Archive for the ‘writer’s block’ Category

I need the practice

July 27, 2010

Do you wait for the muse before starting to write a song? How’s that working out for you?

When I wait for the muse, it can be months between writing sessions and I know that’s not enough writing for me. I need the practice. So I no longer wait for the muse. I try to invoke the muse and try to be the muse, but most of all, I just try to write more and more often.

Regular writing in itself seems to attract the muse. But it also strengthens the creative muscle. Just like sports and piano lessons, it’s better to practice regularly than to save it up for one long session (i.e. 7 daily one-hour sessions instead of one grueling seven hour session).

Something about the daily repeated action of engaging the creative mind and putting words (or melody) to paper is the perfect practice for writing songs. Writing songs takes practice. But instead of playing scales or doing crunches, a good way to practice writing songs is to actually write a song.

A side benefit is that if you tell yourself you’re writing a song as practice, the pressure is off to create your masterpiece. And when the pressure (usually self-imposed) is off, creativity is freed.

If you’re only writing when inspiration strikes, try writing as a regular practice. And post a comment here to let me know how it works.

25 Tips to Overcome Creative Block

April 28, 2010

Thanks to Derek Sivers‘s Twitter post for sharing this blog from artist/musician Scott Hansen, called Overcoming Creative Block.

Excerpt from the blog post:

I do not know what to write. I am sitting here staring at the screen, running sentences in my head, and turning my music on and off. Earlier I went foraging for food (in hopes of sparking some magical words), but ended up getting distracted by Arrested Development for 20 minutes. This happens just about every time I sit down to do anything. I’ll probably go play the guitar between this paragraph and the next.

Of course this is a familiar situation. Often referred to as “writer’s block”, the concept of an inspiration rut is unfortunately very familiar to every creative in any field. Sometimes ideas just don’t show up to work. Given this, we all develop strategies to combat such a scenario. Not all are foolproof, but it’s safe to say that most creative people have some battle plan for dealing with the dreaded “blank page”.

Knowing this I decided to ask some of today’s most exciting artists and creators what they do when the ideas aren’t flowing. I left the question fairly open ended and asked, What do you do to inspire your creativity when you find yourself in a rut? As expected, I was presented with an array of strategies, ranging from listening to Boards of Canada in a forest alone, to cooking up a storm (recipe provided) and waiting for the mind to clear.

What follows are 25 strategies from these creatives to spark your inspiration; hopefully you’ll find something helpful in there.

Click here to read the blog post Overcoming Creative Block.

3 tips to beat writer’s block

November 13, 2009
  • 1 Try this first.  Keep a journal. You can find books on journaling in your public library or at any bookstore, online or otherwise.The idea in a nutshell is to discipline yourself to write in the journal every day. It might start out as a commitment to write for 15 minutes every day. I think you’ll find that it’s easy to go on for longer. The important thing is that you do it every day.

    Another important element to journalling is that you write whatever comes into your head, without censoring it, editing it or worrying about grammar, spelling, what your mother might think. It’s amazing how freeing this is. And it amazes me how this opens up the creative flow.

  • 2 As an exercise, try another art form. Any art form will do, especially if you have no experience with it. If you never did sculpture, try that.  Make a collage, get out the watercolors. Work with childrens’ clay or crayons.   It doesn’t matter.The idea is to give over your attention to this endeavor 100 per cent and with no expectations. You don’t have to finish it, because this is just an exercise.   It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece because this isn’t your medium. I don’t know why it works, but it frequently does.
  • 3 Play. Take off your adult hat and become a child again. Play any childrens games you like, including physical games like hop scotch, jump rope and catch. Play a board game. Do not watch TV.You need interactive play by yourself or better yet with children. At its best, children’s play is always creative. Don’t worry or even think about songwriting or creativity. Just play and have fun.

50 uses for a brick

August 12, 2009


Even songwriters get stuck in a creative rut once in awhile – fingers moving to the same chords, singing the same melodies, writing the same songs.

It helps me to remember that I am capable of thinking in strange, unique, playful and inventive ways. We all are capable of it, as long as we’re aren’t stuck in a rut.

To get out of a rut and to prevent getting into it in the first place, I recommend a variety of brain stimulation techniques (or games). If your favorite brain stimulation game is crossword puzzles, fine, unless that becomes a rut in itself.

So mix it up, switch it out. Find a completely different type of brain stimulator. Try this brainstorming technique:

Write down 50 uses for a brick. Don’t study it, don’t research it on the web, just write whatever comes into your mind for the next 10 minutes. Can you find 50? Notice I didn’t say they have to be 50 traditional uses or even logical uses for a brick. I also didn’t specify what kind of brick. You could think of a Lego brick, for instance, or colored bricks from the old Tetris game.

You might want to begin each songwriting session with a new brain stimulus, to help you transition into a creative space.

When the lyrics just won’t come

July 21, 2009

What do you do when the lyrics (or melody) just won’t come?

I believe this is a common problem for songwriters. When the ideas aren’t flowing, that’s when you need some tricks up your sleeve, some way to jumpstart your creativity.

Here’s a trick I use regularly. It may seem like a cop out, but it’s a legitimate, time-honored technique for songwriters: collaborate.

I am very comfortable writing melody and chords. But I sometimes struggle with lyrics. So I found a co-writer who is good with lyrics and weaker on the music side. Together we bang out new songs easily and relatively quickly. Co-writing (also called collaboration) is very common in Nashville, LA, NYC and other music centers. Look at the credits on any Motown record and you’ll see Holland/Dozier/Holland on many of the hits and other co-writers as well. If Motown isn’t your bag, check the writing credits of your favorite artist. You might be surprised.

I believe everyone is born creative, and that we sometimes block our own creativity. Stress can do this. If you are stressed out in any part of your life (work, school, relationships, songwriting), then it will be harder to reach in and access your own innermost creative thoughts.

Learn how to de-stress yourself. For some people that means regular exercise or meditation. Others need to get more sleep or resolve some interpersonal issues. Sometimes all it takes is a short break from the routine, maybe a walk around the block or a few quick stretches.

When I get stuck in the middle of writing a song, I will take a walk, to take my mind off the problem. Usually, unbeknownst to me, my sub-conscious mind is still working on it and partway through the walk, a new idea pops into my head. Voila! I’m unstuck.

Another cause of writer’s block is super high expectations. If you expect to write a masterpiece every time, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you lower your expectations at first, you free yourself to write anything and that leads to risk-taking, ground-breaking creations.

In writing your first draft (or 2nd or 3rd), it helps to turn off the part of your brain that is critical and judging and just let it all flow. Later, you can re-engage the judging part of your brain to edit your draft. This is what that side of your brain is good at: finding typos, checking for rhymes, noticing logical inconsistencies, etc.

Writer’s block

July 9, 2009

Q. I’m a guitar player. All my songs seem to be in the same few keys: G, C and E. And there isn’t much variety in my chord progressions either. How do I get unstuck?

A. I sometimes run into the same problem. Our fingers get accustomed to certain movements, like familiar chord changes and that limit our songwriting.

Here’s an exercise I use when my songs start sounding the same, especially when my guitar chords seem to all sound the same. I put the guitar away and write. I just walk around and work out some lyrics and a melody in my head. Sometimes my footsteps provide the beat.

When you break it down, the essence of a song is melody. The melody is what people remember. So if you have a good melody and lyrics that support it, you already have a good song. You can make it better by using creative chords, but the meat is the melody (unless you’re vegetarian and then the tofu is the melody).

I was amazed the first time I tried this. I came up with a melody and words. I was driving so there was no way I could use my guitar. When I later tried to put chords to it, I was surprised that the melody called for a chord sequence I would have never thought of, and one my fingers weren’t familiar with.

The guitar (even if you’re a real virtuoso and a creative hotshot) can limit you. Any instrument has its limits and you can stay within the instrument’s limitations or you can transcend them by writing without any instrument. So give your guitar a rest. I highly recommend it.

Another tool is to switch instruments. If you play piano, try writing on it instead of the guitar for awhile. In the end you may perform your new song on guitar, but the song will benefit from having been written on a different instrument. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weak pianist, because it’s only being used as a tool to break out of your old habits.

Guitar-playing songwriters love this one: try a different tuning, even something as simple as dropped D or DADGAD. Alternate tunings will put your fingers in unfamiliar territory. This is an easy way to get a whole new sound out of your guitar and to inspire different type of chords, melodies and lyrics. It’s so easy, it feels like cheating.

Beat writer’s block

April 27, 2009

We got an email from a 14 year old who did a good job of describing writer’s block and asked what she could do about it.

You could start by writing almost anything that comes into your head, without pausing to wonder if it’s any good. Think of it as an early draft that, with appropriate editing and rewrites, can become great.

The key here is the phrase ‘without pausing to wonder if it’s any good.’ It’s easy to start editing, criticizing and judging your work too early on. Hold off on that as long as possible, because it can kill the creative spark.

Some of the best songwriters go through many, many versions before arriving at the one we know from the radio. Of course, no one ever hears the early versions except the songwriter.

The other part to that tip is, don’t rush your songs. If it takes 19 versions to get the lyrics right, that’s OK. Don’t let your band, yourself or anyone else rush your process. Sometimes they come out fast, other times they need to brew awhile.

From my own experience, I have several times started a song and gotten stuck. So I set it aside and ended up coming back to it a month (or 6 months or a year) later and at that time I had an inspiration and finished the song.

Trying to force it to happen faster than it wants to happen is usually a disaster (faster=disaster). The inspiration comes on its own schedule.

My advice is, when the inspiration does come, hop on it, even if it means staying up all night or canceling previous plans.

If you are committed and passionate about music, you’ll get over writer’s block, not that it will ever completely go away.

One more tip to beat writer’s block: every writing coach, will tell you to ‘write what you know.’ Another way to say it is ‘write about a subject you are passionate about.’ It could be a person, animal, thing (TV show, sports team) or an idea (freedom, peace, equality, etc.)

Passion can also be love or lust. You can also hate passionately. Anything that incites deep feelings in you, positive or negative, is a good subject for a song.

Usually, when you’re passionate about something or someone, you can’t shut up about it. Use that in your song.

Get out of the way

February 25, 2009

Creativity is something we are born with. Everyone has it. But not everyone uses it. In fact, many people believe they are not creative. By holding this belief, they are blocking it. It’s easy to block yourself. And the prevailing culture will encourage you to do so. If you say “I can’t do it” often enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, whether you’re talking about riding a bike or writing a song. You are getting in your own way.

On the other hand, if you say “I can do it,” there is great power in that. If you say it and believe it, it is even more powerful. Get out of the way and let your true self shine through.

Despite what your friends tell you, your teacher tells you or the media tells you, you are a creative being, full of good ideas and everything else you need to be a good songwriter can be learned through study, practice and working on your craft.

Unblock your creativity and everything else can be learned. So how, you ask, can I unblock my creativity? There are many ways. And it probably won’t be a single, once and for all unblockage, but an ongoing process. The good news is, the more you unblock, the easier it gets.

Many people meditate. It clears the mind of all those extraneous thoughts and opens it to things like creativity. Some people jog with similar results. Others take a walking meditation. Some people just get out in nature to get the juices flowing. Sometimes a good, thought-provoking movie, book or conversation will do the trick.

Negative or self-critical thoughts will block creativity every time. So that’s something to watch out for. When you are just starting to write a song, it is not a good time to be self-critical or self-judging. Later, when you’re in the middle of editing or rewriting a song, self-critiquing is called for. Just remember, you are not criticizing yourself, you are critically analyzing the work.

What is your favorite way of unblocking?

Striving for Picasso

February 17, 2009

Do you yearn to be this generation’s most innovative, ground-breaking artist, the Picasso of the music world? Do you want to break the mold and create an entirely new musical style, something completely original and cutting edge?

If that’s your goal, I say go for it! If having goals like these helps you, more power to you. Unfortunately for me, that sort of thinking, if taken too far, causes a major blockage. When I start to compare myself to the world’s greatest songwriters, I just get a headache.

As a young songwriter, I thought that the goal was to create music unlike anything ever heard before. I thought each song had to break new ground and I judged myself harshly if I didn’t achieve it, which was every single time. The result was a complete creative shutdown, in other words, writer’s block. Holding such lofty goals, for me, is
simply counter-productive.

So now my attitude is much more self-supportive. I simply aim to be who I am, write what I write, improve my skills and continue to learn. It’s a completely freeing feeling to be OK with writing something that isn’t 100% unique and innovative. And as I get more skills and more confidence, I believe if I’m meant to be that sort of songwriter (a
Picasso, so to speak) that will fall into place.

Meanwhile, I get to follow my muse, express myself and some people even seem to like it.

Songwriting students

February 2, 2009

I got an email from a high school teacher who is teaching teenagers how to write songs. He said they’re having trouble starting and asked for some advice. Here is my two cents.

I find that getting started is the hardest part, even for experienced writers. And sometimes the more you know about songwriting, music theory, the music business, etc., the tougher it can be to get started.

I approach ‘starting a song’ very differently than working on a song that’s already started. Once a song is in progress, I can put all sorts of pressure on myself to make it better, but that sort of stress is a real creativity killer in the tender, early stages of a new song.

So the first thing I do is stop taking it all so seriously. Yes, it may turn out to be a serious song. And yes, your career (or your grade) may be riding on it. But it’s counterproductive to think about that too early in the process.

So go crazy with your most wild, oddball ideas that any rational person would reject. Now is not the time to be rational. When you’re looking at a blank piece of paper, it’s time to be weird, silly, out there, gonzo, bananas and basically free to express whatever comes into your head or whatever pops out of your mouth. You can edit later. You can censor later. You can throw out 95% of it later, but that still leaves an inspired 5%.

How can you NOT think about a project seriously, especially when there’s a deadline? How do I trick myself into not thinking about it? I just say to myself “I’m writing this one for me and me only, just for the pleasure of writing it. Maybe the next song will be the one to help my career, but right now, the pressure is off.”

That way, if I write a terrible song (and 19 out of 20 of mine are terrible), it’s cool, because it wasn’t meant for anyone else but me and I can just chalk it up to practice.

Or another way to think of it: that’s one tune closer to the 1 in 20 that’s a keeper.

However, if it turns out good, then of course I don’t have to keep it to myself. I can turn on a little pressure and spend the time to work out the details, polish and refine it.

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