The Incrementalists

I’m a big proponent of starting songs from distinct “seeds”—fragments of lyric, melody, rhythm, or just strong ideas for songs. This approach is pretty much the unspoken “go to” technique pro writers use to jumpstart their writing process on a regular, even daily basis. I describe a more intentional and disciplined approach to the practice in the first chapter of my new book, Songwriting Strategies: A 360º Approach.

One of the best sources I know for lyric seeds in particular is reading. One nice perk in catching seeds from reading: You flake out on the couch all afternoon reading your latest young adult, SF or mystery guilty pleasure. When you find a good phrase on page 237, you can say to yourself, in virtuous, only slightly defensive tones: “Well, actually I’ve been working all afternoon. This is research!” (Your spouse may not buy the argument.)

Recently I was reading a cool new book— The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White—that combines a bit of time travel (my favorite) with a bit of Dan Brown-ish secret society thriller, along with quite a droll tone. In one bit of dialogue, a main character says something like, “I was never good at good, I always believed in better…” That was my seed.

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A Good Song Crying From a Song Gone Bad – Bad Song! Part IV

I hope you’ve enjoyed my thread on the joys of bad song writing. I’ve introduced the bad song exercise, as a solo, co-write, or group exercise; and the Gallery of Horrors pages for your Songwriter Toolkit.

I always like to teach things I’ve tried, and try things I’ve taught. (There’s an example of a rhetorical device called chiasmus, which is another exercise!)

So I thought I’d share one piece of creative work with you, that came out of a self-challenge that came to me for my own writing as I wrestled with the idea of bad song writing. I like to push my writing forward by setting myself challenges, then trying to write them. I sometimes make the challenges fiendishly difficult: failing is fun, when what you set out to do was outlandishly unlikely in the first place.

I love songs about songs (I call them “meta-songs”), particularly songs where a song itself is personified in some way—even the very song being sung. As I was polishing up my bad song exercise, I thought about what it would be like to be a bad song. Would the bad song know it was bad? Would it think it was good? As I played around with the concept, I switched the point of view. How about a good song trapped inside a bad song? How would that song feel about its bad-song “environs” not to mention the lout that cooked up the mess in the first place? I had my concept.

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Embrace the Mess

I’ve been reading a great book by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Although he’s describing things he’s learned about fostering creativity in a large complex organization (an animation studio and technology development company), many of his lessons apply to songwriting: especially to the kinds of smaller-scale collaborative interactions that happen in co-writing, and even in solo songwriting.

Here’s one powerful insight from the book. After completing one film (Toy Story 2) on a crushing deadline, Pixar’s leadership had resolved to work everyone at a more sustainable, human-friendly pace on subsequent projects. But they found they were taking lots of time, in part because story lines kept changing all through production. On Finding Nemo they tried to change that. It didn’t work. The movie was successful, in fact very successful—the highest-grossing animated film ever. But (page 134):

“The only thing it didn’t do was transform our production process… By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”

There are big implications here. When we think we’re getting it all figured out, we’re often in danger of losing sight of the big picture. That’s true for any creative work, I think, happening at any scale. It certainly applies to songwriting—with a vengeance.

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