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Inside Music:
"Helpful Books & Techniques for Songwriters"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, October 1999

Often we feel blocked not because we don't have any ideas, but because we don't welcome the ideas we do have. One of the most common problems for songwriters is getting free of the inner critic who passes judgment on our every word and blocks our efforts to let go and create. A related malady is a tendency to censor the ideas that come because they reveal to much about ourselves (or others), or venture into uncomfortable territory. If we let obstacles such as these get too deeply rooted, we become sabotaged by doubt and our songwriting practice can become a real grind, and even grind to a halt.

Many folks approach this problem from different directions, but their solutions are remarkably similar. Simply put, the best way to beat the censor is to outrun it. Natalie Goldberg's classic writing guide, Writing Down the Bones, explores this in detail, offering a wealth of exercises for writing from our first thoughts rather than from judgments and fears. The cornerstone of her approach is "freewriting": you just write as quickly as you can for ten minutes at a stretch, putting down whatever comes. You don't stop, you don't correct mistakes or revise, you don't compose sentences in your mind before writing them down. Whatever you're thinking or feeling - including self-criticism and complaints - you write it down.

Goldberg's freewriting exercise is closely related to Julia Cameron's "morning pages" practice (from her book, The Artist's Way), which involves writing non-stop for three pages every day, preferably in the morning. Cameron's book is a kind of "recovery program" for getting unstuck creatively, and it's helped me overcome writing blocks of my own.

One of her ideas that I like is to approach creativity as a descriptive process rather than an innovation process. You try to describe something that already exists rather than create something entirely new. We can tie ourselves in knots trying to be "original," forgetting that we're surrounded by people, places, and situations that make great subjects for songs. Describing gets the focus off of ourselves and onto the world around us, opening us to inspiration, and usually leading to better songs.

This brings to mind the book Pastures of Plenty, a selection from the vast archive of Woody Guthrie's unpublished writings. He must have written non-stop, for his output included thousands of songs, poems, essays, letters, and cartoons recording his daily experiences and impressions.

For another take on how to "beat the censor," try Keith Johnstone's ground-breaking theater improvisation guide, Impro. He's a witty writer with a keen understanding of the subtle mind games we play and where they come from, particularly the damage done to the imagination by traditional education. His twists on classic techniques such as automatic writing, word association, and imagery are particularly useful for songwriters. Like Goldberg, he emphasizes going with first thoughts and not trying to be "clever" or "original," or to avoid appearing abnormal. Forget about the content, get out of your own way, and let the unconscious speak. One of my favorite exercises inspired by his book is to improvise limericks -- here's one I just made up on the spot:

    I saw you behind the garage
    Dressed up in your camouflage.
    I came out to get you
    But now I won't let you
    Go through with our scheduled massage.

If you're unfamiliar with limericks, they roughly follow the rhythm of the "Popeye" theme song. Try improvising to other forms this way and you'll be amazed at what comes out (see last month's column for more on this approach).

Other helpful books are If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Fast Fiction by Roberta Allen, Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff, and Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch.

Whatever you do in your writing practice, do it regularly, have mercy on yourself, and have faith.

© Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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