Songwriting: Where It Begins
Almost anything. Anything can trigger that inspiration, it tends to come over like a wave or a sudden feeling. I've never needed a specific muse, anything will do. Art-making is the artist's response to life.
An aside: Any time the words "muse" and "inspire" are mentioned, a certain clan of poets and songwriters feels like they must insist that writing doesn't require a muse. They're right, but their assertion goes too far. They neglect to admit that some of the time, inspiration does happen, and there is a muse. These assertions often come from the craft-oriented wing of writing, those who write with intention and purpose, and use all their craft to work hard at making the best art that they can. I applaud that. However, I'm also very well aware that inspiration does happen, and it cannot always be explained—or explained away. And sometimes, there is a person who triggered it. A painter paints her lover. A composer's wife hums while working in the garden, inciting a symphony of song. Art-making is the artist's response to life, and inspiration can come from anywhere.
A second aside: Lots of people think that your muse, if it's your beloved soul-mate, inspires you to your heights of artistry. That is the romantic myth. it's true sometimes, but all too often poets perpetrate one of those numerous insipid love poems that plague the world with their clichéd repetitions. In fact, most people have romantic notions about love and its connection to inspiration that go too far. Not all muses are beneficent. And not all that a muse inspires is loving, praising, or beatific. Loving is not always a pastoral romp through fields of glory. I'll tell you who your real sou-mate is: the person who most pushes you towards growth, towards becoming a better person. Your soul-mate isn't in fact usually the person who you adore, but the person who pushes you, who pisses you off, who you can't get out of your head even if you try. Sometimes the muse inspires an angry poem.
That's how I wrote this poem, as a response to a moment when the person I most love in this world was really pissing me off. It happens. The most important cusp in a love relationship comes when you choose what you will do next. That moment didn't last, but I am left with a poem I still like. In this instance, as occasionally happens, I was inspired and wrote this poem at white heat in one sitting, in one of my journals. As is also common when writing at white heat, the final version is not far off the first draft, as can be seen from the journal page in question:
Many of my poems, and now song lyrics, have begun from specific inspirations I can recall, and detail, such as the previous example. Art-making is my response to life experience. Sometimes you spin off from another idea that occurred to you, and it just starts to flow. It can be mysterious in its arrival, but you can learn to notice and recognize with experience. There have been poems that were triggered by a person, an encounter, a phrase in a conversation; so sometimes a person does serve as muse, if you will.
A recent instance of multiple threads coming together to inspire a song lyric can be seen in a song I wrote in New Mexico, on my recent roadtrip. I wrote a poem while in Albuquerque, and posted it here: Colder Moons. An online friend made a comment to the poem affirming the poem's last lines:
. . . A thread
runs through memory, links every ground you ever camped on.
A surfeit of tent, an excess of fresh air. Brewing sweet tea
over wood coals some cold blue pre-dawn, embrace
a kind of solace. Some things don't need
to be forgiven.
I was grateful for the comment, and it got me to thinking. Not many days later I took the last line of the poem, "Some things don't need to be forgiven," and used it as the first line for a new song. The line had stayed with me, but having it affirmed in my friend's comment gave it extra weight in my art-making mind.
Here's the first two verses of this new song, written soon after the poem and comment:
Some things don't need to be forgiven,
like stars that fall from desert skies,
like tears that urge the heart to widen,
like a newborn daughter's cries.
Some places in the heart are broken,
it's friendship's edge we use to bind
ourselves together to each other,
your limping half-healed heart to mine.
. . .
This completed song lyric is one of the new songs I am working on now, setting the words to music. It's part of a group of songs I wrote during the roadtrip, and after.
Writing the words for a song usually comes first, for me, although I do sometimes hear the melody at the same time, coming forward together with the words. For this song, the melody did come to me right along with the words, and finishing the total of four verses and refrain to the song was partly a matter of fitting the words to the song in its established melodic pattern, and partly about writing what I wanted to say.
It can become a process of getting it down while you're in the flow, then cleaning it up later, although in this instance once I got going it pretty much flowed. I find myself writing a song like this mostly in one sitting, getting it all down as much as I can; when the words start to come, it can take a few minutes, or an hour, to get them down. Then I set it aside for awhile, to come back after a few days, to polish, clean up, sometimes rearrange lyrics or phrases, and generally rewrite as needed. Taking some time between the initial inspiration and the rewrite often allows you to be more objective, or at least somewhat detached, so that you can look at the song as a song, and start to hear it being sung in your head.
That's how the writing process can go, at least some of the time, from inspiration to finish. Other songs take a lot longer to beat into shape, which can be a process of gathering fragments onto a page in my journal and then figuring out how to fit them together. Your craft as a songwriter comes into play in particular when you rewrite and polish and clean up.
Don't rewrite too soon in the process, is my advice, because at least for me that can completely kill the inspiration. Stay in one mindset while writing, use the other for editing and rewriting. Use the inspiration for as long as you can, for as long as it hangs around. Get down as much as you can. Be greedy with whatever inspires you. You have a lot more time for rewrites than you do for inspiration. When the white heat cools to more calculating craft, that's the time for editing. That's another reason I set a song aside for awhile, before coming back to look at it more objectively. You can spot things when it's further off in the distance that you'd miss entirely when you're still in the midst of being inspired.