Songwriter U: Writer’s Block, and How to Transcend it Forever, Part One

Face your fears.
And stop empowering them.

“There are ways,” said Bob Dylan, “that you can get out of whatever you’ve gotten into.” From our 1991 interview, he’s discussing ways of remaining creatively engaged so as to do good work, without slipping into the malaise of sameness, that uninspired sense that you’re spinning your wheels. As soon as that happens, Dylan advised, get off the main road. Take a detour.

“You want to get out of it,” he said. “It’s bad enough getting into it. But the thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it . And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing. So once you involve yourself in it, once you accidentally have slipped into it, the thing is to get out.”

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But when you get out, how do you get back in? Sometimes taking the normal routeisn’t the best way. It’s the most obvious and logical method. But obvious logic, which is made up of conventional, linear thinking, is too limited to apply to songwriting. Regular physical realities, such as the dynamic of cause and effect, simply do not aply to songwriting. Occasionally they might, but regular laws of physics are mostly unrelated to songwriting.

Part of this is due to the fact that a song being born is like a living thing coming into the world, and its safe delivery requires a delicate, loving approach. Always there is the risk of scaring away a nascent song spark, not unlike a frightened kitten, by being too directly aggressive. Chances are it might run under the couchto hide, where you can’t reach it.

At this precarious moment in its development, that spark – that tiny flame — is a “living spirit,” as Rickie Lee Jones said, which requires gentle, loving guidance to nurture into a fullblown song. But if that unformed, unrealized song glimmer is questioned, criticized, intimidated or scared, “you will destroy it,” said Rickie Lee. You’ll kill is before it is even born.

A song spark – not unlike a baby newly delivered into this world – needs nourishment, comfort and calm. Love helps too. Authentic love for its strengths and singularities. If you don’t feel that, or if there are aspects of the song which you feel are unlovable, work on those, and revise them. Trust your instincts.

Remember a song in formation is extremely sensitive to everything, yet unknowing of most things beyond the fundamental urge to survive. A construct of the songwriter’s psychology, it’s extremely delicate, not unlike a tiny flame one tries to bolster into a big campfire, while a winter wind keeps whipping . Your own negative ideas, such as doubting, questioning or mistrusting this spark, are like that wind, capable of snuffing out that little flame before it has a chance to grow up.

In this way, songwriting becomes a process of negotiating with one’s own interior psychology. To do that well over years -decades even- requires learning the impact of your attitudes about creativity, and specifically, songwriting. Only by becoming conscious of that which works for you and that which doesn’t, and actively avoid that which always stalls or ends the process, you won’t get past that stage.

But how do you do that? Not scaring off that glimmer of song is only the start. How do you engage with it? How do you make it feel safe? Songs, unlike baby birds, don’t learn to fly by being pushed out of the tree.

So how then? This series which will explore this phenomenon and its psychological foundation. Starting with Part II we will provide a host of creatively practival ideas, tricks, techniques and more to become expert with this delicate dynamic of bringing song spirits into the world.

On believing Writer’s Block is real.
(It isn’t).

Rickie Lee Jones

It begins with first removing all hindrances. Like ensuring one can get out of a house easily in case of fire by having no obstructions, a songwriter must also create a clear pathway. This means removing psychological obstructions created by your own ideas.

Which brings us to “writer’s block.” So prevalent is this concept that most people regard it as a real affliction, not unlike a broken arm, or Chicken Pox. It’s considered an unavoidable sickness, and one which simply needs to be endured. People assume they will heal in time, but it can take months, and there’s no medicine to quicken recovery.

But it is not a real affliction at all; it’s a psychological contruct of your own brain; created and empowered entirely by your own anxiety or fear.

In truth, creativity and your personal success at harnessing it is entirely dependent on your ability to clear the way. This means clearing out all fear, or worry, or any negativity which can get in the way. If there are any psychological assumptions obstructing you, they need to be removed. And none of those is worse than this idea of writer’s block.

It’s important to divorce yourself entirely from this line of thinking, so as to erase the potential of falling into this same trap. Otherwise, you actively promote the false notion that your creativity gets stopped in its tracks like blood to the heart. But it isn’t true at all. It isn’t physical.

Also important is to recognize that, for whatever reason, creativity ebbs and flows. There are those days when, as Tom Petty said, “the guitar just feels friendly” and suddenly a song begins to flow.

But there are also days when you get nothing. That is normal. It is rare for any artist to remain plugged into the source all the time. On those days when nothing is coming, or writing seems arduous or worse, accept it as part of the process. It is not a sign of writer’s block.

So it is crucial for all artists to never think in the negative terms of writer’s block. Simply using the phrase “writer’s block” empowers its reality in your life. You are convincing your creative core that it is obstructed, and empowering the belief to be real. This is the malignant result of negative thinking.

Often songwriters and other creative folks use writer’s block as an excuse. If this is what you do, telling yourself and the world that you have caught this disease which renders you creatively powerless so you don’t have to do your work, this will hurt you. If that’s even partially true, then it’s time to seriously scrutinize the actual cause. Often the real cause is fear of completion; that sense that the song will never be perfect, or even close, so better to never finish it.

There can be a whole host of other reasons why your writing isn’t flowing. To expect an easy condition in which you can turn the handle and songs will flow always is unrealistic. Rather than curse the darkness for your failure to make magic every time, you should celebrate the inner light and give thanks for all the times you connected. Don’t take that for granted by believing writer’s block has cut you off.

As the legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier said, not only must you never consider writer’s block, you should take it even farther: “I never say that I had a good day or a bad day writing. Instead, I have good days and learning days.”

Lamont Dozier of Holland, Dozier, Holland. Photo by Paul Zollo.

Good days and learning days. That is great advice. Because it is your thinking–the way you frame your experience–that directly affects your psyche, the core of your creativity.

Recognize that all artists have good days and bad days. But they are not completely random. It takes a lot of energy to do this well. If you are exhausted and feel blocked, you don’t have writer’s block. You need sleep.

It requires a lot of energy to do this and not let it go until the song is well-formed enough not to fall apart, even when incomplete. If you are simply exhausted and in need of rest, it can get really hard to write anything. If other life problems are burdening you and if you feel depressed, anxious or even distracted, that will obstruct.

It comes down to being honest with yourself. If your goal is to be a serious songwriter, get serious. This is serious work. Just because it is fun – and it is music – it still requires a clear and unobstucted process. When you drive a car, you take it seriously enough so as not to crash. There’s no excuses. Do you bring that same clarity and seriousness to your songwriting? If not, you can get lost. Or worst. You can crash.

So keep your eye on the road, stay alert, and be vigilant in avoiding any psychological pot-holes.

In Part II, we will offer some short-cuts to getting there, and other routes unknown to most.

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