It’s shocking but true: at its genesis creativity is simply copying something you like. Artists usually express it with words like “inspiration” and “influence”, but it means the same thing. True artistry, however, is taking those germs of borrowed “inspiration” and turning them into something only you could have created. Inside you there are thoughts and ideas garnered from your life experiences that are completely unique and interesting. Learning to recall those things and express them in ways that are both understandable and widely relatable is what developing your creativity is all about.
Writing vs. Editing
There are two phases to any artistic endeavor: the creative phase and the analytical phase. For us songwriters, that equates to the writing part and the re-writing, or editing part. One of the most valuable things any artist can learn is that these two phases do not work well in tandem. During the writing phase your “writing hat” should be on and all those unique and wonderful ideas inside you should be roaming freely and unchecked. This kind of creative latitude is only possible if during that same time your “editing hat” is hanging in the closet behind a rack of old coats. The minute your editing hat starts to make its way out of the closet and towards your head you need to stomp on it, kick it, and put it back in the closet. If it tries to come out again nail it to the wall in the back of the closet and lock the door. It is not the editing hat’s turn yet!
During the creative phase you should capturing your ideas as fast as they come to you, without scrutiny or judgment. Just as a sculptor can’t begin his work until he has a lump of clay before him, a songwriter can’t begin without a page full of words or musical ideas; so let them come, no matter how silly they seem. (And by the way, if they seem silly it’s because your editing hat has gotten loose again…) Give yourself words, lines, notes, and melodies to manipulate before letting that editing hat out of the closet!
Discovering Your Unique Lyrical Ideas
Once you’ve learned which hat to wear and when, you will find yourself writing things you’ve never had the courage to write before. Ideas that once seemed too ridiculous to even make the journey from your mind to your pencil will suddenly appear on your paper. These are the very ideas we are after! At first they may be hard to find, but you can nurture your ability to locate them by writing for a short time everyday. Just 10 minutes or so of simple prose with no boundaries. Just pick some ordinary object or situation to muse on. No lines. No rhymes. No pressure. Just write. It might help to pick something funny, quirky, or weird the first few times to trick your mind into thinking that what you’re writing doesn’t matter. Once your creative juices are flowing, switch to something serious.
As you write, don’t tell your story…. show it. Your lines will come alive and others will be able to relate to them like never before. Why say “The attic was dusty”, when instead you could say “I was blowing brown boogars for a week”? See how much more descriptive the latter phrase is? See how much more quickly and deeply you understand? That’s because it hits us all where we live. I mean, let’s be honest… who hasn’t had this experience at least once? The minute a listener hears that line they are immediately taken back to their own experience, and they understand. They relate to your lyrics on a deeper level.
The Same Goes for Music
As with lyrics, discovering new musical ideas requires that you discard your editor’s hat for a while. A wise guitarist once told me that each time I pick up my guitar to practice, before I play a scale or even warm up, I should play something I’ve never played before. Just a few notes or a phrase that my fingers don’t know by rote.
The reason is obvious: as humans we tend to fall into patterns and habits that are familiar and comfortable. We’re like the bobcat or the badger at the zoo, following the same circuit through our pen until we’ve worn a path into the ground. As a person looking in from the outside we just want to shout “Snap out of it you silly badger! For once would you just turn right instead of left!” As you write your songs practice turning right once in a while. Finding something unique requires us to alter our own well-traveled routes and break new ground.
*Photo by tacoekkel.