The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“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):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

Can you learn to be obsessed?

There is so much advice out there for writers about the importance of habit and ritual in your creative practice. But lately, I have become—frankly—a little suspect of it.

The insistence on habit as the conduit of creative output is embodied by the American painter Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.

But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive. 

But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.

I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root. 

The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?

Wintering

It always feels as though the seasons do not change gradually, but instead, that the sun takes a sudden jerk around its solar orbit, turns a sharp corner, and within a week the days are shorter by 3 hours, the evenings are cold, and the shadows are long and languid throughout the day.

My relationship to winter is one of conflict. I have a fantasy ‘winter’ in my head, in which the forced introversion equates to productivity. It’s a vision of me writing more, reading more deeply, making more connections, steeping in creativity, its output rising and curling in a scarf of steam out of my mind.

The reality is always one of fatigue, bodily heaviness, and a motivation for nothing more than thick socks, soup, and a fireplace (it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s warm.).

I heard a beautiful interview recently on my favourite podcast, On Being, with English author Katherine May who has written a book called ‘Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, and it has changed my feeling—or at least, my expectations, for this coming winter.

May weaves together, with gentle meandering threads, an exploration of wintering cultures and creatures, and uses them as a metaphor for the cycles of human energy. These times of personal ‘wintering’, she says, are:

…gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.

Wintering, for those creatures and cultures who literally cycle through its doors, is not a retreat from life, but a retreat into it. Summertime is a season of preparation, not relaxation. Embracing that energy is an acknowledgement of reality. Being inside—physically, figuratively—is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Quick side note: DID YOU KNOW that honeybees dislocate their wing muscles from their wings in the depths of winter, so that they can use these muscles to rapidly vibrate their bodies to reach temperatures of up to 45°C!? The 'heater bees' cluster together, and if you were to stick your hand into the centre of a hive in the middle of a northern winter, it would be around 35°C/95°F! The never-ending strangeness and marvel of bees...end side note.

This, of course, has so many tethers into the realm of creative process. The main idea that has struck me from this beautiful book is to stop expecting the creative process to march along in a linear fashion. That NOT producing work is not a failure, it is merely part of a cycle.

I feel like I am old enough at this point (a ripened 37) to have experienced this. I have had enough creative winterings that surely enough thaw that I trust that cycle to happen; I trust that I will come back round to a sense of energy in my writing and creative work and teaching. And yet, those winterings still come with a tinge of panic.

This winter, I plan to embrace my socks, soup, and fake fire with a gusto that you might not even see, because a giant scarf will be covering my face.