Everyone gets stuck. The most tragic thing about getting stuck is that when it happens you forget that it's happened before, and more than likely its happened more than once.
The reason you forget this salient point at this salient moment?
... Because you are up to your ears in quicksand and you are sinking... sinking really fast. When your creative brain is mired in the swamp of a problem it can't solve the natural reaction is to panic a little bit. And then panic some more until basically you're an enormous pulsing ball of panicky panic and you begin to struggle.
We've all seen the movies, we've read the survival guides. If you panic and start thrashing around in the quicksand, the only thing you are going to achieve is a more efficient route to your own murky demise. What do the smart people advise you to do when you are sinking in the swamp? Don't panic, calm down, deep breath, think logically and above all... don't panic. Easy for them to say.
I get stuck fairly regularly in the creative swamp. And when I'm stuck, I think "That's it. I've written my last song. I simply have nothing more that is interesting to say. And even if I did I wouldn't know how to say it!" Then I go on facebook and twitter and read about all of the brilliant non-stuck things that other songwriters are doing. Which of course is immensely helpful. It's only when I'm lucid and not-stuck that I can look at my time in the swamp and think logically about the reasons I got in there in the first place and how I might be able to get myself out should I wander back in at any time.
The good thing is, the more often you get stuck, the better you get at being stuck and the more practice you have at not panicking and getting yourself out of it.
Here are some small strategies that have helped me out at one time or another when I've been stuck on a song, or simply have had no song to write at all...
1. Go for a bicycle ride. This is the equivalent of Einstein working as a patent clerk. Cycling requires you to concentrate a certain part of your brain on something very practical, leaving your creative brain with less energy to spend on worry. Hence it concentrates its available energies on solving your deepest problems. Revelations may occur to you on your bicycle that your brain has been bubbling away on for months. There's nothing magic about it, it's just science. And it works. If cycling isn't your thing, try running or another physical excercise. Something that gets the blood going and gets your brain to the point where you can't consciously be thinking of anything other than the fact that "that frickin hill is really way too steep for an unfit fool."
2. Don't panic, remind yourself that this has happened before and that it will happen again. Try not to struggle against it. Inevitably its a depressing feeling when it happens, but studies have shown that these creative depressions are actually essential to the brain's creative processes. They will occur, again and again throughout your career and they will always make you feel a bit sad, but let your brain do what it needs to. They are often a period of deep thought where the brain is putting together disparate elements to make a whole. What your brain is trying its best to do is solve your problem... it is thinking "I'm in quicksand. There is a tree over there which might have some roots underneath the sand. There is a big stick over there which might be grasped. There maybe a stone near my feet. There is a village nearby. If I shout maybe someone will come." Your brain is trying to do all of these very sensible things. But it can't do them if it's thrashing its primitive instincts about like a chicken waiting for the KFC truck to arrive.
3. Ring up a friend (maybe a fellow composer/lyricist) and bitch to them about it. You'll not only do yourself a favour in having a good old vent and a rant, but you'll do them a favour too. They'll inevitably have felt exactly the same way as you at some point. Its nice to know we're all stuck in that quicksand together sometimes.
Those are just a few little suggestions that I hope you find helpful. If you have any other ones that work for you please post in the comments beneath! I'm sure we'd all be interested in hearing them!
Some cathedrals have stood for nearly a thousand years. Notre Dame in Paris comes close, many of Englands finest cathedrals are still standing. What is it that allows us to walk inside them and marvel today? Craftsmanship. They were well built by people who had spent their lives perfecting their individual craft. Then all of these individual skills were brought together, and working with each other from the foundations to the highest spire, to the smallest statue they built a thing of beauty. Something that we can marvel at, that can inspire and move, not only because of its aethetic beauty but because of the knowledge of all the sweat, skill and patience that went into the placement of every stone.
Allow me to wander off down a metaphor for a while...
A musical is a cathedral. Some songs are the stained glass windows that illuminate it, throwing light upon its inner chambers. Other songs are the paintings and statues that adorn it walls, sometimes they are unexpected, hidden away in a corner and they are beautiful precisely because they are unexpected and surprising.
All of these things, the windows, the statues, paintings make the cathedral a beautiful, entrancing and surprising place to dwell. But without these things the cathedral still stands, although it is a place bereft of the incredible beauty that could fill it. The cathedral stands because its foundations are deep. Deep down in the ground the architect designed an unshakeable foundation that could not be broken. And that is where everything begins.
If our songs are the stained glass and statues, then deep beneath the stone flags of the cathedral lies the story. The story is the thing upon which everything else stands. The beautiful window would lie dark on the ground without the cathedral wall holding it up to the light. The statues, though beautiful in their own right, would not have the same ability to surprise and excite without the alcove of the cathedral, or the giant pillar upon which they sit.
So just as the foundations of a cathedral allow it to stand the test of time and maximise the beauty of the things within it, so a musical stands or falls on the strength and craft of its story.
The cathedral metaphor is mine (stolen and expanded as everything is! I'm sure its been done before) but is directly inspired by something that Claude Michel Schonberg (writer of Les Miserables) said in his masterclass (curated and organised by the wondrous folks at Mercury Musical Developments) yesterday. He said a building is a musical, the statues are the songs. It really spoke to me and made alot of sense so I decided to think on it some more, hence what you've just read...
To say the masterclass was quietly revelatory is an understatement. Linda Walton and I presented our songs from Abolition, a musical exploration of the dismantling of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and then Mr Schonberg, who is a softly spoken, thoughtful man, peeked at us over his glasses with a contemplative silence and said "What did you think you were doing?" with his eyes.
I don't mean that he asked that question directly, but his thoughts and comments made you ask it of yourself. And not in a mean way. In an interested I'm here to help you be better kind of way.
What was I trying to do with this song? Moreover, have I been working so hard on chiselling away at the statue that I've forgotten that the cathedral is crumbling around me? Then he went bigger with almost all of the writing groups, his questions were huge (although sometimes he went into delightful detail) Why are you trying to write this musical? Do you have an implacable reason? Because a cathedral is a hell of a thing to build, it takes a long time. You better damn well know why the hell you're doing it.
It didn't matter if a song was beautiful, well performed or got a big applause, he was interested in the problems, not the good things. There was a huge amount of songwriting talent in the room, beautiful melodies, clever and moving lyrics abounded, but Mr Schonberg takes that as a given. And so he should, he made the excellent point that anyone who has the presumption to write a musical, should have a pretty fine idea already about how to write a good song. So take that as read.
Those technical points aside, what did he think a song had to do?
Essentially it had to be concise and follow the character's logical thought through to its inevitable conclusion.
I'm taking liberties with what he said, but that was the essence of it for me. That doesn't mean it won't be surprising for our audience but our characters should follow their own logic. As with the cathedral and the statues, the position of a statue can make all the difference, the placement of the stainglass will either catch the light or remain in darkness depending on where you put it (maybe it will illuminate one of your statues in a different way if you get it just right).
Just a few other pearls of wisdom from CMS below. There were many more but these were the ones that stuck for me... I hope that I remember to apply at least a few of them when I am writing:
What audience do you write for? You write the show you would want to go and see. Don't worry about the audience. Write for yourself.
What performers do you write for? You write for the best performer imaginable. Let others step up to the mark and show you what they can do. Never write down to someones ability, let them step up.
The last bar of any song should be in the first bar.
Let the audience know when a song is finished. Give them a button (if that's what you want them to have).
You have to make your audience forget that your characters are singing.
Think about what is happening on stage. Things other than your song are happening. Know the environment and how it influences you.
Remember that music can do a hell of a lot without lyric. Let the music be your tool. Let it work as hard for you as it can.
Instead of thinking when does it feel wierd that music comes in, think the opposite, when does it feel wierd that music doesn't come in.
All in all, it was a day of small revelations that will ultimately see the building of some stunning cathedrals one day. It's going to take time and it's going to take collaboration (the architect didn't do it on his own), but if the foundation is strong then you're 90% of the way there, you just have to keep going.
I hope that this is useful for some other writers who are about to take on the challenge of building a cathedr- I mean... writing a musical. But make no mistake, they aren't built overnight. And if I learnt anything at all. Build your foundations STRONG.
Enormous thanks go to Claude Michel Schonberg for an incredibly enlightening day and also to the fantastic team at Mercury Musical Developments for putting together such a fantastic day. And of course also to all the writers who were brave enough to present their work to us for critique and for withstanding that stare over the glasses. It was a little bit like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.
I feel sad. I feel so very sad. I think this might be the most sad I've ever felt. If I were to compare the sadness that I am feeling right now to other people's sadness, I'm pretty sure that my sadness is the most sad of them all.
How did reading that make you feel? Did it make you feel sad? Or did it make you feel nothing at all? Or irritated? Or angry? It certainly made me feel angry writing it. I was virtually thumping the keys of my little laptop. It was probably wondering what it did to deserve such abuse. Well, laptop, I can tell you what you did. You were the conduit through which a writer sought to move me emotionally simply by stating the fact that he was feeling sad.
I have recently been involved in several conversations/discussions with people regarding the role of specificity in songwriting. One thing I have heard is basically the following statement:
1. The more general and sweeping the statements you make in your lyric, the greater the number of people who will connect with your song (a sort of fishing trawler approach to songwriting if you will).
This of course can lead to a lyric such as:
"I feel sad. I feel so very sad.... etc."
Because of course, yes, everyone has felt sad at some point in their lives! (With the exception of The Flying Purple Unicorn of Sparkly Joy who resides in Happy Land).
So by stating in your lyric that you are sad, you are thereby connecting yourself to all the billions of people in the world who are sad when they think about their relationship breaking up, their parents getting divorced, their pet dog dying or Donald Trump becoming President.
Does that make sense? Because it seems to...
Then why do I not feel sad?
The reason is that the emotion is a result. It's not the issue. You can't make emotion with emotion.
The reason I cried (along with the rest of the world) in the first five minutes of Pixar's UP, is not because the guy was sad that his wife had died. It was because I had seen the moments of their lives through his eyes. Those tiny specific moments that happened to them and only them and no one else in the world. I saw those moments, I experienced them through him and when I realised they were gone forever I was devastated.
So how does this help us in songwriting for the stage?
I believe that being specific is the key to being universal and I know I'm not the only one who believes this. Countless songwriters have done this brilliantly but often it is not recognised that this is what they are doing. Sometimes, they don't even realise that's what they've done (the one hit wonder phenomenon). People like Joni Mitchell knew exactly what they were doing. Her song 'A Case of You' is an absolute masterclass in the universality of specifics. Take a look at this lyric for example:
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada, Oh Canada
And sketched your face on it twice.
I have never drawn a map of Canada and I'm not an artist so I stay away from drawing at all costs, lest it destroy my ego. But I can feel (very deeply) what this moment is all about. For me it's about regret, lost love, loneliness and yes, sadness. And yet, not once did Joni Mitchell say that she was sad or lonely or regretful. She didn't need to tell me, because she had shown me. And the reason her words are so powerful for me are because of the emotion that lies beneath them. Simmering under the surface.
The specific moment she described translates to a universal audience because they have all felt lonely and sad. What she has done is painted a picture of what loneliness and sadness looked like to her one night and she hung it up on the wall for the world to see.
Have a look at the chorus lyrics for Bridge Over Troubled Water by Paul Simon as well. You may be confilcted about this one...
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will lay me down
Now, at first glance, these lyrics might seem quite vague. And that's the reason I chose them. But again, look closely. Mr Simon is painting a picture for us. He is saying If you're sad I will make you feel better. But the way in which he is saying it is very specific. He allows you to see with your minds eye, the cold turbluent waters that are raging, you can feel the bridge descending over it allowing you safe passage to the other side of the river. He lets you know that he can help you through these difficult times and you will make it to the other side, but he does it all in one very specific and powerful image.
So those are my thoughts on the matter. We are at our most universal when we are specific and we are at our least universal when we are vague. Emotions are a result, they can't make other emotions. They are an end point. If you want to convey sadness in your lyric, think back to a time when you felt sad, but instead of describing how you were feeling, try describing what you saw, what you did, where you went, who you met, what they said. These are the moments that will paint your picture. Then when you're done with your brush and canvas, hang it up on the wall and let the world see it for themselves if you are brave enough. Because that takes courage.