How to Write What You Know

How to Write What You Know

For years, I struggled to come up with lyrics for songs. By age 25, I had penned a few pieces in states of emotional turmoil, but they were infrequent. I wanted a way to write songs more reliably, which proved elusive. At one point, I joined a poetry circle, and there was one piece of advice that I received often:

Write What you Know

Every time I heard this, I broke out in cold sweats. I was a bumpkin from a boring desert resort town. What the hell did I know? And I'm not the only writer that's ever felt that way--fantasy author George R.R. Martin had similar sentiments regarding this problematic dictum.

In an interview, George R.R. Martin gave clarity to this advice. To write what you know is to write "what you know in terms of emotional truth."

Bruce Springsteen also said something to this effect:

Every song has a piece of you in it, because just general regret, love. You have to basically zero in on the truth of those particular emotions.

Bruce Springsteen

The idea of "Emotional Truth" is at the heart of writing what you know. There are profound truths to the emotional aspects of our particular experience ---- songwriting is the practice of trawling the depths of our experience for those truths.

So how do we move on this advice? The words of George R.R. Martin and The Boss are inspiring yet far from practical. How do we search our souls for this deep emotional content? And, more importantly, how do we turn those experiences into lyrics?

It turns out that those are two different problems. And unless you are unusually gifted, you probably need a system. Over 15 years, I've devised a system that helps me:

  • Be emotionally honest with myself (honesty means Truth.)

  • Dig into the details of my experience.

  • Discover words and concepts that bring those experiences to life.

  • Plan for the obstacles I may encounter as I write lyrics.

By chunking the writing process, I've been able to write what I know because I am constantly figuring out what I know. Nobody knows nothing. Often, the problem is that we are too close to our experiences. The traumatic, incredible, or strange events of our life seem mundane because "it's just my life."

There are 4 processes that help me gain distance from my memories to see them anew:

  • Journaling

  • Object Writing

  • Mind Mapping

  • Rhyme Shopping

Implementing these practices will make your songwriting sessions less stressful and more fruitful. You will build a standing reserve of material that you can always come back to. When you hit a snag, you'll be able to consult yourself for input. Most importantly, you'll know that what you write is true.

1. Keeping a Journal

Keeping a journal is one of the best things you can do for your songwriting. The benefit of journaling is that you have a place to be honest with the world. And I don't mean that trivially--we live complex lives, and if we said everything we thought, we'd be thrown out of society in a hot second.

Your journal is where you can say the things that might offend, concern, or upset other people. You can let loose your feelings before you work through them. The most important thing is to be bold in acknowledging that you have those feelings.

It can be tempting to censor yourself. No one likes to admit that they could have spiteful, dark, or inconsiderate thoughts. The reality is that you do, and so does everyone else. One of the cornerstone concepts of Buddhism is that we are not our thoughts. So don't be afraid to get raw; if you censor yourself, you're lying.

Once you have gained comfort in expressing your emotional truth, you'll be able to tell others through characters. I recently used a journal entry to write a song for my friend's concept album. He wanted a song about a guy who felt he hadn't achieved what he wanted in life. His character is a man who works as a gas station attendant, gorges himself on fountain drinks, and seeks solace from his divorce by playing flight simulators. This is not at all a life I am familiar with.

However, I do know what it feels like to be frustrated with a job that was supposed to be temporary. I do know what a failed relationship feels like. I know what it's like because I have the journal entries to remind me how I've felt at my worst. Using these entries, I created a character profile and wrote a paragraph of "dialogue" that this character would actually speak. I gave voice to the song's main character before trying to write the song.

Don't be disappointed if these journal entries don't turn into songs right away--sometimes they might. Often they won't. But if you never write this stuff down, and more importantly, if you never allow yourself to be honest, your songs will strain for authenticity when they don't have to. Paul Simon has a great quote about this:

"It's very helpful to start with something that's true. If you start with something that's false, you're always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin."

Paul Simon

It may be scary, but your emotional depth is what people want most from you. Your listener wants you to put words to the things they feel but cannot say. The only way to accomplish this is by being honest.

2. Object Writing

I was browsing the subreddit "Songwriting 101" and came across a post that caught my attention. One Redditor was frustrated because they had been keeping a journal and reading songwriting books, but they could not turn that raw material into lyrics. This is the type of problem that object writing can help you solve.

Object writing is the practice of painting a picture with words. Pat Pattison lays this out in his book, "Writing Better Songs." The trick is to do it! Sit down with a notebook or whatever you capture your ideas with, and then write for 10 minutes about an object. In writing about this object, try to engage every sense you have. How does the thing feel, sound, taste, smell --- what does it look like? Use your words like a camera. Pat Pattison has a prompt generator that you can practice this with, but I'm going to suggest something else.

Go back to that raw emotional content from your journal and pick things from those entries. Try to do this with emotions. For instance, if you are reading an entry about sadness, try to describe the sensory experience of being in that state. It's okay if you drift away from that starting point--that is natural. The fact is that you are building your skills in showing as opposed to telling. And it's showing that makes excellent songwriting.

Just to prove it to you, I've included two sets of lyrics:

Here's a telling version:

This high is my subsistence

I know it's killing me

Every day is just the same

It's fueling my existence

Nobody in Particular

Here's the Showing version:

Needle work the way, never you betray

Life of death becoming clearer

Pain monopoly, ritual misery

Chop your breakfast on a mirror

Master of Puppets, By Metallica

It's pretty clear which one wins the day. Show your listener the scene for maximum impact.

A program like Obsidian, Notion, or Apple's notes app can be a great way to create inroads to mine these exercises when necessary. The tagging features in these apps allow you to return to things that came up in your 10-minute writing period to create a searchable imagery database. Everyone says to steal like an artist, but hardly anyone ever tells you how to steal from yourself. This practice will allow you to lay the groundwork for more lyrics.

3. Mind Mapping.

If object writing shows us how to use words as a camera, then mind mapping is how we will put film in that camera. Simple words are adequate most of the time. That doesn't mean there aren't going to be times when a 10-dollar word saves your bacon. One of my favorite songwriting stories is when Paddy McAloon's (of Prefab Sprout) drummer challenged him to write a song using the word antiques. Here is the result:

Antiques !

Every other sentiments an antique

As obsolete as warships in the Baltic

I'm driving on a straight road it never alters

And the radio serenades but doesn't falter

Faron Young, by Prefab Sprout

It's not every day that you're going to use words like sentiments, obsolete, Baltic, or antiques. That said, it helps to have those things at the ready when you need them.

Mind mapping is how you can start to build a vocabulary that enriches your songs and gives you options for writing great lines. The idea here isn't necessarily to search for the most obscure and polysyllabic words but to create a map of words that jump off the page and grab you.

I like to start with a central theme written in the middle of a paper (or procreate canvas, in my case) and then draw spokes off that central theme. I might arrive at words like limerence, adulation, adore, and infatuation if the theme is love. You can also include cliches or idioms in this mind map (falling head over heels, take my breath away, apple of my eye, etc.)

Mind mapping aims to capture associated ideas, terms, and concepts that relate to your song's subject. If you want to supercharge this, try searching your object writing database for metaphors or similes that you invented so that you can include those exercises or use them as starting points. Don't worry about being tacky or inventive here. By writing down all the predictable stuff before you've put it down in a line, you'll see opportunities to subvert those words or phrases you've heard a million times before.

The cool thing about these mind maps is that you can always return to them. When you're struggling to find the next line, dipping into an old mind map may be just the inspiration you need. Having these types of ideas cached and waiting ensures you will never be stuck with a half-written song. Even if you finish a song and it stinks (and many will), it's a finished song. Some people will say quality over quantity; in this case, they couldn't be more wrong.

4. Rhyme Shopping

The internet is rife with people telling you that songs don't need to rhyme. And the internet is half right. Songs don't *need* to rhyme, but often people refuse to incorporate rhyme into their songs because they feel they don't have a knack for it. Hardly anyone does! Rhyme is something that you can plan and iterate on. The benefit of using rhyme in your songwriting is that it will give your lines forward motion independent of what the music is doing. Rhyme speeds up the line.

When I started writing songs, I would set up my rhyme scheme, write a line, and then rack my brain desperately to come up with some rhyme for my previous line. Often this yielded a trite and uninspired follow-up. The kind of rhymes that are familiar to the point of being unusable. Approaching rhyme like this causes all sorts of problems. If it doesn't stop you in your tracks, it may yield some awkward-sounding lines. You can avoid this entirely by rhyme shopping.

Rhyme shopping is exactly what it sounds like. If you've been keeping a journal, doing some object writing, and making mind maps, you have loads of great phrases and words that you can look up in a rhyming dictionary. With rhyme shopping, you can discover which words will work with you and which words will back you into a corner.

If you don't plan your rhymes before you start putting down lines, then it's much more likely you'll get boxed in at some point. If you want songwriting to feel as easy as possible, create a list of rhymes ahead of time. You will become a curator selecting the precise words and phrases that communicate your message effectively.

There are different tools you can use for rhyme shopping. Online rhyming dictionaries are your best friend if you prefer to work on a computer. Online rhyme dictionaries often sort rhymes based on their syllabic count, which is helpful if you have a very rhythmic writing style. I'm a bibliophile, so I opt for "The Complete Rhyming Dictionary" by Clement Wood. I love this book because the first quarter of it is an exquisite breakdown of poetic mechanics. The rest of the book is divided into masculine (single) Rhymes, feminine (double) Rhymes, and antepenults (triple rhymes). These are all explained in the front of the book, so I highly recommend getting a copy and learning how to use it well. By carefully considering rhyme ahead of time, you can focus on the emotional truth of your song instead of fixating on a phoneme.

This is just one system to help you write what you know. Is it the only way? Certainly not. But it's allowed me to finish more songs with the certainty that I am telling the truth. It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that your story isn't exciting or interesting. We often go to others for input and advice; that's a good thing. But remember that the person you were in the past is also a songwriting partner. It's easy to think we know that person entirely because we were that person, but think about how well you know yourself now. Do you know yourself as much as you think? As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. These strategies are more than songwriting; they're about conversing with yourself through time. So the next time you're struggling to write what you know, remember that you do have a story, and you don't get to pick which parts of it may change someone's life for the better.