The Art Class is an occasional column written by artists about the creative process. It’s a place for artists to muse about the nature of creating, and to give the rest of us a unique window into art as it comes to life. In the last Art Class, Canadian folk musician Scott Orr discussed the difference between commercial and emotional songwriting.
Creative constipation is an illness that has no cure. There’s a coffee barista in Hollywood who can perfect a latte, but not a screenplay. There’s a waitress in New York who aspires is to write lyrics as well as she can write an order. And there’s a contemporary Christian artists in Nashville who pines to write a pop tune as relevant as his tight, designer jeans and frosted tips. Take heart my fellow writers—those who reside here in this dry and barren land—there are some latent remedies.
It has been close to a year since I’ve written a decent song. I finished writing and recording for my last record in April of 2007 and the last song I wrote for that record was the last full song I’ve completed since then. I have the passion to produce, but the results are scarce. I can feel creativity’s presence, I am inspired but nothing comes. A lake full of fish, but no one’s catching anything. It’s a feeling of torment, to be powered by mere fumes of hope that rests on the truth that one day it will happen; creativity will be born again. Such tribulations require the most impossible kind of patience. Writing a new song is like trying to remember a dream: you can see periodic snapshots of it, but you can’t quite grab a hold of it. It’s as if new melodies and original lyrics are characters in a 3-D movie, floating right before my eyes but are untouchable, unreal.
People always tell you to “write what you know,” an unarguable dictum and the alleged cure for writer’s block. Fellow writers, this clichÉ is the not gospel truth of our craft. I don’t believe that the responsibility of a writer is to simply write what they know but instead our job is to write what everyone knows, in a way that no one has ever heard.
A familiar pattern I’ve noticed in songwriting (and I strive to perfect) is to use a verb and a noun in an uncommon pairing to describe a common situation. Some examples of this would be (emphasizing the noun and the verb); “the sky wept“, “she argued with her heart“, “our eyes played tag with each other” and other cringe-worthy, John Mayer-esque metaphors. In some of those examples, I have attached emotions or actions to a noun that wouldn’t normally be attached to human emotions or physical activities (a heart cannot have an argument, a sky cannot cry and eyes can’t play tag). Nouns like, “sidewalk” or “December” technically can’t have emotion or perform an action, so when a writer humanizes such nouns, the writer begins to relate to the common man in an uncommon fashion. A variation to this technique would be to pair two nouns in a rare manner (the nouns are emphasized), “window to my soul“I tried to hide my excitement, but my eyes couldn’t keep their mouth shut.” Essentially, you are bringing a human and personable element to regular daily occurrences.
Here are more examples of humanizing common nouns; “tonight, the stars lent their splendor to our romance” or “we’re going to break into love’s apartment, take up space, leave our stuff all over the place, sleep in late and paint the walls a color we both hate.” (I like that one! okay, that’s mine, you can’t have it, I’m copyrighting it as you read this, so back off and make your own metaphor!). Singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter has made a career out of such original noun/verb parings, and it’s easy to see why, “The crickets all leapt up and met the moon with a standing ovation” (from the song, “Right Moves”), “The Lake was a valley in the diamond’s hand” (“Thin Blue Flame”). Perhaps the advice I would give everyone struggling to be creative: Write what you feel, like it’s never been felt before. Somewhere between cringe-worthy John Mayer and awe-inspiring Josh Ritter, you will find a metaphor that speaks humanly to your fellow travelers.
Fast-forward a week into the writing of this article and it seems I’ve found another solution to our problem. My own writer’s block is slowly dissipating (knock on wood). I’ve initiated and completed several new songs this week. A domino effect of creativity has begun. A new song— grown from infancy to maturity— inspires the process to occur again with a whole new song. But it wasn’t unconventional metaphors that helped me write three new songs this week. Instead, it was a simple solution that writers share with small business owners who are trying to make millions or medical researchers looking for a cure to a disease. The solution is simple: Work hard! Music columnists have commonly labeled singer-songwriter, Ryan Adams as being a prolific writer, a title that was garnered after he released three full-length albums in 2005. Ryan’s response to this accusation was, “It’s not that I’m prolific, it’s just that everyone else is lazy.” Obviously, originality, inspiration and natural talent all contribute to our creative inventory, but Adams’ does have a good point (and good songs). They say a salesperson has to get nine “no’s” before they can get one “yes” ; either way, they still have to do their sales pitch ten times. This type of perseverance will, with time, be rewarding. Another more common adage that we hear frequently— more so than the previously mentioned dictum— is the better of the two: “if you don’t know what to write, then just write.”
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