Whenever I’m stuck on a song, I imagine my dad and me in the Beltrami Island State forest in northern Minnesota. Growing up, that’s where we’d go on the weekends to hunt partridge. My dad didn’t own a pickup truck, but he used the family minivan as if it were one. We’d go down roads meant for all-terrain vehicles.
Needless to say, we’d often get stuck.
The thing about being stuck in a literal rut is, you can’t get unstuck by doing the same things, the normal things. You can’t gun it. You’ll spin your tires and mud flies everywhere. It’s counterintuitive, but you need to go slow, barely touching the pedal. Then you go in reverse, then forward again until the weight of the car and the rocking motion gain traction and momentum. Pretty soon, you’re making progress. And maybe that’s enough to do the trick and get free. But sometimes it just gets you a little less stuck. So you combine the rocking with dry sticks and logs. Sometimes I’d drive and my dad would push. Sometimes we’d both push. Once in a while, we’d need help from others. My uncle Duane and his tow rope. Or a few extra people to push.
Getting unstuck in a literal rut is not unlike getting unstuck in a songwriting rut. You just have to figure out what actions are equivalent to rocking or laying down sticks, extra pushing—anything but spinning the tires.
Here is a list of things I try whenever I’m stuck:
- Switch the key.
- Change the time signature (e.g., 4/4 to 6/8).
- Turn it into a fast song if it’s slow and vice versa.
- Switch from guitar to piano or another instrument.
- Change the perspective of the singer. From “I” language to “you” or “we” language.
- Move the first verse to the second or move lines around like
- Invite a cowriter to join you.
If you’re still stuck after you’ve tried all these, give it a rest. Come back to it later. Maybe by then the mud will have dried and hardened and you can drive that minivan straight through!