Paul Simon, Chris Cornell & Bob Dylan have advice for you
The Psychology of Songwriting
by Missy Schkleford
For most songwriters, there comes a time when the words seem to run out. Your notebook (or laptop) is ready and awaiting new material but, the document remains as empty as your creative thought pool. Yes, "writer's block" does exist and the reality of it is discouraging when you are on the other end of the pen. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Writer's Block as- "a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece."
Inhibition, as it relates to psychology, is the incapacity to freely express one's self. For writers of any kind, but especially songwriters, this is where the "block" exists. The inability to create is rooted in not being able to communicate (express) thoughts, ideas, etc. This could be due to a myriad of factors. We could explore the many reasons or we could focus on how to get back to freely expressing ourselves. Many, many songwriters have been right where you are.
So, don't feel alone, even the most achieved writers have been there. Acclaimed songwriter and Nobel Peace Prize winner Bob Dylan, has experienced it. His process of overcoming is interesting, "Once a month, write a poem in blood. Use your own if you must." Ďand reward yourself with a "A Big Mac #1 Combo with a McFlurry for desert."
But, for those who cannot be motivated by McDonald's or are leery of using their own blood, read on.
First, it is important to not spend your much needed energy wondering how and why you are struggling to create. Staring at your empty canvas in frustration is the first thing you need to stop. Instead begin to shift your focus by moving away from your project and abandon your preconceived notions by letting go of the pressure of writing a song. As a writer, you are already a thinker. Untangling the knots of your thoughts, or overcoming the absence of thoughts altogether, begins with the understanding of how your (brilliant) mind actually work. Good news, the answers are already within you!
Understanding your mind
"I'm interested in discovering where my mind wants to go." Paul Simon
The mind is a convoluted subject that is not easily defined. Its exact functions vary depending on what medical professional you ask. As a writer and accidental philosopher, I have found the mind is an individually unique sensory vehicle for intellect, reasoning and processing information. It is the foundation of a creative person, particularly a writer of songs.
Thinking is the food of our mind. Allow yourself time to properly feed your mind by thinking differently and thinking more deeply.
"The reason there's no modern-day Shakespeare is because he didn't have anything to do except sit in a room with a candle and think"- Chris Cornell.
There are three frames of mind:
- The Engaged Mind: being present in the current moment and engaged in the here and now.
- The Automatic Mind: noticing on some level, cognitive or not, changes in environments and using sensations from past experiences to make judgements
- The Analytic Mind: this largely consists of complex reasoning.
Within the Analytic mind exists some amazing truths of how examination brings forth inspiration. This specific state of mind is where we intentionally use perceptions to process data, form conclusions, and gather new ideas from our observations.
The Analytic mind consists of these six skills:
- Observation: of people, places and things as well as the fundamentals of or our own minds.
- Reflection: using memories and experiences to process new thoughts and ideas.
- Problem Solving: taking current issues and problems to arrive at a solution or greater understanding.
- Planning: considering our future and weighing options.
- Focusing: maintaining attention.
- Imagination: mental visualizations.
Let's begin by considering how these six elements will help free us from our rut and very possibly increase our success as a writer.
Observation is a skill that we often take for granted because it was one of our first primal functions as a human. We have been observing since the day we were born. For some, observation exists on a superficial level. But, by expanding our perceptions of observations our imagination can turn data into poetic narrative.
For example, water is scientifically defined as a chemical compound consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. However, when one searches for a deeper more poetic meaning of water they might arrive at the creative conclusion that it is more than just a natural element. Water signifies survival; it is what cleanses us, baptizes us and even transports us. Digging in further to our observation, when you consider the power of water figuratively, it can take our life in the same vein that it gives us life. Wow. The combination of observation and imagination can even make chemistry poignant.
I think you are beginning to get this. Some of you may already feel some sense of inspiration as you consider using this tool of intentional observation to hone your craft.
When you pair Observation and Imagination with Reflection you have a powerful trilogy.
Use the previous example while implementing reflections you have had from a past experience with water. Have you been baptized/christened in water? Have you nearly drowned? Take a moment to reflect on your experiences.
Now, focus on this experience writing words and thoughts as they arrive in your memory. Write freely with little concentration of selecting the perfect word. Do not look back at what you are writing, write freely and quickly, in a stream of consciousness until the words and thoughts run out.
Then, look back at what you have written.
There likely are some poignant words and thoughts present. Using your problem solving frame of mind, challenge yourself to replace simple words with a better choice. Can you use the word "blue" in a more beautiful way by replacing it with "azure"?
Then pair your problem solving skills with your planning frame of mind and discover how these words can form a story with a conclusion or arrive at a greater understanding.
As you can see, the science of writing can be quite similar to the science of psychology. It is as simple as it is complex. Elevating our observations with intentional analyzation generates a larger library of thought provoking material. Utilizing this concept should bring forth new inspiration that results in significant content. Now, that you have written some beautiful things, reward yourself! Yes, go ahead and have that Big Mac combo with a McFlurry and "don't think twice-It's alright."
Bob Dylan quote, Writerunboxed.com, by Bill Ferris, October 15, 2016
Paul Simon quote: "Into the story" Scott Meyers November 15, 2018
Chris Cornell quote: Details via Loudwire
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