-Day Retreat, can we do that in 2 weeks?”
“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”
You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.
This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.
This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:
“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”
(My emphasis added)
You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:
Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).
For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):
Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts
So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.
And the questions people ask completely threw me.
They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”
These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.
Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:
what are prologues for?
what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?
If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.
These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.
Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages
Fat cheeks (Welsh)
Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
One who hoards (Hebrew)
Silk fur rat (Japanese)
Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
Eating mouse (Hungarian)
This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.
He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —
“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”
Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).
Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.
This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:
I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.
Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.
I’ve recently made a short series of quick videos that cover two of the most beautiful modes in songwriting: the Mixolydian mode, and Dorian mode, as well as how to use that knowledge to pick out the most beautiful chords, in a chord technique called Modal Borrowing. Here is the series this far. Enjoy!