Fifteen years ago, I had a friend called Matt. He was, among other things, a gifted songwriter. It’s no surprise he was someone I idolised; resourceful, talented, prolific, he had a process that not only took minimal work, but also seemed to lead to a steady flow of great new songs all the time.
He would wake up in the morning and spend the day looking around him, channeling the surroundings – the delicate texture of the trees and clouds, or the rough sounds of iron on concrete, or the snippets of conversation that drifted from passers-by into his bubble – into new songs. And lots of them. He would simply wait until an idea came to him, commit it to words and melody and the result would always be a song so beautiful and perfect that no retouching or honing was ever needed.
Ahhh, Matt was a real legend. He was also, and is still, a figment of my imagination.
This notion – of an effortless songwriter who breathes out good ideas like carbon dioxide – is a long way from reality. The truth behind creating is far more exciting and inspiring still. From the outside, it can also sound rather tedious. For every public-worthy song, I have to write at least ten others just to get to the keeper.
Many years ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. When a teenager (the really cliched, ‘lying around with a guitar thinking he looks cool’ kind) I wrote literally hundreds of songs. It took me several years until I realised that I was a long way from writing anything palatable – perhaps counterintuitively, the older I got, the less productive I became. The reason for this is that this decrease in productivity coincided with the realisation that my songs could, and really should, get better.
This leads to the key question: how can you maintain a healthy flow of new songs or song ideas, without reducing your quality threshold?
To answer this question, I have picked out the 5 most effective pieces of advice I’ve read or been given around maximising creative flow.
1 – Never pass up an idea when it does come to you
When any potentially song idea could become that multimillion-stream hit, the need to catch your ideas and harness the drive to create at that moment always has to come first.
If you feel a burning urge to write or paint or sing something new, don’t ignore it and expect it to stick around for you later. I have had it happen too many times and it’s still heartbreaking every single time. It takes real discipline to drop whatever you’re doing and dive into whatever your heart is telling you to do – but it’s super important.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat. Pray. Love., touches on this in an entertaining and compassionate Ted Talk which I’d recommend!
(Linked to this is the idea that your personal space needs to be set up effectively for you to create as easily as possible – this is an application of Paths of Least Resistance, you can read about that here.)
2 – Keep a notebook and store up ideas in it
I have taken to using a spreadsheet, if only because it fits in with how I manage the rest of my life, but the principle is the same.
One of the most frustrating things is when I have a cool little riff on the guitar and want to jam some vocal melodies over the top, but I have no idea what words to sing them with. Normally for me, a song grows out from a single phrase sung a certain way, over some rhythmic guitar or piano part. I know this is how I write most effectively, and so it makes no sense NOT to have a good backlog of cool ideas and verbal hooks to play with when I come to this critical moment (See Point 1).
It’s not even necessarily a case of checking over this list when writing – by merely committing these ideas to paper (or spreadsheet), I will more readily have new lyrical ideas at my fingertips and convert more of those into fully fledged songs.
3 – What you get out is what you put in
This point is neatly described in Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative (as well as lots of other places).
You may be used to framing your food and drink intake in terms of a ‘balanced diet’ – but Henry applies this logic to your intake of arts and culture. These are the sources of your creative raw materials, and have a huge impact on the ideas that come out at the end.
There are two key points to take from this:
1) Your creative self needs feeding. This means feeding it NEW things. If you ever feel lost for ideas, staring at a blank page or Logic Project, strumming the same guitar chords back at yourself or continuously dipping your paint brush into the palette without it going anywhere, go and read/listen to/watch/look at something completely unusual and challenging to you.
2) Your creative self needs feeding a variety of stuff. Do not listen to the same music all the time, read the same type of fiction all the time, watch the same genre of TV shows all the time.
If I were to listen exclusively to raucous indie folk all the time, what would all my songs sound like? That’s right, Mumford & Sons.
You wouldn’t eat only takeaway pizza, every meal of every day, and expect to be healthy. (Well, I hope not!)
4 – Reduce your background anxiety
One of the things I did notice as a teenager was that I wrote the most songs when I was bored. At the time, I hypothesised that, based on the idea that ‘boredom’ constituted a period of time in which I felt little or no emotion, the less I felt the more I wrote.
Later on I realised that this was wrong. It was, in fact, periods when I felt the least stressed or anxious when I wrote the most. Feeling or emotion was fine – good even – as long as it wasn’t some logistical or practical dissatisfaction with my life at the time.
Furthermore, these periods saw me write better songs – presumably because I was detached from my own mundane problems, and able to write about deeper, more relatable emotions or stories.
Emotional wellbeing is the central theme running through my articles. Different people have different methods, and I will describe my personal method for tackling background anxiety in more detail in a future article. To summarise, it constitutes these broad steps:
1) Identifying anxiety and bringing it to the forefront of my mind
2) Cataloguing these into short-term priorities and non-priorities
3) Accepting that they exist and that it’s ok not to solve them in the short term, if at all (observation without evaluation)
This process dramatically increased my flow of new songs idea, because it cleared a path in my mind through which these new ideas could travel safely, without threat from any self-doubt or diversion.
5 – Avoid thinking of your audience whilst you create
I was searching through Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to find a passage I vaguely remembered about the impossibility of being a great artist without financial security; this was going to illustrate my previous point about creation free from anxiety, but I couldn’t find what I wanted. Instead, I came across this gem of a quote from Woolf:
‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’
I think this introduces my fifth and final point nicely. If you want to create more, it really helps to avoid thinking of the reception or response of your audience. It can only slow you down, as it opens you up to self-doubt and ‘what ifs’.
I should specify: I’m not debating the effect of considering your audience during the creative process on the quality of your creation.
I am merely stating that, if you want to increase your flow of ideas, it helps to detach yourself from how those ideas will be received.
Hopefully this article has given you (a balanced diet of) food for thought – please comment below with your own tips, experiences, questions, disagreements, etc!