Songwriter U: How to Deal with Writer’s Block

“Songwriters,” said Carole King, “are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are. Writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever. “

Although that advice might seem like a simplistic solution to a complex problem, in fact it’s the one most offered by scores of songwriters. The consensus being that writer’s block is entirely a psychological concept, created in the mind of the songwriter to define a temporary inability to connect with the source of songs.

But the truth is that as soon as you label the thing “writer’s block,” you are admitting defeat, suggesting what is temporary is permanent, and thus giving more power to that which stands in your way.

Yet the only thing really in your way is you. As soon as you ignore that you are momentarily derailed and conclude instead that you are actually blocked, it becomes impossible to proceed. You’ve built a wall between you and the wellspring of your own creativity.

It all stems from the understanding that songwriting comes from a mysterious place, and tapping into that mystery is the ongoing challenge. As Leonard Cohen famously said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” a humorously humble way of acknowledging that there is no repeatable method by which we can access the source.

But did Cohen ever admit defeat, call “writer’s block” and stop working? No, he simply kept working, always vocal about how slow the process took for him, and explaining it could take him years to finish a song. The only real way to get out of a creative hole, he showed us, is to dig. It takes work. The only way to keep the work going, and to never accept true blockage, is to never stop. To keep going day after day takes diligence, patience and faith — faith in your own creative powers.

King advises us to trust the songwriter inside us. “Trust that it will be there,” she said. “If it ever was once, and you’ve 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.”

“I don’t even want to say ‘blocked,’” she said, “because it seems too strong a word. But when the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through… I never worried about it, and it always opened up again. Whether it was an hour later, or a day later or a week later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it.”

Another aspect to this dilemma is to recognize music is, at its heart, a joyful thing. Though songwriting is work, it is joyful work, what Laura Nyro called her “serious playground.” When songwriters connect with the joy of music and creativity, songs flourish. Even when the content or emotion of a song is dark, the creation stems from joy. It’s important to allow that joy to flow. As soon as the songwriter becomes too precious about the creation, it creates pressure which gets in the way.

It’s the reason Paul Simon said he prefers to discover songs instead of inventing them. He stays always open to what comes through more than any attempt to express a preconceived idea.

“As soon as your mind knows it is on,” Simon said, “and is supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn’t or it produces things which are predictable…. It becomes what you want to say to the world instead of what is really true. So I think when I have writer’s block – though I never think of it as writer’s block anymore – what it is is that you have something to say to the world but you don’t want to say it. So your mind says, ‘I have nothing to say…I can’t write anything.’ So you have to find another approach.”

Simon, like many, has come up with countless new methods of connecting with songs, each designed to bypass that doubting mind. To generate lyrics, he started creating tracks first to open the lyrical flow. While working on Graceland, he would throw a rubber ball against the wall as a way of circumventing the usual thoughts so as to discover new words. He also said driving while working on songs works for him, though doesn’t result in good driving.

Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart’s best antidote to avoiding writer’s block, he said, is, “Just have fun. So many artists with whom I’ve worked have so little time to write songs, and are expected to create masterpieces. But creativity doesn’t work that way. One must relax and have fun.”

So Dave’s method, which has led to a profusion of great songs he’s co-written with such artists as Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks and others, is to have fun. “I tell them, look, let’s write and record one as fast as we can,” he said, “and have a bloody good time doing it. And if it is no good, I say, and they don’t like it, then nobody will ever hear it. This takes all the pressure off, and we always end up with a song. And a good one.”

It’s there the best answer lives, which is that “writer’s block” only has as much power as the writer instills in it. By connecting with the inherent joy of music and creation, by recognizing that the channels are never truly closed forever, and by being patient and persistent, one can effectively avoid writer’s block forever.

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