Songwriting – Courting the Muse

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane on my way to California to see my family over the Memorial Day weekend. I’m letting my mind drift, and I’m thinking ….I need to write a song. But a familiar, panicky feeling takes hold. How do I start? It ‘s been a long time….well over a year, if I’m honest, and I feel like I have no idea how to do it, how to even start.

Some songwriters talk about occasional flashes of inspiration, when the muse seems to dictate the entire song and it practically writes itself…but for most of us mortals, those are rare miracles and if we waited for them, nothing would ever get written. Writers of all kinds talk about writer’s block, about the terror of staring at the blank page or the computer screen, and confronting the void. There are many books and programs designed to help you break through writer’s block and jumpstart the creative process of songwriting. In fact, there are probably as many approaches to songwriting as there are songwriters.

Some people sit down with their instrument and start comping…that can lead to rhythmic or melodic ideas that suggest lyrics. Famously, Paul McCartney came up with the melody and changes for “Yesterday” first, on the piano, and he used the words “scrambled eggs” as a kind of place-holder until he came up with the lyrics we know today – in what as become one of the most covered songs in history.

Others start with the lyrics – with a title or a hook, for instance. For me, I usually start with an idea that is compelling enough to get me started. Then I explore it – through unedited writing – in many different directions, looking for stories, images, and metaphors that stick. I’ll probably end up throwing away at least 90% of what I write at this point, and I may end up in a very different place then where I started. If I’m lucky, though, at some point the muse will meet me half-way, and I’ll get an idea for the lyrics for a hook or a chorus. And if I start singing that in different ways, I’ll begin to find the melody for the song.

In my search to unlock writer’s block, and find inspiration, I turn to things that have worked in the past. The Artists Way by Julie Cameron is a wonderful program that helps nurture any creative endeavor. Morning Pages – the practice of writing three, stream-of-consciousness pages every day without editing – is something I have done for years, at least most days. I find it helps to uncover the feelings and thoughts percolating below the surface, and to get the brain and the pen flowing (you are supposed to write by hand). Pat Pattison’s book, Writing Better Lyrics, has lots of great exercises; in particular, I’ve found his Object Writing exercise helpful. In this exercise you write for ten minutes non-stop on a tangible object using multi-sensory detail. Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg also has many exercises to “free the writer within.”

Almost everyone writing about writing agrees that the main thing is to DO it regularly, so that’s what I have to recommit myself to. Just like any discipline, I’m going to have to incorporate it into my routine until it becomes habit. So, as a first step, I’ll commit to just write (something, anything!) the first half hour every morning, before e-mail or the New York Times. I’m not going to expect any brilliant results at this point, the point is just to start practicing again, and I’ll try some of those writing exercises mentioned above. Maybe after a week or two of practice I’ll be ready to move on to the next step in crafting a song. I’ll write another blog entry when I do. And if you have any tried-and-true methods for courting the muse, please share them in my comments section. I’d love to hear them!


  1. I truly appreciate this featured articles. You’ve inspired me to do my half hour writing ritual as well. I’m one of those who wait until the characters or the words just wnt to burst out, but, unfortunately, if I am busy doing other things, they won’t. So my number 1 strategy is to do nothing. literally nothing everyday. Some people may meditate, but that is too intentional for me. In one of those “nothing” periods, something might emerge, no pressure, and then I start and don’t stop. Second strategy is to collect visuals or objects that somehow remind me of what I want to write about, and then write about them, or with them. I also wanted to congratulate you for your offerings this season, such interesting possiblities for young and older than young to explore song. Costanza

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