Written by Eric Hutchinson
Videos by American Songwriter
I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore. I’ve written enough songs to know that any time I have nothing to say, it probably means my life has quietly gotten monotonous and I’ve exhausted the experiences I can draw from. I’ve heard countless times about how important it is for a writer to sit down and practice her craft every day, to keep her tools sharpened. When I was younger, I did just that, toiling away at the guitar or the piano daily, waiting for creativity to strike me, but mostly just driving myself crazy. I’ve honed my trade plenty, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve got adult responsibilities—I’m a dad, a husband, a fantasy basketball team owner. At this point in my life, there’s nothing less productive than sitting down to stare at a blank piece of paper when I’m not feeling imaginative. These days, I find the most effective way to coax a song out of myself, is by actively trying not to write a song at all.
Everyone’s inner inspiration is different. Most can be a bit too precious—Wow me. Praise me. Indulge me. Inspirations can be so needy. I’ve learned to practice a certain kind of tough love with my creativity to show it I’m the boss. First, I’ll wake up in the morning and not sit down to write a song in my pajamas. Instead, I’ll just go about my day, pretending my artistry means nothing to me and that I don’t have any intention of ever writing a song again. My inspiration hates this. Next, I’ll re-watch an episode of Mad Men for the seventh time. My inspiration will become impatient, whispering in my ear to get to work, that I’m worthless if not productive. I just ignore it, and instead, eat an ice cream sandwich and play myself in backgammon. My inspiration seethes. Next, my inspiration will get fed up and eventually tire itself into an idea that will stick in me. Still, I do not write. I listen to a classical music radio station. This sticky idea will stew and become a passionate feeling inside of me that will slowly raise its hand and beg me to immortalize it into a song. I’ve got my inspiration right where I want it. Now, it’s time to clear some time to write.
But what does a songwriter do when he’s not writing? It’s like a surfer without a wave, a carpenter without a hammer or an analogy-maker without a comparison. Good news is, there are an endless number of things to do while you’re not writing. Take a walk in a new place. Go camping. Eat something spicy. Take the coldest shower you can. Speak with an old friend and reminisce. Make a new friend and learn something. Watch a movie. Read a book. Gossip. Get your hands dirty. Cook. Improve your faux-British accent (or your faux-American one, if you’re already British). Paint. Help someone else. Call your mother. Do anything, as long as you’re not staring at your phone. The important part is to do something fun and thrilling. Don’t do it for the song, do it because it sounds fun or meaningful to you in your life. Then do another thing and another.
Don’t be afraid to really amp things up in the name of ingenuity. Skydiving, giving blood, amateur fight club wrestling—all worthy pastimes. Most recently, I took my non-songwriting activities to the next level and went and got my wife pregnant. We had a baby girl and, wow, did that deliver a ton of experiences and feelings. Those experiences evolved into inventiveness. That inventiveness bubbled into passion. That passion rumbled around inside me for a while until, finally, it woke me up one morning and demanded it be converted into song form. (My laborious songwriting process is a whole other column.) Anyway, I obliged my experience-turned-inventiveness-turned-passion, and I ended up with an album called Before & After Life, my jazz-tinged ruminations and musings on the circle of life. I think it’s my most personal, and dare I say, inspired album yet, and it all came from just living my life.
So that’s my challenge to you, here in American Songwriter magazine: try to go as long as you can without writing a song. Try to let those impassioned inspirational moments do the heavy lifting and come to you when they’re ready. It could be a day, a week, a month. It could be a hundred years, if you can afford to wait that long. Just be inspired by your own life for a while. See how much love and experience you can soak up. See how much emotion you can feel. Then wait for whatever inspired idea fights its way to the top of your priorities and demands to become your next song.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a roast in the oven.