Songwriting Tips Part III - Writer's Block
By Ken Hill
It has been far too long since my last article on songwriting. If you have not read my last three articles (21 Songwriting Tips, 19 More Songwriting Tips and Songwriting Techniques) then I would encourage you to do so. It is not necessary to read them first to benefit from these current tips, but "21 Songwriting Tips" covers the most generalized ground and builds an excellent foundation. Each successing article becomes more articulate and specific. Writing an article can be tricky because I have to address the fact that I'm referring to tips to help you increase the strength of your artwork and art in itself is a very subjective thing! There is an old saying that goes, "My truth is not your truth". The same must be applied with this article. So I'm going to give you the standard disclaimer. Not every tip will apply to your particular style, so take what works for you and discard the rest.
One more note. I have been receiving wonderful responses to my other articles. If you find these tips handy, please feel free to e-mail me. It's always great to know if what I'm writing is reaching out. It may take me some time to respond back, as it's becoming common to become overwhelmed with e-mails regarding songwriting, as well as my music. So yeah, blahbity blah blah. Are you still reading this or did you skip ahead already? Okay then! On with the show!
Tip #40: Writers Block Blues: Acknowledgement is empowerment!
Picture this. An illustrator is flustered beyond belief. In his trashcan are hundreds of crumpled up papers of "failed" works. He is trying to draw a house, but to no avail. Again, he grabs a new piece of paper, shakes his aching wrists and begins to draw a line. After a minute he stops and examines his work. He has successfully drawn a very cool looking cube.
"This is no good!" he screams, crumples up the paper and tosses it into the trashcan with his other crumpled friends. Somehow, it is all uninspiring to him. His last illustration of a house was to die for. And now... nothing.
What has happened to the illustrator has happened to every single one of us who compose regularly. It's the dreaded writers block! That's great news! Well, it's not great news that you are having writer's block, but it's great news to know that you are not alone! The first step to overcoming writer's block is to acknowledge that you have it! You see, it's not the pictures of the houses that's the problem. It's the illustrator. For some reason, he cannot become inspired. The reasons are many. He could have just written something so amazing that he feels like he can never achieve that type of excellence again. He could just be drawing up blanks. He could even be too involved in his work to the point of mind tingling numbness! Whatever the case may be, acknowledge the fact that you have writers block and stop throwing your work into the trash! It's probably not the music, so keep your "uninspired" works. You may realize you were doing something ingenious later on when your mind is clearer.
Summary: Acknowledge it when you have writer's block so you don't lose too many great ideas! The sooner you can come to terms with it, the sooner you can fight back and get back on track!
Tip #41: Writers Block Blues: Drawing a house starts with one line.
What can we learn from Mr. Illustrator from Tip #40? We can learn a lot! That's the great thing about mistakes! Well, I consider throwing away tons of paper a mistake! Not only did that poor tree die for nothing, there may have been tons of great ideas that got sent through the shredder because they were done half-heartedly. That's a different tip from part II of songwriting tips, which clearly states (I'm the songwriting lawyer, mwahaha) that you should never throw away your ideas! Save them! You might find a home for them later.
Drawing a house starts with one line. Writing an article starts with one word. Writing a song starts with one note. You cannot possibly write a song as great and awe-inspiring as your last song if you do not give it enough time to become something! Ideas must be nurtured in order for them to grow correctly. Mr. Illustrator has been throwing away multiple drawings of cubes before he finished them as houses! Here's the trick that will help those who are having writers' block because they feel they cannot achieve the level of expression of previous songs. YOU NEVER WILL!!! Just kidding. Actually, let me tag something on that. YOU NEVER WILL IF YOU DO NOT GIVE YOUR IDEAS A PLACE TO GROW.
You may feel uninspired by the first note. You may feel uninspired by the first several hundred notes. Keep cracking away and don't give up! Greatness may not be achieved until the thousandth note. Mr. Illustrator may have become inspired by his picture had he drawn in the windows, chimney, grass, maybe tossed in a mad cow to reflect his frustrated feelings. He might have found an inner vision and rekindled the flame! Don't give into the evil writer's block ghosts which whisper in your ear, "Thhiiiiiis stiiiiiiinks....throoooow it awaaaaaay...." Like the movie, "A beautiful mind", you've got to ignore those pesky voices in your head and focus purely on the music. Like a wet candle, it may take some time, but if you keep igniting away, it will eventually burn! So don't give up and stop trying to jump up an entire flight of stairs all at once. You'll definitely trip and fall down! Take it one step at a time.
Summary: Take it one line at a time. Stop trying to see the whole picture. The picture will make itself clear after enough lines are connected. Don't listen to ghosts, unless you think it's cool. Writer's block is like a wet candle. Ramen is a very tasty wet noodle.
Tip #42: Writer's Block Blues: The hit song writer!
Many times people approach songwriting in the totally wrong way by thinking, "Now I'm going to write a hit song!" Got writer's block, did ya? Can't blame you. Deciding to write a hit song is like an ad campaign deciding that they're going to really win the crowd by deciding to write the most effective ad ever. When would you not want to write an ad as effective as possible, and how is it possible that the company can turn on the "most effective ad ever made" button on and off at will? More importantly, if you're having writer's block, how is this decision going to help your music?
It makes more sense that the goal of a songwriter who writes for the audience is to make an emotional connection with that particular audience. This connection is made through musical ideas and gestures that evolve in time to captivate the listener to a particular feeling. Many other nonmusical factors (promotions, quality, ease of purchase, etc.) will be the determining factors of a hit song. Don't choke your thoughts up with the end process. Deciding to write a hit song is not decision that most of us can make, and it may make you a nightmare critic!
You might hold a magnifying glass up to every inch of musical space, evaluate, and tear apart many great ideas from over analyzation. Just be yourself. If you know how to promote your product, promote the living daylights out of it. If it becomes a hit song, all the merrier. If it doesn't, at least you had a great time writing great music. I think it's just about every musician's dream to have a hit song. Still, that is the byproduct of something that is more important to the musically stumped songwriter. Discover the essence of the song instead.
Summary: Writing a hit song is a nice gesture, but can get in the way of your focus on the music. This applies to other methods of thought too. Stay away from "I'm going to write an even better song than my last" or "I'm going to write the best song ever" or "This next song will be the one that makes me millions". Don't focus on the outcome of your music. Right now, focus on the actual point of your next song by the ideas that would embellish it.
Tip #43: Writers Block Blues: Oh My Bloody Eyeballs!
If your eyes are bloodshot, it's time to take a break! Right now. Go ahead. Go to sleep. Read this article in the morning. What? You're still reading this? Figures! Let's presume I love crystal lemmings. All day, I tell my friends about these crystal lemmings that I make. When I'm at work, I tell all my coworkers, "Man, I make these cool crystal lemmings! Let me tell you how I do it!" When I get home, I spend hours making hundreds of crystal lemmings. It's nearly midnight and your eyeballs have become bloodshot from all the squinting that you had to do to make those cute miniature animals. Time to create something new, right? In most cases, WRONG! Get some sleep and take a break! Burn out is a great way to get writer's block.
Find the time of day that you feel that you are most creative and try to structure your "creation process" around those key times. Perhaps it's not a key time, but a key moment! That's perfectly alright too! When it comes to composing, the key to a great song may very well lie in your state of mind more than anything else. Know thyself. The more you understand about you, the better off you are.
Summary: Find the perfect creative times/moments and build a structure around them. Don't burn yourself out or you will very susceptible to writer's block. Know and understand yourself and what inspires you as a songwriter. Build around those inspirations. Know thyself!
Tip #44: Writer's Block Blues: DUH!
Summary: Duh...(Translated: "If your brain is drawing blanks") Dmmmm.....uhhhh...dooh... (Translated: "then you must find a way to") FOCUS! Dahabba? (Translated: "Tinker around with your instrument or listen to some great music on CD/MP3. When your brain latches on to something, stop whatever it is that you're doing and figure out why it hooked you. Now build off that idea into your own song. Analyze. Analyze. Analyze. Sounds easy doesn't it....habba?")
Tip #45: Writer's Block Blues: Be a vision!
You're walking through the jungle. Birds are chirping. You are wet from walking through the marshes. You hear a crocodile roar. It is very scary.
The sun's light barely pierces through the jungle's dense clutching grasp. The endless echo of screeching birds mimic and mock your fears which have become a reality. You are lost. With every swish through the murky waters, you hear the low rumbling of crocodiles on the prowl. And then, as you take your next step you hear a SNAP! You scream like a whelping dog as you clutch your chest and...
I'm stopping here! Which example is more effective when it comes to painting a picture? I would say that most people would say example 2! Well, I hope that's what most people would say. It took me a whole 10 minutes to write it. Well, that's why I'm a musician and not a writer! I bet some of you wanted to know what happened? Don't worry! You just stepped on a twig and got startled. You weren't eaten. Or maybe I'm just saying that to keep this article PG!
How does this relate to writer's block? It's all about a vision. I did not know what exactly I was going to write. As soon as I wrote about the "jungle's dense clutching grasp", it made it easier for me to picture something dreaded and haunting. I rode with the idea and decided to embellish it with adjectives that fit the general mood. Sometimes, to defeat writer's block all you need is a vision to focus upon. For example: I once wrote a song about a war. The entire song, although there were no lyrics, had a very precise vision in mind while I was writing it. The vision that I had, allowed me to already determine the way I would like it arranged. If you, as a songwriter, use a specific vision in mind, your framework may very well become more evident.
If you can't find a vision, write a song about example 2! Write about the way it made you feel. Let the beginning of the song reflect the first sentence. As you can see, this vision would most likely start off very dreary but most likely build up into something with a bang (especially the "clutching the chest" part)! You can do this idea with any story, movie, or other idea. Take those same emotions that you get, and turn it into a musical vision of your very own.
Summary: Try having a distinct vision in mind when writing a song. The more precise that this is, the easier it will be to determine the framework of the song.
Tip #46: Writer's Block Blues: Less can be more!
When writing a next song, make some rules! That's right! Make some sort of incapacitating rule that forces you to use your creativity! I know I know. A lot of you people out there don't like rules.
Well guess what? If you're writing western based music (American music), you're following rules whether you like it or not! There are 12 notes in a chromatic scale. Tons of songs only use 7 notes per song, in different octaves (these 7 notes would be referred to as a diatonic scale). Whether or not you knew this is irrelevant. You're still following the rules. Yes, there are exceptions (key changes, modal borrowing, etc. etc.) but even as you follow those exceptions, there has been a rule made about it.
If you really want freedom from rules then stop playing scales. Play any note you want to, and stop tuning your instruments, because they hold you down to the same 12 notes! If you're playing a guitar, get rid of your frets, because that's limiting! Chances are, the music will be so open that it will not sound very clean or good (unless you are just the master!). Even moreso, chances are you will probably have an even harder time coming up with something original that reflects your personality because you will discover some "pitch issues" that sound very bad to the ear.
Strangely, you may not realize, but if you limit yourself, you'll actually find more freedom than going to opposite. Here's an example, because I know you all love examples.
Example 1: Draw me something really creative, and unlike anything that you've ever drawn before, with whatever you like however you want to do it.
Example 2: Draw me a picture of the sky using only 2 colored pencils of your choice, none of them being blue.
Most people who are told to draw anything will most likely draw things they already know. As a musician, do you want to write new songs this way? That's up to you to decide. If you're having writer's block, though, this changes the spectrum. Too much openness could very well be part of the problem. Example 2, much like a vision but in an entirely different perspective, will give you a focus that will allow you to write something very creative, expressive, and in an entirely different light. This intense focus might be exactly what you needed to unlock your creative juices! Now combine tip #44 & #43 and you'll have a great basis for a new song!
Summary: Limiting yourself can be a great way to release yourself, by forcing you to make creative choices. What's more interesting to you? Would you rather read a story written by an author who was writing about anything or by an author who had to write a comedy story in haiku format about a deranged painter with a gambling problem? Be creative with the limitations and have fun with the rules. Limitations can be quite fun!
Tip #47: Writer's Block Blues: Read the other tips
How terrible is this? I'm writing a tip telling you to read my other tips. You know, there very well could be a tip that you may not have read that could help you get through your writer's block! Read my other songwriting tips and see if there isn't something else you could be doing. While you're at it, read other songwriting tips as well. Read books on the music industry, your chosen instrument, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and whatever else you think is cool! Read, read, read! You can never learn too much! Musicians and authors have a ton in common, so reading can help release ideas, even if it has nothing to do with music! Write a song based inspired from a book you loved. Okay, this tip is mixing with the #45 vision tip.
Summary: READ! The more you know, the more you know of what you don't know! Then you can read up on that too. :) You might be surprised how much you can learn from a couple of books. Be sure to take notes!
Tip #48: Writer's Block Blues: Mind, Body, Soul Training: The Mind.
Writer's block is a problem that you can fight! Be like Rocky and take a walloping, scream the name of your significant other and then knock writer's block out! Let's start with wiping it out of your mind!
Try meditation, especially to music. Try some yoga! Get plenty of sleep. Clear your mind. Let it become free. Now, begin to focus, not from the mind that is weighed down by 50,000 thoughts of what has happened today, but by one thought. One pure and simple thought that, much like a dream, will evolve and change as it continues. Ever notice how creative dreams are? It's not because you're trying to be creative, nor is it because you're concentrating the living daylights out of yourself, struggling to get a cool idea. Dreams are wonderful because they are a perfect example of how we can be creative by letting go. Let your subconscious to some talking, and let your consciousness turn those words into music. Let it go.
Summary: Dreams are clear indicators that some of our most creative processes happen when we let go. Learn to use this to your advantage. Stop clenching your brain!
Tip #49: Writer's Block Blues: Mind, Body, Soul Training: The Body
Don't neglect your body! Exercising can release very cool endorphins that allow you to feel vitalized and sharp! Take your vitamins and eat good foods. Take a physical form of expression to counterbalance the mental form of music. I have been doing martial arts for over 10 years now, and it balances my music very well! Stretch! Feel good about yourself! If your body is vitalized with energy (aka. If you are in shape), not only will you feel much greater, you may notice a change in your self-esteem. This change will very well reflect a change in your music as well as on stage performances!
Summary: Have a good self-image. Feel good about yourself. Self-esteem can play a factor on stage performance as well as overall compositions. Do physical activities that make you feel good about yourself.
Tip #50: Writer's Block Blues: Mind, Body, Soul Training: The Soul
My goodness, get your bills straightened out! Why didn't you pay the phone bill last month? Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. Your personal life reflects in your music life very much! If there is high stress in your life, you very well may get writer's block for long periods of time! The soul needs to be nurtured like a baby! This means you need to pamper yourself! Find ways to remove stress from your life. Stress is a heavy hitter when it comes to writer's block.
Yes, those hardships can turn into excellent songs, and music may be just the key to helping you to express those feelings. We're talking about writer's block though. That means, stress is the reason why you can't write. So, if you can turn your problems into music, then this is a redundant tip! Get your loans consolidated. See a counselor if you have to. Do whatever it takes to remove as much stress from your life as possible. Stress is usually up to no good, and it only complicates and makes life more miserable. It must be destroyed!
So there you have it. There's ten tips to fight writer's block. The power is in you to write music again and love it! Keep it up, for all musicians everywhere! Arrrr! Fight the good fight! Don't let writer's block claim another frustrated minute!
Ken Hill is a guitarist and composer for Torchlight Creek. If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas about this article, please be sure to e-mail him.
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