It’s time to put an end to one of the worst and most common excuses for why songwriters have trouble writing songs: “I can’t find anything to write about.”
Here’s why this excuse isn’t valid.
There are literally an endless amount of topics you can write about at any given moment; so many, in fact, that you could spend every second of your life writing songs about each one and you’d never make a dent in the stack. There are big, broad, and universally relatable ideas you could weave into your songs, like finding love or losing it, friendship and family, travel or being inspired by nature. Or how about the countless personal experiences you’ve accumulated over your lifetime that are unique only to you? That time you drove 37 hours across the country to see your long-distance boyfriend only for him to break up with you just after you got there. Many tragic, humorous, or bizarre personal experiences can inspire your songs.
Then there are news stories, history, technology, culture, climate change, fashion, sports, etc. The list is literally endless. You can even write music about being bored, and believe it or not, there are some pretty good songs that are about boredom, listlessness, and malaise. And what about creating fictional characters or places to write about? Music is an opportunity to make things up and talk about worlds that are real or imagined exactly how you want to.
The problem is never a lack of things to write about, but not knowing what to write about or how to get started. Don’t skip over this point. It’s crucial.
Whether you’re sitting in traffic or having an argument with a family member, it makes sense why you’d want to tune out. A lot of daily life can be boring or even painful. Plus, if you’re a “normal” person living a “normal” life, what can your limited perspective offer when it comes to lyrical creativity? A lot, actually. Being human and learning to write about your experiences is more than half the battle. You will always have things to write songs about if you pay attention to your life.
This doesn’t mean that you’re going to write an amazing song about your drive home from work or arguing with your spouse about buying sheets. Some personal experiences are perfect fodder for songs, while others can be best used to fuel creativity and curiosity. That drive home from work can be used to imagine a fictional landscape to write about. A phrase shouted by your spouse in an argument can inspire a song title or set of lyrics.
Living deeply and paying attention
The trick to finding lyrical inspiration is to engage with your life, not to retreat from it. Every moment is valuable, every opportunity is important. This philosophy might sound wildly unrealistic and deliriously optimistic, but just go with it. You don’t need to interact meaningfully with every emotion or situation in your life that you encounter, but you need to engage with some of them if you’re looking for song ideas. If you’re new to songwriting or are stuck in a rut, you might need to make an intentional effort to pay attention to your life to find inspiration. For other songwriters, doing this comes naturally. It all depends on your unique identity and life experience.
Another crucial aspect of paying attention to your life is having a life that’s worth paying attention to. If you’re a talented and hardworking songwriter that spends day after day holed up in your home studio perfecting musical ideas, that’s great, but you might be missing something crucial. Like all art, music imitates and processes life. If you’re not living a deep and meaningful life, your music will suffer for it. Don’t forget the importance of relationships, nature, humor, grief, and fear. Don’t forget to be human. This might mean skipping band practice to travel or taking a few months off of touring to be with your family. Some songwriters have a hard time authentically connecting to people with their music because their priorities are askew. Music celebrates and interprets life, so make sure you show up to yours.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.