“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of
– Mary Heaton Vorse
As an artist who relies on my songwriting to help earn a living, my worst fear is that when I sit down at the piano to write, I’ll forget how to write a song and won’t come up with anything. The few times I experienced what I thought was “writer’s block” I would think, “Oh my gosh, I will never write again!” Which turned into “Oh well, that was a nice creative run. Too bad it’s over, forever.” And then “Nothing I write was going to be any good anyway.”
I know, very dramatic.
As songwriters, we write and create music because we have to. We may be good at it and feel obligated to run with this “gift,” or we may love it so much that we can’t imagine doing anything else. Either way, the idea that one day we may run out of things to write about, or that we will have written everything there is to write, or that we may just lose that gift is very real and, and very scary – especially if we make our livelihood as music creators.
You may not think it’s possible to write on demand – that is, you may or may not believe in phrases like “writer’s block” or “when the inspiration hits.” You may or may not believe you have a muse that sits in the back of your room when you are feeling the creative flow, and is on a lunch break when you’re not. Trust me, I’ve gone through all the possibilities of why I often feel like a magnet drawn to my piano and writer’s pad, and why at other times, I’d rather crawl into bed, clean my bathroom for the third time, or do my taxes before sitting at that bench with a pencil in hand. What gives? Don’t I have any control of this?
Yup, I do. And so do you.
After years of writing music, touring, and promoting records, I used to claim that my work habits ebb and flow like the ocean being controlled by the moon (I was the ocean in this analogy). Parts of the year, I was writing pages of lyrics and music, other times, I was booking and promoting the records, and sometimes my energy was all about performances. And it usually worked out that I was only doing one at a time.
Recently, however, I’ve been asked to write music for some web series, an indie feature film and a few commercials, and I’ve learned that I control what ebbs and flows. I am, in fact, the moon (sticking with the analogy). It’s when I didn’t have a choice that I chose to write. And thus, the cure for writer’s block: sit down and write, without judgment.
Maya Angelou (who clearly believes in those muses) says this perfectly: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
Some helpful hints to make this actually happen:
1. Don’t procrastinate. Period. Don’t clean, don’t go out, don’t watch TV. Force yourself to sit your butt down and start writing because you said you would.
2. You can generate inspiration at any time. Just get into action and don’t pretend that your inspiration comes from an outside source. It doesn’t.
3. Make your writing area comfortable. Keep it free of clutter, private, and quiet. Making it somewhere you want to go will help you actually go there.
4. Develop a routine you can count on. Knowing that from 5-7pm every day, you’ll be sitting with your guitar, or writing lyrics, can become as habit building as eating breakfast. Like William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
5. Share with someone. Telling a friend, band mate, dentist, whatever, that you will write more often will not only get you out of your head and into the real world, but you will have someone who will check up on you. Ask them to hold you accountable to what you say you want to accomplish.
6. Don’t judge yourself. Fear of failure, or the fear of producing crap, is one of the first things that repels me from sitting down and writing. All I can say, you will never know if you don’t start writing. “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” (Margaret Atwood)
7. Re-write something. Transcribe your favorite Beatles tune, re-write the first song you ever wrote, do anything that gets you in the mindset that you are now writing. “Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written.” (Walter Benjamin)
8. Don’t listen to your feelings. “I don’t feel like it” and “I don’t have the energy” are great cop-outs. Don’t listen! William Goldman agrees: “The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.”
So just write already.
Pad & Pen image via Shutterstock.
Songwriting and Writer’s Block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck (August 2011)
Cheryl B. Engelhardt (@CBE on twitter) is a film and commercial composer and singer/songwriter with multiple tours, records, and TV placements under her belt. If you liked this article, get more like it when you purchase Cheryl’s eCourse “In The Key Of Success: The 5 Week Jump-Start Strategy.” Use the special Disc Makers code IHEARTDM and get 70% off the regular price! Cheryl is holding a workshop in NYC on Sept 13th. Sign up here!