Monthly Archives: September 2007


For myself and other beginner writers, there’s a self-doubt demon, conscious or unconscious, that telling us, “You’re not really an artist. You’re not really a writer. A writer is Hemingway, Yeats, Twain, Faulkner. You call yourself a writer? Ha! You’re not in that class. Who are you trying to fool? Do something useful.”

That self-doubt demon is evil. You have to confront him, punch him in the stomach, kick his teeth in. He’s holding you back from doing what will make you happy. Of course you’re an artist! Of course you’re a writer! If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be trying to find time for it! Yes, you’re not a Faulkner–yet; that’s because you haven’t put enough time in. And maybe you’ll never be that good. So what? You’re still a writer, you’re still an artist. This is what you do.

A couple years ago, at Song School, I went to a class by Beth Nielsen-Chapman. She’s been making a living as a songwriter in Nashville for 25-30 years. She said (paraphrasing), “Everyone has had unique experiences, and so everyone sees the world in a unique way. Therefore, only you can write your songs. No one else can.” This had a huge impact on me. On the one hand, it means that the greatest songwriters–the ones that I admire the most–can’t write my songs. Even with their craft and experience, they don’t see things the way I see them. That’s a powerful feeling. On the other hand, it’s an awesome responsibility. It means that, if I don’t write these songs, they will never be written.

Of course, the self-doubt demon is still there. Even after knocking him out, he gets back up and sucker-punches me when I’m least expecting it. It’s a constant battle, but I think that half the battle is being aware of his existence, and knowing that he’s wrong.

Songwriting Discipline

I’ve learned that, just like exercise, you have to schedule songwriting (or any kind of writing). You can’t take the attitude that’s it’s optional; something you’ll do “if you have time”. You’ll never have time. You have to make time. It has to be scheduled, and you have to be “religious” about it. And you must defend it from all attackers–wives, kids, friends… but mainly from the enemy within yourself.

Yourself? Yes, yourself. My brother Greg, a writer and English professor, is grappling with this problem. Why don’t you schedule time to write? Because, he said, “it seems self-indulgent rather than important and essential.”

Of course that’s nonsense, as he knows. If you’re a writer–even a beginner writer, then it’s important and essential for your happiness.

But like exercise, you need to set achievable, realistic goals. Maybe you shouldn’t say “I’m going to schedule an hour a day”. That’s too big a departure from your current routine, so you could be setting yourself up for failure. Try something less that’s more easily achievable. For example, 20 or 30 minutes, 3 days a week. You can increase the time later if you want. But regardless how short a time it is, it should be a regular schedule. For example: “On Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday morning I will write from 6:20am to 6:50am.”

You’d be surprised what you can accomplish in 1/2 hour, or even 20 minutes.

I’m not a morning person, so getting up early 3 days a week to write just isn’t going to happen. I know that. I work a day job, so after I get off work at 5pm, I go exercise on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (also Saturday and Sunday). Then I take a shower, and write from about 6:30pm to 7:00pm. Then I have dinner. So I schedule both my exercise and my songwriting, one after the other. I also schedule a longer session on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Another thing I learned: don’t set any goals or expectations for your writing period. For example, DON’T say, “I’m going to finish the song I started 6 months ago in this session.” If you do that, you won’t finish it, because you’ll be feeling the pressure, and then you’ll beat yourself up about it. The only thing you have to say is, “I am going to write during this time.” If you schedule time and write, then things WILL get accomplished eventually.


Working on Multiple Songs

When I get stuck on a song, and can’t seem to make progress, I leave it, and work on another one.

I used to think this was a bad thing; a clear sign of an amateur songwriter, if not a personality defect. Surely a real songwriter wouldn’t give up when they hit a block; a real songwriter would stay with it, overcome the obstacles, and finish the song. Last fall I got frustrated by the fact that I had so many songs in an half-finished state, that I told myself, “You cannot start any new songs until you finish some of these.” I figured that would motivate me to get them done. It didn’t help. It just made me feel worse about myself, or at least about my songwriter self.

I wrote Denver songwriter John Common about this, asking for tips on how to speed up the process of finishing songs. He replied, “The only trick I’ve learned is to simultaneously be working on 15 songs ALL THE TIME. That way, when one dead ends, you’ve got 14 others waiting for attention.” Good advice.

At the Rocky Mountain Song School, someone asked songwriter Darrell Scott essentially the same question. Darrell said (I’m paraphrasing him), “Be patient. It will come when it’s ready. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

Work on 15 songs all the time. Don’t beat yourself up. Be patient. Those are my songwriting mantras now.

Disclaimer: I know some people like to work on one song, and one song only, until it’s done. If that works for you, cool! Do whatever works.

-Rob Roper

Non-Linear lyric writing

When I first tried to write songs, I tried to write them in a “linear” way; that is, start with the first line of the first verse, then the second line, and so forth. Don’t start the second verse until the first verse is done, don’t start the third verse until the second is done. Maybe the chorus would be written before the first verse, maybe after. But I would try to write the song sequentially.

The problem with that is, if I got stuck on, say, the third line of the first verse, then everything came to a halt. But also–and perhaps more importantly–the lines tended to be pure narrative, and not very interesting.

A couple years ago I changed my method of lyric writing. I would first free-write about the subject to flesh out my thoughts and generate interesting words and phrases. Then I’d develop lines from those phrases. At this point, I have no idea whether these lines will be in the chorus or verse, or which verse, or what order in the verse. I’m just trying to generate good, interesting lines. Sometimes I find lines which rhyme, and I wasn’t even trying to rhyme them. That’s a bonus to this approach– the rhymes sound unforced and natural, because they are.

I then start arranging the lines into a structure; into verses, chorus (if the song has one) and bridge (if the song has one). Of course, with this I usually only end up with half the number of lines I need. I have several songs at this stage of development right now. My current challenge is to find better ways of getting those remaining lines. But, when I *do* get the song done, I find that the lines of the song are stronger when I do it this way.

I call this “non-linear” songwriting, because I don’t try to write the song sequentially. It’s more like gathering pieces of a puzzle and then assembling them together.

I’m sure “linear” or “sequential” songwriting works for some people. If so, by all means continue doing it! The only “rule” for songwriting is to do whatever it takes to write a good song. But if you are using the “linear” method and struggling, you might want to try my “non-linear” method and see if that helps.

-Rob Roper

On downloads and “piracy”

As a songwriter and performer who would love to be able to quit his day job and make a living playing music, I thought I’d give my opinions on the downloading and “piracy” issue.

First thing I’d like to say is, regardless of how you feel on the issue, it’s a losing battle. It’s like illegal drugs and illegal immigration. You can’t stop it. That’s just a simple fact you have to face. People are going to obtain music without paying for it. You can condemn it, rage against it, but you can’t stop it.

As a songwriter, I know how hard it is to write a good song. I know how much time goes into it; the self-doubt, the frustration. So I understand that songwriters would like to get paid for their efforts.

However, I would also like to point out the advantages that performers often ignore in their rants against “piracy”. I’m a songwriter and performer, but I’m also a fan; a music consumer. I don’t know how many times a friend has burned a cd for me, or emailed a song by people that I had never heard of before. As a result, I’ve gone to see them when they come to town. I never would have gone if my friend hadn’t engaged in download “piracy” and turned me on to them. That was one less ticket they would have sold. And I’ve then gone and purchased cd’s by the band.

That brings up another point. There have been times where a friend has burned a cd for me so I can check out a band. I liked it so much, I went out and bought the cd. Why? Because I wanted the booklet; I wanted the lyrics, I wanted to see who played what instruments, etc.

So “piracy” has advantages and disadvantages for the performer: on the one hand, cd sales are lowered by people who download songs. On the other hand, cd sales and live performance ticket sales can be increased, due to the increased exposure of the artist.

The recording industry is less than 100 years old. I think it was in the 1920’s that the Victrola was invented. What did performers do before that? There were no records, no cd’s, and no mp3’s. The only way for performers to get paid was by… performing. So, in the extreme case that nobody ever again pays for recorded music, performers have simply come full circle. (Although, unlike performers before 1920, they now sell t-shirts, caps, g-strings…).

Of course there’s the question of songwriters who don’t perform, but write songs for others. Again, I ask, what happened before the recording industry was established? The “professional songwriter” is a creature of the recording industry. Of course, classical music composers were paid for their compositions. But in popular, or folk music, I don’t think songwriters were paid. And their songs weren’t copyrighted; nobody knew who wrote the old Irish or English or American folk songs. That’s why the author of these songs is always listed as “traditional”.

The recording industry is worried about downloading. Screw ’em. These are the people who kept a lot of creative people out, and controlled what got recorded, and who got on the radio, and who got to tour and play live. We still hear the remnants of the “music industry” on corporate radio today; radio that plays the same 10 crappy songs all day everyday. They dominate the airwaves–but not the internet.

Now, thanks to digital technology, a “nobody” like me doesn’t have to beg for a recording contract. I can record music at home of reasonably good quality, and make it available to whoever wants it. So, if the music industry, as we know it, dies, I say, good riddance.

So download my songs, pass ’em around to friends, I won’t ask how you got it or if you paid for it. I’m honored that you like my music and want to tell other people about my songs. Come see me play live. Buy a Rob Roper t-shirt or g-string. Then, if you really like my music and would like to help me quit my day job and devote myself to music fulltime, pay for a cd or downloads. That makes you a “platinum” fan. 🙂

So pardon my rambling, I’m still sorting out my views on this subject. I’d love to hear what others think about the issue and my views, both from a music consumer standpoint, and a performer and songwriter standpoint.

-Rob Roper