How Stephen King Changed The Way I Write Lyrics

2018-02-09 Essay


by Alec Plowman

This year, I made a resolution to read a minimum of one book a month. I’m a writer by trade, be that articles, blogs or song lyrics, but for someone who works with words, I don’t spend nearly enough time reading them. On the recommendation of my partner, my first book of the year was Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” And boy, did she pick a doozie.

If you’re remotely serious about becoming a professional writer, you NEED to read “On Writing.” King’s common sense, no nonsense approach was a revelation, and it’s completely changed the way I think about what I do.

The book has plenty of great take-homes. I’m not going to list them all here; you should read it for yourself in its entirety. But there was one observation that felt particularly relevant to lyric writing.

Finding the “muse”

As a lyricist, I’ve wasted lots of time waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration – specifically, the idea of the muse – is mythologized in rock ‘n’ roll. The problem with waiting is that you’re not actually doing anything. Inspiration didn’t come to me very often. I’d end up with two really good sets of lyrics a year, if I was lucky, and enough X-Box achievement points to remind me I’d not been working hard enough.

Lately, I’d given up on the idea of “the muse” entirely. I figured that writing – lyrics, stories or otherwise – was just hard graft. But, in one paragraph, Stephen King made me see things in a different light:

“Don't wait for the muse… he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. Or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.”

The way King wrote it made it seem so obvious (there are many of those moments in “On Writing”). I’d been putting the cart before the horse. Inspiration doesn’t lead to great writing; writing leads to inspiration.

And, in order for that inspiration to strike, you need to be writing a lot.

Writing Goals

With that in mind, I set myself three goals for 2018 that have changed my writing for the better:

1) I devote three hours of every day, Monday to Friday, to writing.
2) I’m writing 1,000 words per day, minimum.
3) Every week, I finish a set of AWESOME lyrics that I would happily sell to a client.

Is writing about inspiration or hard work? We often think of these two things being on opposite ends of the spectrum. But the truth is, it’s both. You can’t have one without the other. Realising that is a game changer and the potential it unlocks is really exciting.

The joy of hard work

Writing every day, whether inspired or not, has resulted in some of the best lyrics I’ve written in years. This isn’t to say that the process was easy. It took a while to get going, and some of the first sets of words I wrote using this approach was truly awful (I resorted to rhyming “fire” with “pyre” in one set – that tells you how bad they were!).

But now that I’ve gotten into the routine, teasing out those ideas isn’t nearly as strenuous. These days, the ole brain noggin kicks into gear much quicker, the lines, stanzas and verses come thicker and faster and I get more joy out of writing lyrics.

Sometimes, it’s still a slog, but on those days I find myself pushing through. Even if the muse doesn’t come to visit, even if the lyrics aren’t the best I’ve ever written, I still get something useable. And, the satisfaction of having words down on the page is hugely motivating. There’s no starting from scratch every time I sit down to write, and that spurs me on to the next day, and the day after that.

If, like me, you spent 2017 worrying about whether the muse would ever visit you, then get off your sofa and put pen to paper (or fingers to keys to use a 21st century analogy). As Stephen King taught me, it’s not going to show up unless it knows where you are, so that means pounding the keyboard every day until it does.

I can guarantee that those first thousand words will be a slog. But the second thousand will be easier, the third thousand easier still. And by the twenty thousandth word, the hundred thousandth word, that muse will be coming to visit more and more.