In Belgium, I had a mystery drawer with Post-its with ideas and words that I like. On my bookshelves, I had dozens of dog-eared books with index cards between the pages, writings in the margins, and underlined sentences. I had cutouts of articles I’ve read, poems on my walls, photos of places and friends, and postcards with my favourite paintings. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to creativity. Maybe also a hoarder’s paradise.
When I started moving around, it became hard to acquire stuff – index cards got lost, books were too heavy to cart around, and I didn’t have walls to decorate with paraphernalia anymore. My bedroom was never as over-the-top as Florence Welch’s house, but looking around always filled me with inspiration. If I was feeling stuck, or couldn’t get past the terror of the blank page in my songbook, I could always start from a picture on the wall or a word in someone else’s poem.
I came up with a new system when I moved to a hostel in London, though calling it a system is probably overselling it. I started writing down phrases from books I liked, copying poems, and drying flowers in between the pages of a journal. After a while, I started taking leaflets from galleries and cutting out drawings to paste into my notebook. And in between the art I admired, I wrote my own songs, that had started from a line in a poem or an idea I got from a quote. I called it my inspiration journal.
A blank page is always daunting, but having an inspiration journal, or an inspiration nook where you keep some poetry books and lists of interesting rhymes on hand, can give you a starting point to write from. It can also encourage you to read more, go to museums once in a while, and watch more films. It can make you a better listener and reader, as well as a better songwriter. Here are some ideas on how to fill your journal and what you can do with it:
1. Fill it with poetry and interesting sentences.
Read poetry, listen closely to lyrics, study fiction. As songwriters, we are always on the lookout for beautiful turns of phrase, and unique metaphors. I find autobiographical essays a great source of inspiration, too – some of my favourite writers are Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing. But don’t just write down stuff that sounds good. Write down the words that spark your imagination. For different songwriters, that will mean different things. I’ve written down quotes about lightbulbs that didn’t work and turmeric in the kitchen because I wanted to use similar details in my own lyrics.
2. Make lists of words.
As a folk songwriter, I like telling stories in my songs. But to make them come to life, I need descriptive, meaningful words. Most of us can make do with the words in our current vocabulary, but as writers, we need to do better than that. We want to be in a place where we can choose from a pool of words that might mean the same thing, but roll of our tongues in different ways, leave a new taste in our mouths. Jimmy Webb even goes as far as to suggest we read a dictionary back-to-back.
Few of us are naturally inclined to sit and read an entire dictionary (like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for example, at fourteen hundred pages) but I will advance the argument that a writer who attempts to write prose, poetry, song lyrics or automobile advertising without a vocabulary of suitable depth is entering a tournament of wits unarmed. I will go one step further and say that if there is any intrinsic merit in curiosity then we should read at least one dictionary from aardvark to Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands).Jimmy Webb, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”
I have not attempted this yet, although I intend to read a dictionary someday. I do keep lists of interesting words I come across and original rhymes I see or think of in my notebook, though. I use them for writing lyrics, for moving the story plot along, finding unpredictable rhymes, etc.
3. Cut out paintings, paste in photographs, let a friend draw in your journal.
Writing from an image is a valuable exercise for songwriters in a rut. It can provide a change in your current songwriting process, bring imagery into stale lyrics, or evoke emotions that will make you think of a brilliant melody. I don’t often use this method because I’m not much of a visual person, but I have friends who swear by it. I recommend cutting out photos of paintings from museum or gallery leaflets, pasting in photographs, and even letting friends draw in your notebook. I have let friends do that before who weren’t good at drawing at all – it doesn’t always have to be serious, sometimes a good bit of fun is what you need.
4. Keep newspaper articles that hit a nerve.
I struggle with writing songs that are not about me, and for most people, songwriting can be a narcissistic endeavour. To challenge myself, I sometimes write about events on the outside that affect me in some way – climate change, racism, sexism, there’s enough out there to pull from. My songs about big issues often sound like pretentious crap and don’t see the light of day, but it’s the exercise that counts. I’ve found that referring to newspaper articles helps, especially the ones with personal stories that bring humanity into these grand narratives. Not long ago, I started stuffing them in my inspiration journal to use details from them in my songs. I’ll keep you updated on how well it works.
5. Write down your ideas. Obviously.
Inspiration doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes we get our own great ideas. The thing with our brain is that we forget them. I often write something down believing the idea is so good that I will remember it forever, to read it back a week later and see it for the first time. So, keep your inspiration journal at hand and write down the great lyric or the original song idea when it comes to you. Or keep index cards in your bag that you then paste into your journal. Whatever works.
This works for me, but I know that all creatives have their rituals, so please let me know if you have any other ideas!