Songwriting: Things I Learned from FAWM, Part 2

FAWMFAWM is February Album Writing Month, a monthlong songwriting and collaborating challenge hosted at During this year’s FAWM I learned some things about myself and my writing process. Here are some of the things I learned.

Though I’ve been writing songs for well over a decade, I’m not sure I ever had a set method for doing it. A lot of the ones I like the most came more or less fully formed after writing them in my head in a quiet moment, and got revised after they were already complete. Some are the results of writing exercises or self-challenges, and I’ve also experimented with the progressive story form that I learned in Pat Pattison’s great songwriting class (Coursera/Berklee Online).

This time through the FAWM challenge, with the end goal of writing more or less a song a day, without thinking much about it, I came at each song from whatever approach worked that day. Some were simply finishing up half-finished songs from my notebook, some were sprung fully formed and had a chorus added, some were the result of word association exercises, some were distilled from a page or two of free writing on a topic or title. I don’t think I favored any method, and I definitely didn’t force any particular method, which I feel bodes well in the future, knowing I can do this different ways and end up at the same place.

One thing I found I struggled with is choruses, and titles. I think that comes from the same place, which is that I like to write from a place of specific ambiguity, meaning I like writing in a way that it sounds like it’s about one thing but is possibly about another. I don’t like to write shallow lyrics that can only be interpreted one way. And so I end up getting stuck a bit with titles and choruses, because they thrust home the intent of the song. I know it’s easy enough to make the title the chorus, plenty of great songs do that (Pour Some Sugar on Me, Poker Face, Take the Long Way Home), and there are plenty of great songs where the title doesn’t appear in the song at all, let alone the chorus (Enter Sandman, AEnima). And of course, songs with no chorus at all, which is not uncommon in the music I tend to listen to (Tool, Kyuss).

One bit of methodology that I observed in myself and then began consciously using was that I prefer to write my rough drafts in pen in a notebook, then I transcribe it into the computer. During that transcription, the song may change slightly, as I see how words line up and may be better rearranged or substituted. I know also that when I get the songs put to music, they are likely to change again slightly, depending on their arrangement and singability, if that’s a word. I learned to enjoy the opportunity to tweak as I transcribed, which added a little bit of freedom to the written versions as they solidified into what I know now are not final drafts, just final rough drafts.

Part of the moral here is simply not being precious with the creations. Nothing is final till it’s recorded. This is one of the reasons I use cheap school notebooks to write in. I got that tip from the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Each notebook then has a personality and even maybe a time period associated with it, and you’re never afraid to write trash in them. Those lovely bound vellum paper books, they never get used, not by me anyway. They feel too formal, too final, too expectant and imposing.

I ended February with 21 completed sets of lyrics. I had stopped at 20 and then wrote one more on the last day because it just came to me, and I was just in that frame of mind. Once you open the door, sometimes things just come through it unbidden, unprompted. But not unwanted.

The final tally was 6 songs from previous WIP, 3 from titles I’d saved, and, to me the surprising part, 12 completely new songs from whatever well I tapped into. It wasn’t 30, but it’s 21 more songs than I had in January. They should last till next February. My last two releases were songs I wrote last FAWM so I know it’s a gift that keeps giving. And I learned a ton just going through the process.

Here’s a weird thing. I went back reread all of the songs I came up with this month. I’m pretty pleased with the majority of them. But already I feel disconnected from them, like did I really write those? Where did they come from? And kind of marveling at how different they are despite my feeling like I was in a rut somewhere halfway through.

Are they all great lyrics? No. But I kept a standard, I only wrote what I thought I might want to record. I didn’t write any songs like

Here’s a Tuesday song
I hope it’s not too long
Here’s my Tuesday song
I want to finish strong

Plenty of that already. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the air gets a little thin as February winds down.

FAWM is great fun. Everyone has their own way of doing it, my way is currently to use it as a kick in the pants to focus and get some writing done. As February approached I even held off writing just to have the extra juice when FAWM rolled around. Others make full songs, or demos anyway, and collaborate with each other and just have fun, which is what this is all supposed to be about anyway.

Read part one here.

My FAWM profile is here:

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Songwriting: Things I Learned from FAWM, Part 1

FAWM is February Album Writing Month, a monthlong songwriting and collaborating challenge hosted at The idea is that in the 28 days of February, you are challenged to write 14 songs and, at the end, will have an album’s worth of new music. This was my third year doing it and, frustrated with my previous years’ production (7 and 9 songs respectively), decided to set the bar much higher. My goal was a song a day, but no less than 20. I was shooting for 30, in fact. I didn’t say this at the outset, in case declaring it publicly had some effect on me, and it would have. I felt it the second I said I had 18 completed. At that moment I stopped writing for a few days. More on that in a bit.

During this year’s FAWM I learned some things about myself and my writing process. And honestly, that was the real goal. Here are some of the things I learned.

1. I can absolutely write a song or more a day, even with a busy schedule. Lyrics, that is. I can do it if that’s all I focus on, and if I’m not too precious about the outcome. This part is key. I start a lot of songs. I have a lot of ‘song seeds’ as I call them, either titles or phrases or fragments or even whole verses and choruses of unfinished songs, and now I have even more. What having a goal and a deadline did for me is to say okay, instead of stopping and thinking I’ll someday come back and finish this, just finish it and see where it goes. It doesn’t have to be perfect or phenomenal, it just has to be done.

2. A song can be anything. It can literally be one word, or one line, repeated or not, to music. It can be a pages-long poem. It can have choruses or not; it can have the typical verse-prechorus-chorus structure or not; it can take any form, really, and literally be about anything at all. However, I did find that without the context of music, I was strongly inclined to write something *songlike*, which meant at the very least incorporating some repetition, rhyme, structure of some sort, even if that was forced. On the other hand, setting boundaries and limitations generally helps more than it hurts. But to submit something written and call it a song, to me meant making it at least read like it could be sung.

3. I might be chorus-impaired. Many of the things I spontaneously write could be choruses, but I make them verses because they’re meaty. And because I try to write with some deliberate ambiguity, I find I struggle a bit with concrete titles, and titles are often what the chorus is, repeated. Example: I wrote a song in the backyard full of imagery and a little out of my normal style. It resonated with someone on the FAWM site to the extent that he was compelled to set it to music, and when it came back, he had taken out my chorus and put in something he wrote that was immeasurably better and turned it into a proper song. So I’m rethinking my approach to choruses. And collaborative writing.

4. I can only do one thing well at a time. During this month long period I wrote. I wrote a lot. I only wrote words. I barely practiced guitar, I barely practiced singing, I wrote no actual music and came up with no riffs. So yes, I can be a prolific writer if that’s all I focus on. Now I’m looking forward to a period of focusing on other things.

5. Here’s maybe the biggest takeaway. My ability to write is often silenced by the editor over my shoulder, who is always standing there as ideas form, saying no, that won’t work, that’s too ___, try again, stop. In giving myself the freedom to write for quantity with only the habit rather than intention of quality, in giving myself the deadline, the focus and the goal to complete on average a song a day, I figured out how to temporarily silence the editor. I let him read what I wrote after it was finished but not before. I also felt him return with full strength when I took a short break from daily writing, his voice telling me I couldn’t write about this or that. I have to trust myself to finish a piece, knowing that it gets written first in pen, then revised during transcription to computer, and eventually revised again when set to music, and so doesn’t need heavyhanded editing in its first form. So relax already. Just get it done and move on. Writing is rewriting, after all.

I did feel like I got into a rut with my own language and style. The body of my work over the last decade is varied enough that if you read it all you would not be entirely sure the songs all sprung from the same well. But in writing quickly and in concentrated fashion, I felt like my language and form began to take on more of a habitual manifestation than a creative one. So I stepped back and read lyricists I admire (Cornell, Keenan, Staley) until I refreshed my method a little. This is just a self-observation.

I did have an epiphany that I don’t know what to do with yet. It happened around the time of the collaboration, and was simply this: if a song can be about anything, and can take more or less any form, why don’t I ever feel inclined to write songs that might be for someone else to perform or record? I write songs that I think I might record, and reject ideas that don’t seem like something I would ever do myself. But why? Why not just write songs about whatever springs to mind, write them well, and run them up someone else’s flagpole? I don’t know, I just never have. Well, once or twice. I have a few songs in my back pocket that will never be Mojo’s Army or The Answer is None songs, that I don’t know what to do with. Perhaps one day they’ll find a home.

Read part two here.

My FAWM profile is here:

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