Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad songs

My brother Scott Crawford is a musician, and the other day he was telling me that while he has more free time than ever, lately he can’t seem to write any good songs. Sometimes the whole process seems so overwhelming that he can't even pick up his guitar. I told Scott that I’ve come across this situation many times in my writing. His problem is he's trying to write good songs.

If there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that you should never set out to write something good. It's this line of thinking that kept me from writing fiction for most of my life. In the past, I never set out with the simple goal of finishing a story no matter how bad it was. I always tried to conjure up a great plot, or unique characters, or clever lines, and then I'd quit because it all seemed too damn hard. I used to sit around and say, I want to be a writer, but I can't think of anything interesting to write. I didn’t realize that I should've been penning short stories about a guy who couldn't write, or churning out haiku about dog poop -- whatever. If I'd done that, I'd have hundreds of stories by now. Most of them would be atrocious, sure, but there'd be a few gems in there too. And think of all the practice I would have had.

You have to be willing to write what Anne Lamott calls "really, really shitty first drafts." Write the dumbest story or song you can think of, but write it. Maybe you’ll use parts of it; maybe you’ll use none of it. Maybe you use it just to entertainment your friends at 2:00 a.m. (I'm thinking of a few of Scott's more entertaining songs). But, over time, if you keep at it, you'll come up with enough pieces to craft a decent song. You may decide you like the guitar riff on that stupid song you wrote about your roommate who never does the dishes. Or the intro to that preposterous song about manatees. Or the unusual chord that came to you serendipitously, mid-song, that you'd never have thought of had you just been sitting there cold, trying to think up an unusual chord.

I've played guitar for years, and I've never written a single complete song. I've written lyrics, choruses, hooks and chord progressions, but never a song I'd consider finished. That's because I never gave myself permission to finish a bad song. I always assumed I needed to have the whole idea of a good song in my head before writing it. But this is all wrong.

We need permissions, but we also need boundaries. This is where Scott's excess free time (and mine) can be a hindrance. We all need rules and deadlines. If someone said here's a guitar, you have two weeks to come up with a great song, most of us would be paralyzed. We'd spend two weeks fretting about coming up with a masterpiece and probably give up. But if someone said, you have 30 minutes, write a dumb song about a stapler, we'd probably surprise ourselves. In fact, I have done this exercise many times with my friend Daniel. Now, those songs were usually made up in 30 seconds after consuming large quantities of alcohol around a campfire, but I bet if we'd just written down parts of those ridiculous songs, we'd have enough for an album.

The point is, if you spent 30 minutes a day writing bad songs, you’d end up with a lot of terrible songs, but you’re likely to have several good ones in there as well, or at least parts of good ones. And the best thing is, you're getting practice, learning to improvise, and soon you will be able to sit down and write a decent song off the bat.

I can't praise this tool enough. I use it almost every day. When I have to write a scene and I don't know where to start, I just start writing -- anything. I'll say something like, "this is the scene where the character finds out X… and it makes him angry so he does something about it… what if he did this.” 

I keep my pen moving the whole time (I've been writing a lot by hand these days).

“…and the character is limping from hurting his ankle in the last chapter and when he looks at his ankle he realizes he needs new shoes... but he's poor... now he’s lamenting that he should’ve chosen a new line of work...

and Bam! I'm in the scene and my pen doesn't stop moving for ten pages. Next thing I know I’m in places I didn't know existed and my characters are doing things I didn't expect and certainly couldn't have imagined before I started writing. The scene unfolds, simply because my hand is moving, because my creative self is warmed up, because I’m open to it.

So, if you want to write, whether it's fiction or music, just start writing. Write something ludicrous. Write a song about how much you suck and how you're a loser because you can't write anything good. Beck did just that, and it launched his entire career:

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?


  1. Do you read Found magazine? Even a very very poorly written song can become a thing of beauty....errr...booty?

  2. Oh and I want nothing more than to hear those stapler songs that you and Daniel wrote....why am I not surprised? Also I think this practice you mention can be good for life stuff - not that writing isn't life stuff. OMG bed time.

  3. Such great advice! In so many things the artistry comes from the practice.

  4. your brothers songs are great!!! does he have a cd??? plus, he looks kinda hot!

  5. Bro, did you write this comment yourself?

  6. Brian, all I can say is: "may I please, please, please have another stick of gum, 'cause I really, really, really want another stick of gum". Greatest lyric of all time (that we came up with together).

  7. nice post - always wanted to write, but was always deathly afraid to at the same time