How do I feel right now?
I feel frustrated, restless and something in me feels dead.
At the beginning I felt guilty and couldn’t really put my finger on the source.
Now I know why I have these feelings: It’s been over a year since I’ve written a new song. Songwriters Block.
I’ve tried a few times but for some reason I can’t do it. I feel paralyzed.
I started to doubt myself: “Am I really a Singer-Songwriter?”.
I found myself criticizing other people, especially other artists.
And then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
Randy Newman was once asked if songwriting is something that is fun for him.
His answer was:
“No. It’s fun when I write something…it’s pretty awful when nothing’s going on. Lot’s of bad thoughts go into your mind, like, “I’ll never do this anymore.
This is really terrible.
I’m working and it’s bad. I’m getting worse. Something’s gone wrong with me. Maybe I’ve gone bad as a person and I can’t write well anymore.”
(This quote was taken from the book “Songwriters on Songwriting“)
I decided to write this post in order to help you and myself get back on track and feel alive again.
I researched songwriter’s block and collected some of the best tips on the subject.
Are you Creatively Blocked?
If you feel frustrated like I do, this may be a sign that you are creatively blocked. In her excellent book “The Artist’s Way”, Julia Cameron helps millions of people recover from “creative blocking.”
According to Cameron, jealousy is an excellent clue that can tell if you are creatively blocked.
Are there any artists whom you resent?
Do you ever think in “ifs?”: “If only I had_____or____I could write a song if”. I often do that.
On the one hand, it doesn’t feel good to know that you are jealous of someone.
On the other hand, jealousy may telling you that if you start writing you’ll feel better regardless of everyone out there.
Here are ten tools that I have collected from books I read that may help you overcome songwriter’s block:
1. Start with The Morning Pages
This is a great tool that I learned from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”.
Morning pages are three pages that you will write every morning without giving much care or thought to what you are writing.
There is no right or wrong way to complete the morning pages.
Take a notebook or some scrap paper and write down whatever comes to mind. It’s important not to let anyone read the morning pages except you.
Knowing that your morning pages are private helps you write freely without caring about someone finding your pages and reading them.
If you find yourself writing negative, angry or stupid things — this is good.
Blocked songwriters tend to criticize themselves relentlessly. I find myself doing that sometimes.
Moreover, songwriters and artists in general are often victims of perfectionism. We have a built-in nasty internal critic that Cameron calls “The Censor”.
The Censor keeps telling us ugly things like “This song sucks” or “That doesn’t even come close to a song”.
My personal favorite Censor remark is “If you haven’t done it by now, you never will”.
The Censor is lying to us because it is part of our logical brain. It thinks in a straight line. In reality, its negative opinions are not true.
The morning pages help us avoid The Censor and connect with our emotional intuitive artist brain.
By carelessly pouring out everything we have on our mind we are telling The Censor to F**k off. We are telling it that there is no right or wrong way to do the morning pages.
When negative thoughts come up just keep your hand moving across the page and let The Censor rant. Remember: it’s always out there to get you. But you will be clever.
You will keep going and ignore this little annoying monster. What if you start your Morning Pages but find yourself stuck with nothing to write about? Write that down.
Fill an entire page with “I don’t have anything to write today.”
The Morning pages are an important recovery tool to help you get past the fear, anger, jealousy of songwriter’s block. They will help you get beyond your Censor and write.
I have found myself complaining about a certain situation morning after morning. Eventually these ongoing complaints lead to action. I acted in order to solve the problem.
Cameron recommends never to skip or skimp the Morning Pages. Not only will the Morning Pages help you write freely, but they will also help you get rid of that songwriter’s block.
2. Go on an Artist Date
Another great tool that I learned from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”is The Artist Date. According to Cameron, an Artist Date is, “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.”
Put simply, you are going to go on a date with yourself. But why would you do that?
Well, each and one of us has an artist from within that is like a child. This child needs to be taken out and taken care of.
When your inner child is taken care of you’ll be imaginative, creative and eventually prolific.
But where would you spend quality time with yourself? This could be anywhere where you’d feel free and playful.
Here are some ideas that Cameron suggests: a long walk on the beach, going to the movies, cooking something or visiting an art gallery.
Cameron recommends committing yourself to a weekly artist’s date.
If you find yourself avoiding the artists date this may be fear. Are you afraid of spending time with yourself? If so, try to think of the Artist Date as something fun. Don’t see it as a duty.
Think of it as an activity that is supposed to tip you over from your logical brain into your more creative artist brain. Find out which of the activities works best for you and do it.
According to Cameron, there is a connection between the Artist Date and The Morning Pages. The Morning Pages are where you complain and think about all of your problems.
The Artist date is where you’ll begin to find solutions to the problems. You’ll do that by funding your creative reserves and by giving attention to your inner artist.
By doing so you’ll gradually start to overcome songwriter’s block.
3. Felling Stuck? Fight It!
In his inspiring book “The War of Art”, Steven Pressfield says that all the aspiring writers have a common enemy. He calls this enemy “Resistance”.
Resistance isn’t something that you can see or touch. But you can definitely feel it.
It’s a negative repelling force that appears in many colors and shapes: self-sabotage, procrastination, fear, self-doubt and arrogance. Its aim is to shove you away, distract you and prevent you from doing your work.
Although Resistance seems to come from outside of ourselves (our jobs, friends, partners) it actually arises from within.
By its nature, Resistance is destructive and cannot be reasoned with. Therefore, according to Pressfield, you will have to talk to Resistance with the only language that it understands: power. In other words, the only way to achieve your songwriting dream is to learn to recognize Resistance, confront it and overcome the voice in your head that is your own Resistance.
Fight the resistance to write songs! Do you think it hard to write?
Think of Leo Tolstoy having thirteen kids and writing “War and Peace”.
Think of Lance Armstrong having cancer and winning Tour de France.
Defeating resistance will seem absolutely impossible at first. But it is possible.
To do so, you will need to think like a Professional.
In the book Pressfield makes a clear distinction between the Professional and the Amateur.
Here are some of the distinctions between the two:
- The Amateur plays part-time, the Professional full-time.
- The Amateur is a weekend warrior. The Professional is there seven days a week.
- The Amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it a sideline.
- The Professional loves the game so much that he dedicates his life to it. Though she accepts money, she does her work out of love.
- The Amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.
- The Professional endures adversity. Her core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless she lets it.
- The Professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them.
One of the symptoms of Resistance which I experienced is grandiose fantasizes: playing and singing on a huge stage in front of a roaring audience. I’ve had that picture run through my mind many times.
Pressfield says that grandiose fantasies are a sign of an Amateur. The Professional learned that success comes as a by-product of work. Therefore, it’s important to concentrate on the work – writing songs — and allow the rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.
So, when you do sit down to write songs don’t wait for The Muse or for inspiration. Sit down and write regularly. By merely sitting down and starting to work you will set the in motion a sequence of events that will eventually produce inspiration.
Pressfield says that the most important thing about art is to work. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.
When you’ll sit down day after day and keep writing eventually something will happen. Unseen forces will enlist in your cause and help you.
But what if others interrupt your brutal fight against Resistance? It is possible that when you’ll begin to overcome your Resistance – when you actually start to write – you may find that those close to you will start to act strange. They may accuse you of not being the person you once were.
If this happens this may be because they are struggling, consciously or unconsciously against their own Resistance. If it’s an artist maybe he/she is also struggling with songwriter’s block.
According to Pressfield, the best thing you could do is keep fighting and by doing so you’ll serve as an example and inspiration to them.
4. Take Small Steps
One of the biggest excuses I tell myself sometimes, is that I don’t have enough time to write songs.
Well, of course I don’t have any time: I read about songwriting instead of writing music and I listen to songs instead of writing them.
But there’s more: like many others, sometimes I spend a lot of time on Facebook, Instagram, television and email.
Guess what happens later? I complain that I put a lot of time into my craft and get nothing in return.
The fact is, I have plenty of time but I don’t have the willpower.
Rick has worked with Johnny Cash, Jay Z., Black Sabbath, Adele, Sheryl Crow, Lana del Rey, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and many more.
Tim asks Rick how he helps artists who feel stuck.
Rick answers “Usually, I’ll give them homework – a small, doable task. I’ll give you an example. There was an artist I was working with recently who hadn’t made an album in a long time, and he was struggling with finishing anything. He just had this version of a writer’s block. But I would give him very doable homework assignments that almost seemed like a joke.
‘Tonight, I want you to write one word in this song that needs five lines, that you can’t finish. I just want one word you like by tomorrow. Do you think that you could come up with one word?”.
From this we can learn that taking small steps is essential for overcoming songwriter’s block.
5. Make it a Habit
The small steps you have taken in order to start writing can gradually turn into a songwriting habit.
Jason Timothy, a producer, DJ coach and author, discusses this in his book “Music Habits – The Mental Game of Electronic Music Production: Finish Songs Fast, Beat Procrastination and Find Your Creative Flow”.
According to Timothy, making music is the ultimate process of repeatedly facing new difficult challenges that the brain doesn’t want to give energy to.
I totally agree.
Timothy compares making music to getting an airplane in the air: getting an airplane in the air requires a lot of consistent energy to reach a comfortable flight level. In order to get above ground you often have to temporarily pull energy from other sources.
Lift off is the stage you reach when your new action becomes a habit and gets added to your autopilot, requiring much less energy.
Sometimes when we try to write a new song we feel a need to escape the task. We want to take a nap or to do something else.
Timothy claims that the real reason many of the artists give up is that they haven’t put in enough consistent effort to change their current challenges into solutions on autopilot.
In order to be able to write easily you should first let go of big goals like “I have to write 50 songs by the end of the year”.
Instead, set a goal that is simple enough that it would be ridiculous to not be able to accomplish it every day.
The key here is every day.
Brian Wilson was once asked if music is work or play. He replied:
“Work. Definitely work, oh, yes. It’s play because it’s fun, it’s music. But most of it comes out work. For some reason, it all comes out work.”
(This quote was taken from the book Songwriters On Songwriting)
Consistency is a very important part in forming habits. Start with a small task like writing for one minute every morning.
Once you accomplish that you can add more writing time and add to the challenge.
However, don’t make it too challenging because then you’ll be tempted to skip a day and you’ll experience songwriter’s block again.
6. Read Less About How to Write Songs and instead Write Songs
Tutorials can be bad for you.
This is another thing that I learned from Jason Timothy’s “Music Habits – The Mental Game of Electronic Music Production: Finish Songs Fast, Beat Procrastination and Find Your Creative Flow”.
Tutorials — books, blogs, articles – that try to teach you how to write a song may be an invisible enemy. Timothy claims that most of us forget 80% of what we learned.
I agree, and I know — what I am saying here is a bit contradictory since this blog is about learning how to write songs.
This is not to say you shouldn’t read and learn about songwriting. You should, but do it moderately.
It’s better to fight through the difficulties of writing a song and learn from personal experience than learning this from a book.
Put simply, working on your song is an active experience whereas earning is passive.
7. Learn to Write On The Fly
This tip is for The Perfectionist.
If you are a Perfectionist then you probably feel a need to appear perfect all the time.
You often set unrealistic goals, punishing yourself harshly when you fail to meet them.
Perfectionism may paralyze your writing: you want everything to be just right before you ever put pen to paper.
Your standards are so high that you never actually begin. Songwriter’s Block.
Hillary Retting, author of “The 7 Secrets of the Prolific“, suggests a great technique that every writer can benefit from: learning to write on the fly.
Do you have fifteen minutes in between two activities? Without even thinking about it take your notebook out and start writing.
Do you have a twenty-minute train commute? Why not use this time to do some writing?
The pages will pile up if you add in extra fifteen minutes of writing here and there.
At the end of the week you’ll have enough material for a song or two.
8. Use the 5-Second Rule
“The 5 Second Rule” is a book written by Mel Robbins, author and motivational speaker.
What is basically says is that if you have an instinct or desire to act on something — like writing a song – you must physically move within five seconds.
If you don’t do that within five seconds, your brain will start generating lame excuses as to why not to do whatever it is you wanted to do.
What I like about the five-second rule is that it’s incredibly simple and straightforward.
When you hesitate before writing a song just count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and take action.
If you don’t take any action fear will arise and you’ll stay stuck.
If you do take action within the five seconds, you will prevent your brain from working against you.
9. Take a Break
Here is an interesting story I found while reading the book “Manage Your Day To Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”.
While writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain reached a point where he felt stuck.
He said “My tank had run dry”.
He abandoned writing it for two years and turned his mind to other things.
During these two years Twain’s “tank” had refilled itself and this discovery was a turning point in his writing career. He learned to take a break whenever the tank runs dry.
Taking a break may be a healthy thing to do when we’ve tried and tried to write but still felt stuck.
Carole King once mentioned taking a break as a way of getting over songwriters block:
“I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever. If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else.
Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back.
It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.”
(This quote was taken from the book Songwriters On Songwriting)
Robin Frederik, author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting says that taking a break will eventually help you feel more confident:
“Not sure whether you’re making the “right” choices? Hate all your ideas? Nothing seems to be working? Second-guessing yourself by constantly wondering if your song is any good? Try putting this song on hold for a little while. You’re not wasting time; you’ll be coming back armed to the teeth with confidence and new ideas!”
A great and not so obvious tool that helps the mind take a break and eventually overcome songwriters block is meditation.
Meditation gives the mind a healthy break.
By meditating you learn to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them.
According to a research by Lorenza Colzato and Dominique Lippelt from Leiden University, some meditation techniques can promote creative thinking.
Meditating is simple.
All you have to do is sit on a chair for ten minutes every day.
I’ve recently started using an app called Waking Up that guides you for free for the first 5 days.
Since I started using the app I have noticed that I am more focused and relaxed.
Another great meditation app you can check out is Headspace. It has 10 free guided mediations.
11. Write for Yourself Not for an Audience
The book ״On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction” is considered a must read for anyone who wants to write well. I highly recommend it.
One of the most important things I learned from William K. Zinsser, the author of the book, is to write for yourself not for an audience.
When I am trying to write a song I often ask myself “Who am I writing for?”.
The only answer to that question, according to Zinsser, is: You are writing for yourself.
By thinking of the Audience, I am being too busy with what others think of me and this creates a songwriter’s block.
If you really think of it, since every listener is a different person, there is no such “Audience”.
Some listeners don’t know what they want to listen to.
Many listeners are always looking for something new.
The bottom line: you are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the listeners who are worth writing for.
I hope this post showed you how to get that songwriting block out of the way and start writing.
Now I’d like to hear your take:
Which tool from this post are you ready to try first?
Are you going to start with the Morning Pages?
Maybe you’ll use the 5-Second Rule.
Either way, let me know in the comments section below.
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