Hemingway said that when he first approached the typewriter each day, his aim was always to “Write one true sentence.”
I have found this advice to be incredibly valuable as a songwriter.
When you start with the truth, you know you’re headed in the right direction.
Starting with the truth is sort of like setting your creative GPS for a host of desirable destinations:
Don’t overthink it. Just pause, get in touch with what you’re thinking or feeling at the moment, and say it:
“I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“I’m sorry for what I did.”
“You make me so happy.”
“What happened to us?”
Starting with the truth is like building a doorway into your song that is constructed with integrity. You can pass through it as a creator and know you’re in the right place. And your listeners can walk through it and feel that they are in the presence of an artist who can be trusted with their emotions.
A really important aspect of this is to state the truth plainly.
For instance, instead of saying “I can’t stop thinking about you,” you might be tempted to say:
“The jagged edges of your memory stick in my brain”
There’s nothing technically wrong with that—you can say whatever you want to say, it’s your song.
But it may set you down a path of obscurity where you end up writing a bunch of stuff that sounds vaguely poetic, but no one will understand—a real quick way to lose your listener. On the other hand, when Bob Marley sings, “Don’t worry about a thing, everything little thing is gonna be alright,” we all know what he means.
Besides that, the other benefit of striving for clarity is that it forces you to really understand what you’re trying to say. You can’t hide behind esoteric abstractions—you have to really investigate what you’re trying to put across and find ways to say it in plain language.
This is always challenging and thrilling process.
And here’s the best part. In my experience, the practice of saying things plainly and clearly will often lead you to poetry eventually—and the kind that won’t require an audience to wonder what you mean.
Start with the truth, and say it plainly. It sets the tone for everything that follows. That’s how you build song on a strong foundation.