Guest Blogger: Jeff Finlin
Singer/songwriter Jeff Finlin shares some great advice for writers about getting unstuck. Although he wrote this with songwriters in mind, his ideas work for all types of writers. Enjoy!
When I’m writing, there are so many traps I get into when trying to complete a song. At first, the inspiration just flows, and on rare occasions, everything falls on to the page like a glittering vision of brilliance, so great and awe-inspiring, that the moon in the night sky actually shifts. I step back and wonder how on earth had that been so easy?
But most of the time, my initial inspiration turns into a slog, equivalent of building The Great Wall of China. All too often I abandon the idea for simpler things, like pooper scooping the back forty or scraping egg off the morning dishes. But when push comes to shove and the urge to complete a song starts nagging at me like an old Irish biddy, I’ve got to get myself unstuck and (good or bad) finish the damn thing, so I can move on to more delightful pleasures.
Here are a few tools I look at:
I’ve had snippets of songs and music stuck in my head and on paper for years. I come back and play them again and again like I’m flipping through a high school year book wondering “if I go back to that little beauty, could I score with her?”
Most of these snippets will never amount to anything, that’s the sad fact. They are snippets that led me to somewhere else. That’s Ok. Still, I keep coming back to them, hoping that maybe some day they will turn into something concrete. I try and not spend too much time with them by myself, as the longer they are kicking around, the more detached from them I become. Most of the time, all I’m doing is recycling something I’ve moved past years ago.
Lyrics are always easier for me. So I have a lot of them lying around.. Recently, I started an exercise in co-writing. I started sending my unused lyrics to other writer friends, and magic be magic, I got some completed songs back in the mail. If I ever think something is too precious to share with someone else I’m screwed. (We’re only as sick as our secrets right?)
I have found myself holding back from incorporating others into my work at times - either out of self judgment, greediness, or a lack of trust in the world and others. Frankly, most of the time I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing myself, that I simply don’t think to ask for help.
Co-writing is always an exercise in humility because I’m completely exposed to what other people think of me and my work before it’s completed. I feel vulnerable just thinking about it. I have to get over that, though, and open myself up to criticism and scrutiny for the good of the song. I’ve never been let down by asking for that kind of help. Through my experience, I’ve come to understand that there are forces far bigger than myself at play here. I tap into those forces by incorporating the experience of others into to my work.
In Nashville, co-writing is common practice, but when you live outside of that kind of community, it can be difficult to find different songwriters to work with. I would look up songwriting clubs or groups on the internet or in your area. There are lots of songwriters out there. It just may take some digging to find them.
Just finish something and maybe someone else will like it.
Randy Weeks, in this month’s podcast, talks about running into the problem of starting to judge a song before it’s actually completed. He’ll be in the middle of writing something and all of a sudden the thought comes into his mind that what he is working on is crap. (Before he’s even done with it!) He said that he has to change his way of thinking in order to get out of his head and into action.
“I finish the song by thinking to myself that the song I’m working on might not necessarily be for me to sing,” he says.
Taking the attitude that maybe someone else will like the song and sing it gives him the sense of purpose to go ahead and complete the song. He said nine times out of ten, in hindsight he comes to love the song and never has a problem singing it. It’s really about getting yourself out of the way and completing the action any way you can, despite what you might think about it.
Look at the song like a puzzle.
Sometimes in order to get beyond my self judgment, and the overwhelming task of completing and editing a song, I have to look at my piece of work like a puzzle. I have to turn it into a game. I sit back and look at what’s there and try to figure out what I need to fill in the blanks in order to complete the picture.
Firstly though, I need to establish that I’m headed for a completed idea. Am I looking to expand the concept of my idea or am I looking to rein it in to where it’s more understandable? Being the type of writer I am, I‘m usually trying to make my abstract thinking more understandable. I just think that way. I love to play with words to the point where no one knows what the hell I’m talking about anymore. But, that’s just me. I have to go back and ask myself through the process, “what am I really trying to say here?” or ”what does this really mean?”
If I have the general idea and my meaning and direction are concise, then a part of the puzzle might be to just throw in a line that has no meaning whatsoever. I might throw in something that just sounds good rolling off the tongue, or that creates an image that makes one ponder. If my song is serious I might say something funny or vice-versa.
Sometimes I have to come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t matter. I realize that if I continue to struggle with a line here and a line there, constantly beating my head against the wall, that it’s only going to make it worse. I’ve come to the realization that at some point the harder I try the more elusive my goal becomes. Perfection only comes through accepting imperfection. Sometimes the only way to unwrap my ass from the pole is to just say “screw it”.
BUT – I still have to finish the song, RIGHT?
There was an instance in a song I wrote called “Miracle Along The Way” where I was in exactly that position. I had all but the second half of the last verse. I loved the song, but I didn’t know what to say to complete it. So I just started recording the vocal with what I had. I opened myself up to sing and when I got to the unfinished verse I just tried to get out of the way and sing whatever was there in my subconscious. I didn’t really even know what I sang. When I went back and listened to the take my jaw dropped, as I found what had come out of my mouth was the perfect addition and conclusion to the song.
There are other dimensions to ourselves worth exploring but I find I have to be in some kind of action to discover them.
What would Elton John do??
Sometimes when I’m stuck, I have to look at what other folks might do, in order to get past my own limitations. Yes, I am limited in knowledge as well as scope. Sometimes I paint myself into a corner so deep I have to look at other people’s work and see what they might have done. I fall back on craft. The craft of other artists and writers. Usually that gets me out of my own head and I start looking at the piece of work in a different light. I’m always surprised how simple other people’s work is when I break it down. Something I thought was so profound turns out to be something like:
Oh baby baby
Oh baby baby
Oh baby baby – with a good melody.
I go back to my work and it helps me simplify it and see what makes it powerful to begin with.
Jeff Finlin is the creator of The Songwriter Chronicles and has seven albums including Ballad of a Plain Man, Alive & Retrospective Volume 1 and Epinonymous. His song Sugar Blue was featured in the film Elizabethtown.