How do you generate inspiration for song lyrics? Do your lyric ideas come easily, or does it involve a lot of staring at a screen? Maybe accompanied by a low growling sound and the occasional swear word as you will yourself to be struck by inspiration!
This challenge of seeking inspiration to write is not specific to songwriting. It’s something that will also be familiar for poets, authors, short story writers, copywriters and anyone else who deigns to put pen to paper. However, if your ambition is to be a consistently successful writer then it’s vital to find ways of generating output without having to wait for divine intervention!
Writer’s Block does not exist
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” (Terry Pratchett)
I remember reading the above quote many years ago. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Terry Pratchett was an extremely successful (and much loved) author. He mainly wrote fantasy books, most notably the Discworld series of 41 novels.
I also recall some of the context to Pratchett’s slightly flippant remark. He had explained that he had started out as a journalist and that you quickly learned as a journalist that you couldn’t afford not to be able to write. There was a deadline. There was an editor expecting the work on his desk. If you couldn’t relentlessly churn out newsworthy content then you were gone.
There are probably literally thousands of articles and blog posts about how to counter writer’s block but I think Pratchett’s assertion is a useful one for lyric writers to take on board. You are not actually unable to write – you just need to find the motivation to write and the tools to unlock the stories that are waiting to come out.
Unlocking your inspiration for song lyrics
There are lots of approaches that lyric writers can employ in order to maximise the quality and quantity of their output. In this post, I’m going to outline some that I know have been used and advocated by famous songwriters and songwriting gurus. And I’ll also offer some suggestions based on what works for me.
However, it’s important to call out that there are no wrong or right ideas. You need to experiment and see what works for you.
The Cut Up technique
In the late 1950s William Burroughs, working with artist Brion Gysin, developed a surrealist ‘cut up’ technique whereby words and phrases from different written works were cut out and then pieced together to create a new piece of art. The principle could also be used with cutting up various bits of audio recordings. It’s really interesting to listen to Burroughs explaining how this approach came about.
Anyway, whilst that is interesting in its own right, what we’re more concerned about is its potential to help with songwriting. If you’re feeling sceptical about its potential then consider this; artists such as David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke have all been hailed as artists who used this approach to great effect. If they used it to generate inspiration for song lyrics then that sounds like a great recommendation!
David Bowie commented in a 2014 interview with LouderSound that
‘I’ll use them to provoke a new set of images, or a new way of looking at a subject. I find it incredibly useful as a writer’s tool. And I’m amazed these days at the amount of cut-up sites that are now on the internet. It’s quite phenomenal. There are at least 10, and two or three of them are excellent. I’ve used them too. I’ve put a bunch of pieces of text into the thing, then hit the cut-up button, and it slices it up for me [laughs]. In ‘94, when I was really starting to get into the computer in a major way, I had a programme devised so that I could specifically do that. Most of the lyric content of the Outside  album came out of that programme. But now they’re all over the place, especially on poet sites. There are a lot of poets who still work in that method, so I’m not alone’
I did a quick Google search on ‘cut up technique tools’ and it brought back a number of sites. Here’s an example of one that might be worth checking out, http://mundoblaineo.org/cut_up_machine.htm
I’m sure that I once read that Johnny Cash also used the cut up technique when writing the lyrics for his song, ‘When the man comes around’.
Pat Pattinson’s Object Writing 10 minute writing technique
Pat Pattinson in his book ‘Writing better lyrics’ advocates an approach called Object Writing to generate inspiration for song lyrics. In it, he advises lyric writers to spend 10 minutes every morning doing a specific piece of writing. During that 10 minutes the person must write continuously about an object. And the purpose is to focus on your senses. How do you perceive the object in terms of how you see it, hear it, smell it, how it feels, etc.
It’s important to note that you are not writing a lyric. Rather, you are writing prose and you are not stopping to edit it. It should come up rough and raw but there may be a kernel of an idea contained within it that can then trigger an idea for a lyric. And by having spent a full 10 minutes describing the object, you should have a depth of information that can help your lyric in turn to have that sense of depth and authenticity.
I’ve used this approach with two modifications. Firstly, I don’t attempt it in the morning. I am an evening person and don’t want to be contemplating anything more complicated than putting on my shoes in the morning! 🙂 And, secondly, I haven’t always written about a physical object that is in front of me. An example is an occasion where I decided to write about a ‘bonfire’. I perceived the bonfire in my head and then let words come out to describe it and the people who were around it. That led to a lyric for a song called Smoke.
Here’s an extract of the lyrics from Smoke:
Smoke gusts towards us
Thick with the aroma of fire blackened branches,
Evergreens and deciduous
That we’d thrust like bones into the jaws of ravenous hounds.
Smoke gusts around us
Acrid in its bite as it claws our eyes to tears,
Potatoes in foil and sausages singed
Retrieved from the fire as we become the ravenous.
And we watched as the core of the flames danced a tune
And I know that I saw something different from you,
But we stood as the smoke wrapped its way round our hearts
And ghost vines rose up and tied us tightly in knots.
The past and the present, they blur in that thick haze
Pulled under and over like drowning souls in the waves,
As embers and ashes emerge from our soft words
Whispered in tendrils that dissipate once heard.
Simon Wright – Lyrics
James Fraser – Vocals, Guitar, Musical Composition, Engineering
Larry Magee – Upright Bass
Finished song http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/750070
Walk and take exercise
The enemies of creativity are a tired brain and too many things competing for our attention. The former leaves you starting at a blank screen unable to think how to string any meaningful words together. The latter leaves you unable to focus your concentration on developing a lyric idea.
It’s well known that physical exercise not only benefits the health of our body but also had the nice side effect of making us more mentally alert. So get walking, jogging or playing sport. Do something that you enjoy and reap the benefits as your mental alertness and stamina increases. You’ll soon see a great improvement in your ability to generate inspiration for song lyrics.
Personally, I find walking to be probably the most common time for inspiration to hit. My son talks about the olden times being the time before mobile phones and tablets, so back in the olden times this could be a problem. I’d find that a lyric idea would hit me whilst I was walking home from work and then there would be a desperate scramble to try to find a pen and paper to scribble down the words that were forming. I also recall vividly getting an idea for a song lyric when cycling to university many years ago. It was going to be one of the greatest lyrics ever … but sadly I couldn’t remember all the great lines by the time I had negotiated traffic and arrived at the campus. Oh well!
These days I have a notes app on my mobile phone that makes it really easy to write down those initial ideas and then to continue to work on them at a later point. I’d really recommend using a notes app. As well as writing down fragments of lyrics, you can also use it to create To Do lists for actions you want to take to complete lyrics, get feedback on them, promote them, etc.
More ideas for inspiration in part 2
I hope that you’ve found the ideas in this post useful. To recap, I’ve suggested that you could try the cut out technique and object writing to generate inspiration for song lyrics. And I’ve also suggested that getting exercise will help you to have an alert mind that is better able to generate lyric ideas. Clearing your mind of distractions should also help and lead to better quality lyrical output.
Have a go at making some of these changes and I hope that you find them beneficial. In part 2, I’ll explore some other ideas to generate inspiration for song lyrics.