Thoughts on Writer’s Block From One Songwriter to Another

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“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of
the chair.”
– 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.

Read More
Songwriting and Writer’s Block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck (August 2011)

Creative Resources and Tips for Aspiring Songwriters (June 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!

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31 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writer’s Block From One Songwriter to Another

  1. learning to write from the place of experience and not trying explain myself rather simply being myself has helped a lot it is amazing what you can write from the place of desire…choice melodies. It really helped stay away from writers block.

  2. Very good article, spot on advice. Creativity is !% insperation and 99% persperation, you have to keep on at it no matter what if you want to succed.

  3. All good ideas folks….for me, and i’m always hitting the block, i try to hum the rhythm of the song with sounds that evoke the emotion in which i want the lyric to sound like. Sometimes i’ll record just crazy vocal flexing of sounds and it has helped. I’m a story based writer and rhyming sometimes can be met with the way a word that doesn’t rhyme is sung which we all know. Being able to playback recorded sounds always leads to new paths in writing after all i do this anyway while cleaning the bathroom 🙂
    Wes

  4. I read this article while I was driving to Home depot. I bought some drill bits three maybe fo. I came back to work and put on my spectacles and I studied that block until I found it’s testacles. I hammered that block right in its walls and now my writing flows free as waterfalls. Thanks for the help.

  5. Writers Block! Scary concept, more of a problem for some than others. Being both a composer and a screenwriter, I’ve noticed that with music, I tend to be very slow and deliberate, but with the literary side, much faster. If I am working out chords, rhythms and melodies and nothing is landing, I will stop and just play for a while, just for the enjoyment of playing the instrument. It only takes a few minutes, if that, for something to click and then I go back to the compositions or arrangements, recharged and re-energized. That seems to work for me and if it is useful to anyone else, Cool! SJJ

  6. I can sit myself down at any time writing music or words but my problem is to put the words
    into great vocals. Usually I dislike them the next day and if not then 2 weeks later. Some of my songs have more than 4 sets of vocals and multiple lyrics. It’s crazy.

  7. There is a book out called The Frustrated Songwriters Guide by Karl Coryat about a group of clubs thruout the USA called something like Music Immersion Society. Created to break writers block, these clubs are based upon playing something called The 20 Song Game. A group of members ( players, participants) arrange for a day when everyone must write 20 songs; no inner critic allowed, no need to completely finish songs, everyone must be fearless and just do scratch recordings of anything that comes to mind no matter how ridiculous or off the wall it is. In the evening, the group gathers over pizza and listens, laughs, learns, and grows.
    That was a very sparse and incomplete description, but trust me, these clubs are amazing and produce amazing results. Yes, you need to be able to dedicate a full day, but from the comments I read this activity really moves the needle. On line you can find over a dozen clubs all across America, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any near Rehoboth Beach, DE, or St. Pete Beach, FL that I could participate in. Seriously, search for these clubs on Google and get the book because it is really great. And, if anyone is interested in trying this in either Delaware or in the St. Pete Beach area in Florida please contact me because I’d love to try it.

  8. The first part is so true. I have been in a non-productive rut for a while now and I know a lot of it has to do with not making myself sit down and do it. I have been “waiting for inspiration” but in reality, I realized by reading this that since I moved, my place of songwriting that I was used to has changed and I haven’t done anything yet to get it going again….I guess I now know what my new years resolution needs to be

  9. When I get a block…I go sit on a bench at Walmart and just watch people being themselves….somebody’s gonna say or do something that will get you thinking…….and writing !!

  10. It’s amazing that no matter what styles of music / lifestyles that all of us artist at one time experience the “block” . Rewriting & updating an old original song has helped tremondously!!
    Also if you havnt checked out Artist’s Way book – give it a shot its all about WHY our blocks appear & exercises to work stuff out ! Colleges have used that book in creative writing classes for writers block .
    Thank for the great article !!! Linda

  11. Whenever I get stuck, I’ll just pick a subject to write about, sometimes it might be about something in the news, weather or even sports. This always leads me in the right direction until I can get serious about a real subject to write about.

  12. Great thoughts on the “Creative Dilema” we sometimes face. Many years ago I met a friend of a friend who is a songwriter. He seemed to pop out songs like they were potato chips. Good, no, great songs. Many songs by the Carpenters, Slow Hand(pointer Sisters), Human Nature(Michael Jackson). Once he told how he hated his short stint as a staff writer at A&M Records. “It’s impossible for me to crank out tunes at the rate they wanted”. Turns out, I guess, he’s just normal. Like the rest of us!

  13. Great timing on this article! I am working on a song today that I started yesterday for a specific event. Songwriting has become something I do for the occasion and some of the tunes are really good!

  14. Have a voice recorder nearby. I use an old Olympus DS-2. Record anything relevant that suddenly pops into your mind, even if you think it sucks. Many times it will occur as you are falling asleep. Resist the urge to drift. Play, sing, hum, talk about it, but make sure you capture the moment. Out of all that charcoal you will find little gems to chisel at. And don’t fret about the song turning into something that you hadn’t intended. Let the song write itself.

    It helps to notate music as well as have an understanding of music theory and harmony. It is easier to see what chord changes and key changes are available to the melody line.

    Work crossword puzzles for lyric stimulus.

    But most of all … you have to work work work at it. It’s that constant work that triggers the juices. In other words, don’t wait for inspiration. You have to force the issue.

  15. Sometimes I will get an inspiration for part of a song but it might not fit what I am doing at the time. I go ahead and make a ruff recording, write some quick notes like about effects settings or a chord progression and save it for later. That way it is there for me to dig up and develop later.

  16. Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” should be required reading for artists of every kind. He explains how Resistance with a capital R comes out of our own head and tries to sabotage us. Resistance is responsible for 1/3 of the clean bathrooms in the northern hemisphere. He explains how to overcome it, and to create instead of flossing your teeth for the eleventh time today.

    Another book is “Around the Writer’s Block” by Rosanne Bane. She discusses the brain science behind Pressfield’s Resistance, and creates a practical plan to create more useful creativity habits.

  17. I write an article for South Texas Entertainment and Arts Magazine from Corpus Christi, TX (STEAM) called… writers block. The first rule listed, is the golden rule of writing. I printed this out for a couple friends, and myself… so I look at it everyday. Here in Nashville you set up co-write appointments, and stick to the schedule.
    Another good idea is if you get stumped on a line, reverse it to find a new rhyme word, while saying the same thing. I call this Yoda writing… Write a song I must.

  18. I like object writing. It’s a method of describing an object using only sensory nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It’s a daily practice that’s time-boxed to, say, 10 minutes. Once you do it every day for a few weeks, it’s easy. It doesn’t require inspiration. It’s a discipline, just like practicing scales. And it provides fodder for your actual lyrics.

    1. This is a very good idea! I always believed we never knew the real inspiration (i.e., person, place or thing) behind many great songs. Sounds like a great exercise! Thanks!

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