The native dives deep into the waters of his bay, holding his breath to reach the soft pink and blue glow below. Sleek through the water, churning up no cloud to disturb the bottom, he stretches and he opens the shell. Rising to the surface, he holds it aloft and shimmering in the sun: mother of all pearls, breathing light.
Like this pearl, your best writing lies somewhere deep within. It glows in fresh, interesting colors no one ever imagined in exactly that way before. Your most important job as a writer is to master the art of diving to those deep places, for there and only there will you find your own unique writing voice.
Remember this fundamental fact: You are absolutely unique. There never was, is not now, nor ever can be anyone exactly like you. The proof lies in the vaults of your senses, where you have been storing your sense memories all your life. They have come cascading in through your senses, randomly and mostly unnoticed, sinking to the bottom. Learn to dive for them. When you recover one, when you rise with it to the surface and hold it aloft, you will not only surprise your onlookers, you will surprise yourself.
Much of lyric writing is technical. The stronger your skills are, the better you can express your creative ideas. You must spend time on the technical areas of lyric writing, like rhyme, rhythm, contrast, balance, and repetition. Here, I want to focus on the most important part of all creative writing, and therefore surely of lyric writing: the art of deep diving—finding your own unique voice and vision.
The best diving technique I know is object writing. It’s direct and simple. You arbitrarily pick an object—a real object—and focus your senses on it. Treat the object as a diving board to launch you inward to the vaults of your senses.
Although you understand your five senses, you could probably stand a few exercises to sharpen them, especially the four you don’t normally use when you write. If I asked you to describe the room you’re in, your answer would be primarily, if not completely, visual. Try spending a little time alone with each sense. What’s there? How does the kitchen table smell? How would the rug feel if you rubbed your bare back on it? How big does the room sound? (What if it were twice as big? Half as big?) How would the table taste if you licked it? No, it’s not silly. Remember this, it is important: The more senses you incorporate into your writing, the better it breathes and dances.
You have two additional senses that may need a little explanation:
1. Organic sense is your awareness of inner bodily functions, for example, heartbeat, pulse, muscle tension, stomachaches, cramps, and breathing. Athletes are most keenly focused on this sense, but you use it constantly, especially in responsive situations. I’ve been sitting here writing too long. I need a backrub.
2. Kinesthetic sense is, roughly, your sense of relation to the world around you. When you get seasick or drunk, the world around you blurs—like blurred vision. When the train you’re on is standing still and the one next to it moves, your kinesthetic sense goes crazy. Children spin, roll down hills, or ride on tilt-a-whirls to stimulate this sense. Dancers and divers develop it most fully—they look onto a stage or down to the water and see spatial possibilities for their bodies. It makes me dizzy just thinking about it.
Pick an object at random and write about it. Dive into your sense memories and associations surrounding the object. Anything goes, as long as it is sense-bound. Write freely. No rhythm, no rhyme. No need for complete sentences. Use all seven senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, organic, and kinesthetic.
Here’s an example of the above exercise:
I must have been four. Memories from that time are a rare species—lobbing in like huge bumblebees on transparent wings, buzzing old Remington shavers torn free from those thick and brittle wires tangled in webs under our porch where I loved to crawl and hide; black snaking wires disappearing up through floors and humming into wall and socket. I still hear them.I hid under the back porch, smell of damp summer earth cool under my hands, ducking, scrunching my shoulders tight to avoid the rusty nails waiting patiently above for my back or skull to forget them. The tingling along my back and neck kept reminding me, don’t stand up.Under the back porch, a place tinged with danger and smelling of earth, the air tastes faintly of mold and hollyhocks twining around the trellises that I see only the bottoms of, speckled gold by the shafts of sun slipping through high elm branches in the backyard, weaving shadows like Grandma’s lace dresser doilies. When I squint, I can blur the sunlight into a bridge of green-gold. Crouching there fetal and content, I could feel Mom above me, could hear her high heels tap-tapping.
No one else has ever associated exactly those experiences with “back porch,” yet anyone can understand them, relate to them. Because they are drawn from my senses, they will stimulate your senses. You will draw from your own sense reservoir, making my experiences yours. They take on a new look traveling from me into you. They get filtered through your senses and memories. They add to your uniqueness.
Look at the sense information in “Back Porch”:
Sight: huge bumblebees on transparent wings; thick and brittle wires tangled in webs; black snaking wires disappearing up through floors; rusty nails; hollyhocks twining around the trellises I see only the bottoms of; speckled gold by shafts of sun; high elm branches in the backyard; weaving shadows like Grandma’s lace dresser doilies; when I squint, I can blur the sunlight into a bridge of green-gold
Hearing: buzzing old Remington shavers; humming into wall and socket; I still hear them; could hear her high heels tap-tapping
Smell: smell of damp summer earth; smelling of earth
Taste: the air tastes faintly of mold and hollyhocks
Touch: thick and brittle wires; damp summer earth cool under my hands; tingling along my back and neck
Organic: crawl; crouching; ducking; scrunching shoulders tight; stand up quick; tingling along my back and neck; when I squint; crouching there fetal and content
Kinesthetic: lobbing in; tingling along my back and neck kept reminding me; avoid rusty nails waiting patiently above for my back or skull to forget them; don’t stand up; I could feel Mom above me
TEN AND ONLY TEN MINUTES—A.M.
Object writing works best when you do it for ten minutes, first thing in the morning. Yes, I know—I’m brain-dead then, too. But you can always find ten minutes just by getting up a tad earlier, and the effort will pay huge dividends.
Two beings inhabit your body: you, who stumbles groggily to the coffeepot to start another day, and the writer in you, who could remain blissfully asleep and unaware for days, months, even years as you go on about your business. If your writer is anything like mine, “lazy,” even “slug” is too kind. Always wake up your writer early, so you can spend the day together. It’s amazing the fun the two of you can have watching the world go by. Your writer will be active beside you, sniffing and tasting, snooping for metaphors. It’s like writing all day without moving your fingers.
If, instead, you waited until evening to wake your writer up, you’d float through the day alone, missing the wonderful worlds your writer sees. Old lazybones, meanwhile, would get up late and retire early.
Guarantee yourself ten minutes and only ten minutes. Set a timer, and stop the second it goes off. You’re much more likely to sit down to a clearly limited commitment. But be sure you always stop at the buzzer. If you get on a roll some morning and let yourself write for thirty minutes, guess what you’ll say the next morning:“Ugh, I don’t have the energy to do it this morning (remembering how much energy you spent yesterday), and besides, I’ve already written my ten minutes for the next two days. I’ll start again Thursday.”
That’s how most people stop morning writing altogether. Any good coach will tell you that more is gained practicing a short time each day than doing it all at once. Living with it day by day keeps writing on your mind and in your muscles.
Soon, something like this will happen: At minute six, you’ll really get on a roll, diving, plunging, heading directly for the soft pink and blue glow below when beep! The timer goes off. Just stop. Wherever you are. Stop. Writus interruptus. All day, your frustrated writer will grumble, “Boy, what I might have said if you hadn’t stopped me.” Guaranteed, when you sit down the next morning, you will dive deeper faster. The bottom in three minutes flat. Next time, one minute. Finally, instantly. That is your goal: immediate access—speed and depth. So much information and experience tumbles by every minute of your life, the faster you can explore each bit, the faster you can sample the next. But, of course, speed doesn’t count without depth. The ten-minute absolute limit is the key to building both. And it guarantees a manageable task.
Object writing prepares you for whatever other writing you do. It is not a substitute.
Forget it. There’s no reason to stay loyal to the object that sets you on your path. Your senses are driving the bus—you can go wherever they take you. The object you begin with might only be your starting point. Full right turns or leaps to other places are not only allowed, but encouraged. Think of it as sense-bound free association. If you try to stay focused on the object you start with for the whole time, you may get bored with object writing after a few weeks. Let your hot morning shower with its rolling steam take you to thick clouds hanging overhead, to the taste of rain, to stomping through a puddle, splashing water up so it sprays like fireworks, to the boom in your chest and the smell of gunpowder and the taste of cotton candy.
Anywhere you go is okay. Try bouncing off of each sense-image to wherever else it might take you, using each new sense-image as a sort of pivot to the next, a kind of sensual free association. Always with your senses, all seven of them. All within ten minutes. Don’t worry about story lines or “how it really happened.” No rhyme or rhythm. Not even full sentences. No one needs to understand where you are or how you got there. Save more focused writing for your songs.
Of course, instead of association, you certainly can stay within the framework of a story or event if you like, like “Back Porch” above, but let your senses drive the bus. As you remember the events, remember with your senses. How did the park smell? Were children giggling over by the duck pond? Italian sausages with steaming onions? Let us experience it too by engaging our senses; stimulate us to see, smell, taste, hear, etc., to really experience the story for ourselves.
Even more important, your listeners will each fill your sense-bound words with their own sense memories:
I remember stomping through puddles on Duluth Avenue in St. Paul when I was seven. I had a yellow slicker that smelled like my rubber boots, and my boot buckles jingled when I walked.
Where were you? Not on Duluth Avenue, I’ll bet.
In this way, sense-bound language involves you; my words are filled with your experiences. So practicing using sense-bound writing is a good thing. It’s a power-ful tool for involving your listeners in your song. It will often generate song ideas or interesting lines.
Object writing is about showing, not telling. It is an exercise, like a morning workout, that you use to stay in shape. And it happens to be really fun and challenging. It’s not only worth the effort, it’s a pleasure to do. You should stay with it, religiously, for at least six weeks. The record so far is Polk Shelton of Austin, Texas, who did his object writing every morning for five years straight. His writing skyrocketed.