Songwriting Tip: Get Away from It
by Harriet Schock
Can you see the box better from inside the box or outside the box? Well, you see it two different ways, I guess. But if you’re looking for objectivity and perspective, you might try getting outside.
I think the same may be true of songs. I believe most of the writing needs to be done INSIDE the experience. As Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down The Bones, write as much as possible from “First Thoughts.” It’s good to get as much written as you can from that moment of being truly immersed in the original inspiration and desire to communicate. It’s also good to get away from it for a while. Go do something else. It’s going to gnaw at you like a hungry child anyway, so you aren’t going to be in danger of forgetting it entirely.
Steve Wagner, a former student and wonderful songwriter, recognizes the wisdom in taking a break. He feels it allows him to come back to the song with the original enthusiasm and vision he once had for it. He wrote me once, “I had to get away from this for a while and I was successful at extricating myself, withdrawing from it so that I am excited to dive back in.” Kahlil Gibran’s advice to lovers would be well taken by songwriters for their songs: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” In that space, we might actually gain the understanding we are seeking for what the song needs.
That said, I must confess I usually write a song in a few consecutive sittings. I can’t leave it alone. I’ll think that’s all I’m going to do and I turn the keyboard off, leave the room and try to do something else, and I’m right back there like a boomerang within minutes. But with one of my songs, a song I was writing for my sister, I took a four or five month break. I didn’t consider it a break. I thought I wasn’t getting anywhere with the song and I refused to give my only sister a song that was lame, so I put it away. Six months later, I woke up one day and in the twilight between snooze alarms, I got the end of the chorus. The whole song builds to that and the title sits right in the last line of that section. I probably couldn’t have gotten that six months earlier. So if I’d kept after it, I may have gotten something inferior. As often happens in my experience, this little personal song I wrote to my sister to express something to one person, something I felt deeply, has become one of the songs everyone asks for when I perform. I suppose other people have big sisters or brothers also.
Then there are the writers who won’t leave a song alone until they ruin it. I have students I want to hog tie to keep their hands off their songs after the songs have reached a certain point.
There’s a famous joke about the screenwriter who’s on the desert with a film producer and they’ve been dying of thirst for days until they finally find a pool of water and it turns out not to be a mirage, but the real thing. The writer starts to drink and the producer stops him and starts peeing into the pool. When the writer asks him what he’s doing, the producer replies, “I’m just improving it a little.” Although this joke is more a reflection of how script writers feel about the creative intervention of producers, I tell it to my writers who can’t stop “improving” their songs even after they’re already great. They compulsively rewrite until they are divorced from the original surge of creative power that inspired them in the first place. They’ve perfected the songs right out of all emotional impact.
Rather than continue working on something that was first finished weeks earlier, taking a break from the song can help you see it again with new, appreciative eyes. A rather odd example of this last point happened to me recently. I was reading some new reviews of my work on Allmusic.com and my eyes drifted down to the discography section and I found there was a recording of one of my songs I never knew about. It was published by Jobete and they apparently pitched the song and secured the record, never mentioning it to me. When I heard the cover, it was as if the song were someone else’s. I wrote it more than 20 years ago, and the time away from it gave me perspective. It was quite a different experience from hearing the demo I had done right after I wrote it. And fortunately I was impressed with the song.
So the next time you’re compulsively rewriting the life out of your song or looking for that key to solve a song’s problem, take a break. Take a walk. Take a vacation. One way or another, get away from it. You’ll benefit from it. And so will the song.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s most recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), and her new up coming book, her songwriting classes, online courses and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go: http://www.songwriting.net