Category Archives: writing

Luxury

by Rob Roper February 9, 2009

What a luxury it is
to be able to step away from my desk
in the middle of the afternoon
and walk up to the park
or a coffee shop
and write.

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Ignorance is Bliss

I used to play guitar for a young songwriter in Tucson. She didn’t know anything about song structure. But she wrote cool lines. She also never took guitar lessons, and didn’t know any standard chords, or music theory. She made up her own chords, which were cool. I always wondered how she thought of all those weird, cool ideas. Of course, I would use my knowledge of music to give her songs structure and polish, which (I think) she was grateful for.

My songwriting mentor told me that I’m “too smart for my own good” and I need to use “more heart, less brain”. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Now I think I do. Because I’ve been such a huge music lover all my life, listened to so much music, learned how to play the guitar and a little piano, I understand the components of a song, musically and lyrically. When I go to compose a song, from the very start, I’m thinking about all those components, and how to frame what I want to say within the structure of a song.

I also noticed from my own experience, as well as that of other songwriters, that, once you’ve written your first batch of songs you consider good, it’s harder to write the next batch. You’ve set the bar at a high level, and you feel the pressure to exceed that level.

I know two English teachers. They have a hard time writing. They know too much. Their standards are high.

It seems so unfair that the people who love literature the most, have the hardest time writing it, and the people who love music the most, have the hardest time writing songs!

So I think at need to find a way to pretend that I’m ignorant of music. At least at the beginning stages of the song.

I have an idea: when starting a song, I’ll write the poem first. By “poem”, I don’t know mean a real poem, well-thought-out, edited with craft; I mean, just write lines with rhythm, but no rhyme or structure. Since I don’t have any poetry craft, that will guarantee that I’ll just write simple, crude, primitive stuff, purely from the heart. Then I can use my songwriting craft to convert it to song lines, give it structure, and pretty it up with similes, metaphors, imagery and detail.

Well, that’s the strategy I’m going to try next. Who knows if it will work? But worth a shot.

-Rob

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Songwriting is not work

I went to a 2-hour songwriting workshop today at Swallow Hill in Denver, given by songwriter Tom Kimmel. My personal takeaway was, stop using the term “work” when thinking about songwriting. I will no longer say, “I’m going to *work* on a song now”. Work–ugh! Who wants to work? That’s no fun. A song is not a *chore*; something to get done; something to cross off the todo list. From now on I’m going to say, “I’m going to *play* with this song”. I’m going to “have some fun”. On the surface it sounds like just different terminology for the same thing, but behind the terminology is a completely different attitude. When it comes to chores, I procrastinate. No problem with procrastination when it comes to fun. But more importantly, “work” and “play” use different parts of the brain. “Work” uses the logical, editor part of the brain, and “play” uses the creative, imaginative side. I think the reason I’ve been having trouble getting songs done is that I need to be in the creative mode more than the logical mode.

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The Solution to Writer’s Block: write crap, have fun

I emailed a songwriter friend of mine, Kathy, and asked how she’s doing. She replied:

*****

I’m Ok. Pretty tired. I need to schedule some more shows. I have been lazy. I also tried to write a song today. i am really haviing a hard time with my inner critic. i just don’t like what I am writing and haven’t got much inspiriation.
I am starting to feel like I won’t write another song.

*****

I replied:

There’s tricks you can do to overcome that, you know. :) The main thing is, take the pressure off, banish the critic; bound and gag her and lock her in the closet. Then let the playful, creative side of you just have fun, with no expectations.
Do something weird. Write an acapella song. Put the capo in a weird place. Start with a chord you NEVER start a song with. Try a song in DADGAD. Write a really stupid, corny song. Nobody will ever have to hear this stuff. Write a song that’s so personal and depressing and suicidal that you would die of embarassment if anyone were to ever hear it. Invent a character and write a short story about the character. Write a poem. Write two poems. Just have fun. No expectations of any of this becoming a song. Consider it practice; exercises.

That’s my advice, for what it’s worth. :)

-Rob

*****

Then I wrote her again:

Kathy,

After sending you my advice, I remembered this. Following my own advice, I was sitting out on my front porch in the late afternoon/early evening, not long after Song School, and said I’m gonna try something goofy. I’ll go through my notebook of observations, pick a phrase, and just start writing from it. About a year ago I would walk around my neighborhood with a mini-cassette recorder and just make random observations. One of those was “a window with no curtains”. So I wrote that down on the tablet, and just started writing, with no idea where I was going to go. Here’s what happened:

The Window with no Curtains
by Rob Roper 1st draft Sept 5, 2007

This window had no curtains
And the light was always on
You could see the furniture in the living room
an antique sofa
antique chair
coffee table
end tables
oil painting over the sofa

But I never saw anyone in that living room
You wondered if anyone even lived there?
They must always be in a back room– a den, a “family room”
This must be the “formal” living room
For show– not for human habitation
Seems like a waste
Like a museum
But a museum that no one ever visits

But still, they have to clean it
Dust the shelves
Clean the furniture
Sweep and mop the floor
Funny how a room without life still gets dirty

I want to break in when they go on vacation
invite a bunch of teenagers over
Buy ’em some cheap beer and cheap wine
Tell ’em to have a party
Get drunk, dance, have sex, vomit on the floor
Wreck the place
and least then it would have been lived in.

No, that’s mean.
I should have empathy for these people.
I bet they’re lonely.
I bet they have no fun.
I bet they’re sad.
I should show up one night with a bunch of friends.
Knock on the door, invite ourselves in.
Bring some good beer, good wine, good whiskey.
We’ll show ’em how to party
and be happy.
We’ll use that room.
We’ll dance and drink (but we won’t vomit)
Get out the guitars and sing songs til 4 in the morning.

Of course it would never happen.
But now, when I walk past that house
And look in the window with no curtains
and the light on
and the undisturbed furniture
with nobody in it
I smile.

That will probably amount to nothing, but it gets the creative juices flowing, and it was fun!

-Rob

*****

Kathy wrote back:

thanks Rob! I will give it a try. I like the poem. It is good visualization. Kind of like a kid story, but with booze and vomiting.

*****

I wrote:

Yes, go write something stupid like that! It might get you going! This should be fun, not work.

-Rob

*****

Kathy wrote back a couple days later:

I never used the word stupid!! But I did write somethng that was just talking and not trying to be artistic. It felt better and now I want to write some more.

Thanks

*****

I replied:

Yes! and stupid is ok, if it gets you writing again!

*****

Actually, I can’t take full credit for this advice. I stole it from Peter Himmelman. At his workshop at the Rocky Mountain Song School in 2004, a young girl said she had made an album, but was now suffering from writer’s block. Peter told her, “write crap”. He said it’s important to keep writing, even if it’s not serious. It doesn’t have to be recorded, nobody has to see it. But it keeps you in practice. And you never know, while trying to write crap you might accidently write something good. I never forgot that.

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Things I wish someone had told me about songwriting

I wanted to write songs when I was 18. But I didn’t know how. And didn’t have anybody to go to for advice. I didn’t have any friends who were songwriters. No one in my family was a songwriter. There were no websites and blogs. No books on songwriting, no workshops, no songwriting schools.

I wish somebody back then would have told me these things:

1. Like any other art or craft, you have to learn it, and practice. Songwriters aren’t “born” (well, maybe some are). Most will tell you that it’s the result of hard work.

2. You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Don’t expect your first songs to be great. You learn by doing. Frustration and self-doubt come with the territory.

3. Schedule songwriting sessions. Be disciplined. Show up for work. Put the time in…

4. …but don’t pressure yourself to accomplish anything in those sessions. Have fun, enjoy it. If you put the time in, you *will* get results.

5. Seek out other songwriters. Make friends with them. Ask for advice. Ask for constructive criticism.

I wonder how different my life would have been if someone had told me those things when I was 18? Maybe if I write them here, someone else won’t have to figure them out on their own.

-Rob

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