We’ve all had this experience: You’re in a conversation. As the other person is talking, you have a thought you want to share. But when it’s your turn to talk, suddenly you can’t remember it. “Hang on a second,” you say. “It’ll come to me.” Then you think and think and think and think and… nothing comes. So you stop thinking about it. And what happens next? It pops back into your mind, almost instantly — leaping from the sub-conscious to the conscious in a flash. It feels amazing, doesn’t it?
What does this mean for songwriters?
You can use this very same magical mental process of think — think — think — pause — aha! to improve your songwriting. I’ve found that it’s particularly useful in generating song titles. It looks something like this:
First, the thinking: Let’s say you’re recalling a memory in vivid detail. Or telling a story that’s deeply personal. Maybe describing a feeling you’ve never felt before. Whatever it is, you’re applying lots of brainpower to some particular line of thought, and your mental motor is gaining steam with each successive connection. Still, it hasn’t all fallen together yet into one cohesive, succinct idea. Then when you take your mind off that subject — pausing sometimes even for just a split second — that’s when your sub-conscious serves up word, phrase, or synthesizing concept that encapsulates the whole song, aka your aha!, aka your title.
First thought, best thought
You may have heard the saying: “First thought, best thought.” That’s what I’m getting at here. To be clear, your “first thought” is not the very first idea that comes to your mind as you start thinking about a song lyric or title or topic. Instead, the “first thought” is the first fresh thought that arrives only after you’ve spend time thinking. In other words, it can only come after the pause in the think-think-think-pause-aha! process. Here’s a video that does a good job of explaining this concept from the Buddhist point of view:
How songwriter Guy Clark uses this technique
This process is something you can do both by yourself and in dialogue with others. It’s a skill you can practice to become a better songwriter. And when it comes to great songwriters, Guy Clark is one of the best. Listen to the story songwriter Ashley Monroe tells about her first co-write with Guy — and see how he instinctively engages her in the think — think — think — pause — aha! process, and how the two of them, along with John Randall, end up writing one hell of a song.
What this really all boils down to is understanding how your mind works. And more specifically, understanding how it generates creative ideas. The best part is that skill of harnessing and directing these innerworkings is something that can be learned and developed. It’s not just for the Guy Clarks and Ashley Monroes and Leonardo DaVincis and Salvador Dalis and Thom Yorkes and Jay-Zs and Frida Kahlos and Walt Whitmans of the world. It’s for you too. Thanks for reading, and happy writing!