After the Inspiration; by Michael Anderson

Songwriting: After the Inspiration

By Michael Anderson

I am back at school after a short break teaching songwriting again and I am always surprised at how different every group of students is from the previous semester. This quarter has brought a new perspective and I wonder if the paradigm is larger than a random set of writers in a music school. Maybe this article fits you.    

In particular there seems to be more wring going on. It felt like last quarter and in my previous articles I have been writing more about getting the inspirational flow going – methods of sparking the creative imagination and ways to get writing when you are stuck. If you missed those and need that kind of advice look up the articles on morning pages and artist dates or get my book or “The Artist Way” by Julia Cameron.    

This article is about what comes after that initial outpouring of creative flow. I am hearing more songs this quarter that have a lot of ideas, more imagery, more metaphors and in general just more descriptive information in the songs students are bringing into class.    

That is a good thing. It is harder to get someone writing than it is to focus someone who is writing a lot.    

But there are unique challenges once the process is in motion.    

The most basic challenge in clarity. Usually when a writer just pours out a work it comes in an overwhelming rush of inspiration. I always advise against editing at that point to a beginning writer. That inspiration is almost an opposite to the process of editing and crafting. It is best to ride that wave as far and as fast as it will take you before you start analyzing and organizing it. A more experienced writer may be able to start that process earlier because of more extensive previous experience with it, but even then there is the danger of thinking too much and stopping the flow. In other words, when it hits, ride that creative outpouring for as long as you can.    

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of good outpouring from my students. Songs with a lot of good imagery, imagination, and story. Too much for a finished song. Great for a rough draft.     

The issue isn’t material, but in the communication of it.    

As a writer you have to remember that if you want someone to understand what you are saying you have to say it in a way they understand it. Sounds basic – but many writers forget that they are the only one who really knows what they mean and what they are trying to say. I tell writers all the time that the listener only knows what you tell them. And they only know it in the way you tell them.   

 I use the metaphor of telling a joke. The punch line is only as good as the set up – a hook / title in a song works the same way. The way you tell your verse, set up your pre-chorus, and deliver the hook makes all the difference in how effectively your song transmits the emotional content of your idea.    

When you look at your rough song after the inspiration has ebbed and when you are beginning your crafting ask yourself “What is the main point?” You know it intuitively because that is the emotion you have been working from. But it is not always apparent from what you have written. The only way your listener knows what you mean is if you tell them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be overtly obvious – that can work of course, but it can also be poetically implied in a way that the meaning or emotion is there. That subtlety however is trickier than most inexperienced writers can handle right away so be careful of being too obscure and vague. The listener should know what you mean somehow or you are missing the opportunity to communicate.    

The next thing to look at is; are you telling your story in an order that is somehow linear and building the idea? You can almost make a list of how to tell the story – from beginning to end, from end to beginning, emotional build, using a flashback, whatever. But it is most effective if there is a reason for the way the story develops and it builds to the main point / idea / hook of your lyric. The listener may not recognize it, but they will intuitively sense it.  

  Organizing and crafting comes from another way of looking at your song – stepping outside the creative outflow and getting an overview that looks at your development from the way the your listener is hearing it. .

Michael Anderson is the author of Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting        
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