Here, I’m sharing the prompt from today, as it is a little more unusual than the prompts I normally send.
[The prompts I normally send for Songwriting Group are short phrases, designed to catalyse an idea, rather than anything pedagogical; things like “dangerously close”; “making the bed”; “Babylon hairdo” (Yes, that was actually a prompt…!)]
Here is today’s prompt:
Write a song based on a place, where the place features as a central image of the song.
For example, “The River” by Bruce Springsteen.
“Ladies of the Canyon”, by Joni Mitchell.
Here are some suggestions on a way into this:
Spend 10 minutes Sense writing about one of these places (got the PLACES section of the prompts); OR
Pick a city or town that has special significance to you, and write about it; OR
Where were you when a significant event occurred (either directly to you, or something that impacted you)? Describe the place in detail, and make the place an important aspect of your lyric writing.
PS – Here is the song I wrote for this prompt! My partner and I agree on most things. There’s one where we don’t: The Stanwell Park Overpass just south of Sydney (aka Sea Cliff Bridge). I think it’s beautiful. He thinks it’s awful.
Metaphor Sense Writing is a combination of Exercise #1 (Sense Writing) and #2 (Metaphor Collisions).
It’s a way to take a novel combination of ideas—the sun is a bride; aging is a church (for example)—and expand the connection between the two ideas, filling it with rich language that furrows into the rabbit hole of the metaphor.
Metaphor works best when itis a novel combination of ideas.
When we make a metaphor, we are using one image as a lens through which we are seeing and describing some other thing. The lens is the metaphor: it’s the colors we are using to paint the picture. But the picture itself is what we are actually describing.
If I say, “the sky is a mouth, spitting rain and screaming thunder,” my lens is ‘mouth’. That’s the color palette I’m using to describe the sky. The sky is my target idea.
Metaphor is all about showing something familiar in an unfamiliar way. Its magic sparkle is all in its power to surprise (and delight) a listener.
So when starting with a metaphor, aim for something novel rather than something we’ve heard before.
Step 2. Build a word palette for your metaphor image.
Spend 5 minutes creating a list of words and phrases that are closely related to the metaphor image. Aim for a variety of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and phrases.
For example, let’s say my metaphor is: “her temper is a hurricane”.
Hurricane is a metaphor image.
Here’s my word palette:
Thunder, Lightning, Crash, Swell, Tide, Tidal wave, Flood, Electricity, Surge, Strike, Crack, Crash, Rain, Hale, Clouds, Dark, Grey, Cold, Humid, Air is thick, Eye of the storm
You can use a few extra resources to help you build a rich palette:
The aim here is to give yourself lots to choose from, and especially to give yourself options beyond the first and most obvious words associated with your metaphor.
Step 3. Spend 10 minutes Sense Writing using your metaphor as the prompt.
Write in full sentences (prose). Dip into your word palette, using those words and phrases by applying them to what you are actually describing.
Here’s an excerpt from mine:
The clouds of her mind gathered, darkening in her eyes. Her words were lightning, striking out at the nearest touch point – her voice swelled and spilled, and you hardened like ice. You could sense her humid thoughts, invisible but making everything heavy under them. For days afterwards, her dark mood rumbled on the horizon of your life…
How to use Metaphor Sense Writing in your Lyrics.
Write a Metaphor song
‘Metaphor songs’ are a ‘type’ of song that is entirely based on a strong, central metaphor. The lyrics to these songs almost always express the central metaphor in the Chorus or refrain, and use language related to the central metaphor throughout the rest of the lyric to express and explore the different dimensions of the idea and emotion.
Let’s take a look at one here. I have highlighted all the language in the lyrics that is drawn out of the strong, singular metaphor at the center of the song, ‘Love is Rocket Science’.
In spending a little longer on developing a metaphor idea through Metaphor Sense Writing, sometimes you will write a sentence that never would have happened if you weren’t following that trail of crumbs through the forest.
I found myself writing this the other day, while exploring the metaphor, ‘the teacher was a map’:
…she showed me that although the curriculum was the main highway we were traveling, that the best learning I would do would be on the side roads of experience outside the classroom.
Would I write a song about a teacher? Maybe yes (there are some absolutely gorgeous songs about teachers), but also, this line alone stood out to me:
“On the side roads of experience”
That line alone was worth the 10 minutes it took to get there, and it’s important to note: I never would have gotten there if I wasn’t exploring the metaphor.
Now that I have the line, I can leave behind the initial metaphor. I’m not contractually obliged to use it at all. It’s often the discoveries along the way when we are Metaphor Sense Writing that are the treasures to keep.
Twist an idiom
Here’s a slightly different approach to this exercise. Instead of using a novel combination of ideas, actively seek out a familiar combination, but use Metaphor Sense Writing to add something new and original to it, that turns the familiar into something worth seeing again.
Let’s take something like:
“eat your words”
There’s a metaphor here that has to do with eating/food.
In spending 10 minutes creating an ‘eating’ word palette, and exploring the metaphor, I wrote:
“Hungry enough to eat our words”
I suggest using an idiom dictionary, either an online version, or even better, a physical version (I use this one), to explore idioms based on a metaphor image. Spend 10 minutes on it, and see what new trails of thought you end up with. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
They are encoded into the way we think and express ourselves in such a pervasive way that we simply don’t notice they’re there. Yet there they are, when you’re feeling “under the weather,” or if someone “paints you a picture” of dinner last night; when you’re just “killing time,” or perhaps instead “time flies”…all cliches.
Cliches are useful. They come preloaded with meaning. The problem is that they are dull.
So how can we use clichés in a way that exploits their pre-loaded meaning, but rescues them from their mediocrity?
Strategy 1: Replacing
Find a cliche with an image inside it, or a word that is easily replaced.
Make sure that the rest of the sentence still sounds like the original cliche.
The aural fireworks happen because of the element of surprise—something familiar with something new inside of it.
For example: We fight like…rust and rain.
What else do we fight like (the key here is: anything unrelated to cats and dogs…)?
Maybe we fight like:
tree roots and concrete
secrets and loose lips
a toupee and a sudden breeze
Any of these is not only more interesting, but the very fact of subverting the expected image shines an even brighter light on your alternative combination.
I wanna drive you…wild, wild, wild
From ‘Wild,’ by John Legend
Strategy 2: Extending
Take the image that is being used in the cliché, keep the image, but elaborate on it using words and images that are related to that image.
For example: I was drowning as the conversation flowed
The cliché of “flowing conversation” is extended by adding in more water imagery, which is the base image that gave us the cliché in the first place.
Another example: Hungry enough to eat our words
You can see that by elaborating on the image contained within the cliché, the image itself comes back to life. We now re-see the image as it was originally intended.
Taylor Swift and Liz Rose did a beautiful job of this in Taylor’s song, “All Too Well”:
It was a masterpiece til you tore it all up
Strategy 3: Inverting
Turn a negative into a positive; or
State the opposite of the known cliche
For example: The grass is never greener
Time won’t fly
From ‘All Too Well,’ Taylor Swift and Liz Rose.
Strategy 4: Swapping
Strategy 4 relies on the cliché using two images, or using verbs that can also easily become nouns, and vice versa.
For example, let’s take: There’s no time like the present And turn it into: There’s no present like time
You can see that this twist relies on the word “present” having two distinct meanings, which work in both contexts. The best way to find these is to brainstorm or research as many clichéd expressions as you can, and testing out whether an inversion will yield anything juicy like this.
One more. Let’s take: Storm in a teacup And make it: A teacup in a storm
Even though the meanings of the specific images don’t change, the inversion creates a new image with a fresh connotation.
Strategy 5: Contrasting
Add to the cliché by using a contrasting image (even by combining two clichés into a novel combination).
For example: I’ll make short work of being long gone
The key here is finding clichés that contain one main image, then using the opposite or contrasting image to recast the original. When we talk about opposites or contrasts, we can think about things like: future/past; day/night; fire/water; best/worst.
Songwriters in the past have used this technique to generate snappy titles:
“The Night We Called It a Day” (Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis)
“The Last Thing I Needed Was the First Thing This Morning” (Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar, recorded by Willie Nelson)
“Full Moon and Empty Arms” (Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, recorded by Frank Sinatra)
This strategy runs the risk of getting cheesy pretty quickly, so approaching it with sensitivity and nuance is required to prevent the cheese from overwhelming the platter.
Strategy 6: Verb object
Change the object of the active verb
This relies on clichés that have an important verb as part of their construction.
For example, we can take: Play the devil’s advocate And make it: Play the piano like the devil’s advocate
Or: Break the ice Becomes: Break him like ice
And Taylor on the subject: Break me like a promise
From “All Too Well”.
You don’t need to avoid cliches.
They are too valuable, too pre-loaded with meaning to abandon altogether. Instead, we can take advantage of the meaning they carry with them by twisting them into new shapes and colors. In fact, by altering them ever so slightly, we not only end up bringing the dead back to life, but the element of surprise acts like a switch on the ears of your listeners.
The images you choose will be bathed in the special light of surprise.
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This exercise is one of my all-time favorites. It is the fastest way to show yourself that you are capable of coming up with totally original, unique ideas and ways to express yourself that no one has ever uttered before.
More importantly, this exercise trains your brain to see the world like a songwriter—to make novel combinations between seemingly unexpected things; to refract the familiar through a prism of new light.
Let’s get to it.
What is a Metaphor Collision?
Metaphor Collisions is an exercise that takes two small lists of random nouns; we then make random collisions between a noun from List 1 and a noun from List 2, and then very quickly spend 2-3 minutes expanding on the collision, developing the new idea that emerges when we compare one thing to another (that has never been compared before!).
How it works.
Create 2 lists of random nouns, each with 5 nouns in it. [Remember, a noun is a person/place/object/thing. We know it’s a noun because we can put the words ‘the’, ‘an’, or ‘a’ before it: The ocean. An idea. A collision.]
List 1 can contain any noun at all, concrete or abstract—and works well when there is a smattering of both!
List 2 should exclusively contain concrete nouns—tangible things or objects that you could actually hold, touch, smell, see or hear (as distinct from abstract nouns, which are concepts or ideas. For example: a conversation, personality, freedom).
Why? Metaphors come alive with imagery, and concrete nouns are the stuff of imagery. When one side of the metaphor is guaranteed to contain imagery, your efforts will generate great rewards.
Here’s an example of 2 lists:
List 1: hospital, haircut, conversation, history, cancer
Make a ‘THIS is THAT’ collision, by picking one word from List 1 and one word from List 2.
For example: “His history was a canyon.”
Note that I’ve added in the pronoun ‘his’, and also picked a tense, ‘was’. This gives the metaphor a sense of character and story. You can pick your pronouns, and experiment with tense. The essence here is the metaphor collision between ‘history’ and ‘canyon.’
Here comes the important bit, where all of the action happens. You’re now going to spend 2 minutes expanding on the metaphor that you have just created. Write a sentence or two that explain and describe how one thing is like the other.
For example: His history was a canyon—As we got closer, I started to get dizzy at the edge of everything I didn’t know about him.
Tip: remember that a metaphor is when we say ‘x IS y’; a simile is when we say ‘x is LIKE y’. Metaphor is a much more potent and intense kind of language. For the moment, stick with metaphor.
Continue making random collisions and expanding them for 10 minutes. See how many you can do. Aim for at least 3.
More examples from these lists:
Her haircut was a church; her natural joy became burdened by the weight of its seriousness.
The conversation was a river; and I was drowning in the undertow of the private jokes I didn’t understand.
The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of doctors, nurses, and machines, every component coming together in the end.
A few things to notice.
Notice that I am using novel combinations. I am deliberately avoiding any combinations that I have heard before. It’s possible you might get the word ‘love’ in List 1, and the word ‘flame’ in List 2…for the moment, avoid those tropes.
Notice how I am using words and phrases in the sentences that relate back to the original metaphor image. With ‘river’, I am very deliberately using the words ‘drowning’ and ‘undertow’. With ‘violin’, we have ‘cacophony’, ‘high-pitched’, and ‘composed orchestration’. Using words related to your metaphor is where a metaphor really comes to life.
Notice that I am not mixing metaphors. When I am expanding the metaphor collision using language related to the metaphor image, I am deliberately avoiding dipping into other metaphors. Mixing metaphor tends to feel chaotic, and ultimately dilutes the power of a single, strong, well-developed metaphor.
Notice in the sentences that I am always coming back to the ‘target idea’—what the sentence is really about. When I say ‘the conversation was a river’, this sentence is really about the conversation. That’s the target idea. The ‘river’ is my metaphor, which is to say, it’s the color that I am using to paint the sentence, but ultimately the most important idea is to describe the ‘conversation’. With the last example, I have deliberately referenced ‘doctors, nurses, and machines’ to make sure that the target idea is never lost inside the metaphor.
If I had instead written something like:
The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of melodies and rhythms, every component coming together in the end…
…we would lose sight of what the target idea is. We get so tangled up in the metaphor that it starts to sound like we are simply describing a musical performance, not a hospital. Metaphor collisions (and metaphor is general) works best when we apply the metaphor language back to specific elements of the target idea.
How to Use Metaphor Collisions in Your Lyrics
You will find that you come up with ideas and expressions that translate very quickly into lines of lyric. Just like with Sense Writing, you can collect the gems in a separate document, and use them later. You don’t need to take the whole collision, either. Often I like to jettison the actual ‘x is y’ statement, and just keep parts of the expansion; ‘drowning in the undertow of the private jokes’; ‘burdened by the weight of seriousness.’
This is a brilliant brain training exercise, that attunes your perception to see and develop novel combinations in unexpected ways. Even when the individual collisions don’t yield specific lyric ideas, sometimes the most ridiculous ones are the ones that have strengthened this ability the most! ‘The burrito was an aeroplane’. Figuring out the connection creates incredibly strong neural pathways!
Once you have practiced Metaphor Collisions with truly random inputs, you can also start to lightly curate your lists, to direct the results to more emotion-based ideas. The random word generator also has an ‘emotion’ filter. If you fill List 1 entirely with emotions, then you get something like this:
List 1: sorrow, remorse, disappointment, love, anticipation
List 2 (random concrete): sweater, bulb, desktop, flower, hair
Love is a sweater.
Sorrow is a bulb.
Disappointment is a flower.
It truly makes the mind hum with possibility.
Many thanks to my teacher, friend, and mentor Pat Pattison for introducing me to this exercise.
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In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not.
These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with.
Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.
Here’s How it Works.
Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:
You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.
A few tips.
Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.
Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow.
You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!
Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for.
The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one.
When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:
SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH
Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.
A few tips.
Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.
Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”
There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video.
Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ).
Examples of Sense Writing
Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:
I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)
That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)
The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)
How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics
Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:
sleeping with sand in my toes
The salt of the sea
The evening buzzing and alive
curled back like Elvis’ hair
thumping against the cage of my ribs
hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass
sweeping out onto the street
wash its ink over the day
turning the street gray
blanket of the sky
Here’s the secret:
I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all.
In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:
In fading moments of indigo twilight
We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky
And spilling out onto the street
You are I are a bottle of wine
Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song.
In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring.
Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.
Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant.
I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish.
Here’s the outline for Verse 1:
The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon.
Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):
The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods
But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…
Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.
As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).
When we are talking about ‘ideas’ in songs, it’s helpful to draw this distinction:
There is the ‘big idea’ – the broad story, experience, or concept we want to write about.
What Jimmy Webb is talking about here is when the BIG IDEA becomes a SONG IDEA. What’s the difference?
A SONG IDEA isn’t just what we have to say; it’s HOW we are going to say it.
It’s the specific angle we are going to approach it from. It’s not the house of the song; it’s the door we are going to walk through to get into it.
A big idea becomes a SONG IDEA when we give it a TITLE.
Deciding on a title gives you direction; it helps your song have an anchor, or a central point of gravity, and then indicates to you what lines and ideas you have already sketched really serve THIS SONG, and which lines were simply the stepping stones to get you there, but really need to now be edited out.
Every line of lyric in your song should ultimately clearly serve to set up the HOOK/TITLE.
“Find the title at your earliest possible convenience.”
This advice came from Pat Pattison, author of Writing Better Lyrics. This was drummed into me again, and again, and it’s something I think about at every moment in a song’s development. You don’t need to START with a title, but be constantly on the lookout for it! By turning that searchlight on in your brain, titles will start popping out at you, inviting you into the house of the song, but showing you the special entry that is going to give your song a strong centre.
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