Songwriting: A Love-Hate Relationship

I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. (The photo to the left is not a stock photo.  It is part of a lyric I worked on yesterday containing a few decent lines and many more scribbled-out lines.)

I’m getting this out of my system today for two reasons: 1) I hope I’m not the only one, and; 2) I hope other struggling songwriters who are reading this know you’re not the only one. (Or there’s this 3rd bonus: Those of you who know me will finally understand why I’m half-insane.)

I LOVE the way songwriting combines my two favorite mediums in the world – words and music – to give voice to life’s nearly-inexpressible mysteries.  I love playing with words, meter and rhyme.  I love when just the right tune gels with the right idea. It’s magical. Correction. It’s miraculous. I love singing good songs, hearing good songs and studying good songs.

I HATE the angst that comes with honing this craft (which, for me, has taken 20 years and I still feel like a kindergartener).  I know a great song to hear it and I’ve written a handful of decent ones (in-between a couple hundred mediocre or downright lame ones).  And what really drives me nuts is… I’m a professional writer at my day job! Why does this craft make me so crazy? Sure, it’s more intimate and raw than writing copy other people read on-camera,  or factual articles for magazines or websites, but seriously, nothing brings more terror than letting someone in on my latest song idea.

And while it’s terrifying to share my latest songs, I also hate that no one cares. (See? Insane!) I refuse to be that person everyone hates to see coming because I might be trying to plug some mediocre song I just couldn’t resist writing for my own self-aggrandizement. I made a solemn commitment to myself a few years ago to be a “no-selfish-agenda” kind of girl, so I’m not going to throw CDs at people or lock someone in my car so they can hear my latest idea.  To me, it cheapens the beauty of a potentially great song to stuff it down someone’s throat (particularly since I work with artists and want to use the utmost integrity and professionalism in those relationships).

I REALLY love the process.  The flow of words and ideas and that sense of “Ahhh! I said it!” that follows actually finishing a song (which happens far more rarely than I’d like to admit because they never reach “good enough” status in my mind).

I love to co-write. Yet loathe the awkward scenario of getting into a co-writing session that I immediately know isn’t going to work and having to use the famous break-up line, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I hate being disappointed.  I have written a few songs people loved (oodles more that have never been seen or heard) and I’ve written a song that got recorded…and even aired on TV. Yet somehow two things keep happening: I either get ripped off or forgotten.  One artist got “convenient amnesia” after recording my idea (and basing an entire tour on that idea). So after several years I have finally given up ever seeing a nickel of those royalties.  And, of course, every songwriter has heard, “Wow, that’s a great idea.  I’d like to record that,” only to find later you didn’t make the cut. This craft just comes with disappointment and I hate it. But that’s the deal.

I love reading about songwriting and I’ve attended enough songwriting workshops that I could almost teach a session. I got an A in Music Theory. I even love the hours of pouring over an idea. But the economy of time spent vs. results seems ridiculous to me when I stop and think too hard about it.

I’ve thrown in the towel so many times, it’s embarrassing. A rough ballpark would be between 20 and 25-gazillion times I have promised myself through tears that I would never waste another valuable moment of life on this good-for-nothing hobby.

But here’s the thing. After all the ups and downs, disappointments and lost sleep, the truth is: I can’t give up. For whatever maddening reason, I can’t stop an idea from bouncing around in my brain at the most inconvenient times, robbing me of sleep until I write it down. No matter how hard I try to dispense with this mind-melting form of expression, I will probably always express certain ideas in the form of a song. I will not stop just because the two decades I’ve spent doing it haven’t yielded one blasted penny (or even a measly “thank you”).

During my most recent season of “giving up again” my really smart friend and occasional co-writer, Scott Naylor, sent me the following link. What Ira Glass says in the following video keeps me from breaking up with songwriting.  After all, the next one I write might actually live up to the standard in my mind. Then again, it might be awful. But I’ll keep doing it because I can’t stop. I just don’t have a choice, apparently.

Here is Ira Glass with the most helpful songwriting lesson I’ve heard in a while:

Are there other songwriters or creative types out there who experience this angst?  Please tell me I’m not the only one.

6 thoughts on “Songwriting: A Love-Hate Relationship

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  1. Oh my dear Emily….you are NOT the only one. Your blog today really paints the picture of my angst as well. I too have this “hobby” and can’t seem to shake it (Lord knows I too have tried) but it beckons me. I so love it and other times arrrggggg!

    I have so many “hook books” (either handwritten or on my iPad, and yes even recorded notes to myself). I am not a “writer”, but the Lord is constantly bombarding me with EXCELLENT ideas, hooks, lines, rhymes and even ideas for creative gospel musicals. I so feel like Moses and other “unqualified” people, but at the same time I feel strongly that this is what the Lord wants me to do.

    I have been writing songs (lyrics) for 20+ years (ahem)…I began writing secular lyrics and then shelved that, not only the genre but the writing for a few years. I then became saved (still no writing), until….. I saw Russ Taff in concert at our church and heard “Aint No Grave”. That was it, the songwriting BUG bit me (you know where), but now I wanted to write Gospel lyrics.

    I too have attended songwriting seminars, read all the books, watched the tutorials on YouTube etc. I have written numerous lyrics and stored them away, didn’t know what to do with them. I love reading other lyrics, learning from them, dissecting them, analyzing them etc.

    What I find myself doing lately is; editing, editing and re-editing my lyrics. My friends (not in the business) don’t really share my enthusiasm of songwriting, playing with words, ideas, meter and yes the rhyme. In fact they think this is (as you said a “hobby”) as well as a “pipe-dream”. I need to continue with my profession “Project Manager”. Yes it pays the bills but does it fulfill?

    I so understand the Love/Hate relationship – it is as if you went inside my head/heart. I have been unemployed for a year now and I said “I’m going to dedicate this time to “writing lyrics” and have done that but also have “seconded-guessed” my work. One day I LOVE them and the next day I’m unsure – not having anyone to mentor me or even critique. I would love to try co-writing. I am also in kindergarten wanting to get my doctorate.

    Thank-you sooooo much for writing this and letting me know that others are going through the same thing. Oh and yes you are NOT alone.
    (sorry for the long response but I couldn’t help myself).

    In His Grip


  2. You’ve written more incredible songs than you give yourself credit for. Never met anyone that didn’t absolutely love your songs “Little Red Barn” and “Mercies Undiscovered.” Just sayin…
    And yes, I get the angst. Writers that I hear and love make genius sound easy. I find it darn near impossible.


    1. Thanks, Kenneth! Might be time to write again sometime soon. I have SO appreciated your encouragement along the way. In fact, I would’ve quit 25 gazillion MORE times if we hadn’t turned out some stuff that reminded me it CAN happen!


  3. Oh. My. Goodness. Thank you for writing this. I have been a musician and a wannanbe songwriter for a little over ten years. I dabbled in co-writing songs years ago and loved it. At that point, I felt unable to write a song all on my own. I fell out of co-songwriting for a few years, more out of pursuing some different life experiences that left me little time and inspiration than lack of trying. But then, when I settled back down, I found that the urge and desire for songwriting was still there and I could not shake it. I wanted to do it so bad, but didn’t know how to begin.

    Through some butt kicking and encouragement from fellow musicians, I sat down and started writing, and found that I was able to write all on my own. What a good feeling. I think I had given up several times before for the very reason Ira Glass explains; it didn’t live up to the expectation in my head. I saw the first part of this Ira Glass video a few months back, and it hit me… it’s okay to suck. I’m even expected to be sucky, at least at first. That totally freed me, and so I started writing my sucky songs. And every time I do, it feels SO good. I describe it as a giant creative exhale. My soul feels better when I get them out.

    I’m writing mainly for myself right now, and that’s okay. I’ve created a youtube channel to upload and share my mediocre videos with my three subscribers, and it’s a good feeling.


    1. Love it, Jamie! I think fear of failure is a huge reason behind all this love/hate we tend to have with songwriting! But writing for ourselves is reason enough to indulge in this outlet for our souls. I once wrote a really lame song called, “Crickets.” Because that’s all I heard after completing a song. But the crickets liked it! So there’s that!


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