How to Beat Writer's Block
Writer's block is like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster: people debate its existence, but I mostly don't believe in it. My observation is that writer's block is typically a symptom of 1 of 3 problems:
1. Unfair comparison to the work of other artists
2. Succumbing to brain crack
3. Option anxiety or decision fatigue
Isolating the cause of your writer's block will help you overcome it. Comparison, brain crack, and decision fatigue are all distinct enough problems that warrant different solutions. But there are solutions!
I remember the moment I realized I wanted to play music for the rest of my life. I was seven years old in the back seat of my uncle Monty's car, and Rush's *Freewill* came on the radio. The lyrics overwhelmed me, and my heart raced at the dire precision of Neil Peart's drumming. From that point on, I trawled record shops to find incredible artists who could be distant mentors to me. The joy of being inspired by other artists was almost as exhilarating as sitting behind a drum kit.
As I got older, something else started to happen.
When I started writing my own songs, I found that nothing I wrote was as good as anything I had been inspired by. I tried using the same words, chords, phrases, and it all felt awkward and contrived. I was a kid! The odds that any 13-year-old could write a song as good as any established artist are dismal. So I did what many people do; I clammed up and used writer's block as an excuse for years.
As artists, there is an omnipresent temptation to compare ourselves to those who inspired us to pursue our craft. In our infancy as artists, we exist with full knowledge of the gap between our current skill level and our potential. Ira Glass introduced the idea of "The Gap" in this beautiful quote:
Writer's block is effectively a form of quitting. So the first decision to make is to be persistent. Once you've resolved to stick with your craft, there are some practical approaches you can take to bridge the gap.
1. Limit Your Inputs
One excellent strategy to mitigate the influence of your inspirations is simply limiting your interaction with them. Streaming music has the pernicious effect of putting us in competition with the entire history of recorded music. Seeing how many plays or likes an artist gets through streaming platforms and social media can be disheartening and is usually an unfair comparison.
When you need to write, limit the amount of information you take in. Listen to fewer records and reduce your social media time. Focus on synthesizing what you know and working within your capabilities. It took me a long time to realize that there is a time for action and a time for wood shedding, and those two things rarely intersect. Try looking at your songs as progress reports of where you are as a songwriter.
2. Stop Buying Myth of the Solitary Genius
In his book, How Music Works, David Byrne details the impact modern recording technology has on the amateur musician community. He makes one fascinating point regarding the story we tell ourselves about how culture progresses:
It's important to realize that you exist in a community of artists who all had to start somewhere. At some point, every artist you admire was like you, even those touched by genius. Take the pressure off yourself to embody the *meme of solitary genius* and focus on the song in front of you.
3. Play the Numbers Game
Ira Glass articulated a real problem spectacularly; he also gave a perfect solution to the problem of "The Gap" in the second half of his quote:
Playing the numbers game to build a body of work is the best strategy to overcome the tyranny of ambition. You'll turn your songwriting into an iterative process by finishing more work. And you'll learn more along the way!
Brain Crack Kills
Brain Crack is something you've seen the effects of but maybe never had a name for. Vlogger Ze Frank coined the term to describe what happens to an idea that is allowed to go unexecuted.
When we have an idea, it's tough to see the shortcoming of that idea because no one can build a complete model of reality in their head. The idea may be good or bad, but if you leave it untested, you can always be satisfied that you have a good idea. The other upside of not moving on the idea is that you insulate yourself from failure. It sounds like a great strategy, except it's not.
Eventually, if you let yourself indulge in enough brain crack, you will become a bitter person with a life full of regrets. I see brain crack addicts all the time in songwriting subreddits, and it usually looks like this:
Songwriting brain crack keeps you believing that if you have a good idea, there should be some way to magically invoke the good lyric muses to lend you the words for your great idea. The reality is that anything can make a great song in the right hands. Usually, when people are frustrated by their lack of lyrics, they are afraid to face the quality of the work they are capable of producing.
There are two solutions to this problem, and they go hand in hand. The first thing to do is to be humble and make peace with the fact that you will imagine ideas that exceed your current skill set. I can imagine building a rocket, but hot damn, if I tried to do that, it would be a catastrophe. Cultivate a growth mindset, and don't pin your image of success on the execution of a single idea.
The other practical step you can take is to seek feedback regularly. Show your songs to people. Sit down and co-write with someone, and try to take a backseat. Ask questions about why they make the decisions they do. If you feel you would have done it differently, you now have something new to try.
Ultimately, the gap between our taste and ambition causes us to derive pleasure from brain crack. If you focus on execution and receive feedback on that execution, you'll be able to grow more quickly as a songwriter. You'll also become the type of songwriter people like to collaborate with. A willingness to learn and hear other people's perspectives is always an asset in a collaborative project.
The Paradox of Choice and Option Anxiety
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz details how the proliferation of choice in western industrialized society has produced a unique overabundance of options. This proliferation of options has the effect of inducing analysis paralysis and a nagging dissatisfaction with the decisions that we end up making.
You've probably felt this at some point in your musical career. You pop open a new project in your DAW of choice, and before you know it, you've spent the last hour scrolling through plug-ins and presets, looking for that perfect sound. Or maybe you've stared at a page in a chord or rhyming dictionary, desperately waiting for inspiration to strike. In both cases, the number of decisions leading up to getting anything done will likely take the wind out of your sails before you can coast along, let alone finish a song.
If you feel this type of option anxiety causing decision fatigue in your songwriting workflow, you can make Pareto-improving moves that take decisions off the table. A Pareto-improving move is a strategy that offloads the bulk of decision-making to some other system and leaves you in a position to make the 20% of decisions that matter. In music, this means establishing creative limits or boundaries.
It's crucial as you approach this to think of songwriting as a game instead of the creation of your magnum opus. As you are working on a song, if you keep all options on the table at all times, you're likely to lose steam. Imagine a game of chess. There are 64 squares for a reason----if there were infinite squares, the game would become utterly pointless. Think of these limits as rules of a temporary game. Once you finish the song, you've completed the game. You can always decide if you want to play that particular game again later.
1. Make Decisions Before Your Songwriting Session
One game you can play is the Jack White game. The White Stripes are a perfect example of how to remove options strategically. Jack White plays poorly made guitars to resist the temptation to get fancier than he needs to with a song. The White Stripes, as a band, only had two members and chose only three colors for their visual aesthetic. By making these decisions ahead of time, they could focus on the musical elements that mattered most to them.
Another shining example of innovation within constraints is Koji Kondo. He built his entire career on outsmarting the limitations of sound reproduction technology in home video game consoles. Still, one of his finest moments was composing all 12 spell melodies for Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The unique design of this classic game and the limitations of the Nintendo 64 controller forced Kondo to produce melodies from a set of 5 notes alone. You can replicate this experiment by choosing a select pool of notes before you start writing. The cool thing is that you only need to stick with this limitation as long as you are stuck. Once you develop your song, you'll find that the rule will become less crucial, and you'll have a better idea of what you want to say. If you're working on lyrics, try limiting the pool of words you're selecting from. See my article on writing what you know if you'd like more info about creating a word pool.
2. Choose a Musical Form and Stick To it
An understated advantage of the White Stripes is that they began making music using a very restricted form. The 12-Bar Blues is one of the most recognizable forms in popular music. The White Stripes' music has its roots in this form, and by internalizing it, they were able to subvert and re-imagine it.
This isn't only true of the White Stripes; It's true of the Beatles as well. The Beatles started as a rhythm and blues cover band before changing the world with their music. One of the reasons they began to write songs was because the bands they shared the stage with were playing all the same covers. Paul McCartney elaborates on this:
In this one quote, we see several ways that The Beatles were able to master their craft. They internalized the musical forms of their day, used great songs as a template for their own "terrible" songs, played their songs to an audience, and eliminated the songs that stunk!
There is no shame in playing an established game. Try playing some covers and then use the structure of those songs to craft your own. Live with the form for a while, and you'll be amazed at how quickly you start to think of clever ways to make that form sound fresh!
3. Set a Deadline or a Time Frame
There is a heated debate regarding whether or not deadlines kill creativity. I shake out on the side of deadlines in this debate. Yes, deadlines kill creativity----but when you're trying to take a song over the finish line, it's likely not beneficial to dream up new potential ideas. Remember: beware of brain crack. A deadline makes you commit to ideas and drive for results.
Jack White said a little about this in an interview:
And if we recall, even Ira Glass recommended having a deadline:
It's easy to believe that there is a *better* idea waiting around the corner if we give ourselves time, but Barry Schwartz has written an entire book about how that is usually just a fairy tale we tell ourselves. I've lived both strategies and always benefited from a deadline.
I have a songwriting friend named Paul. We work on projects together from time to time, and we get something done every time we get together. I learned how to work at this pace from him. Because of him, I don't view deadlines as my enemy. They're a helpful boundary that enables me to get to the essence of a song with more focus and clarity. The added benefit is that your songs will have a sense of urgency that they may have otherwise lacked.
Deadlines aren't the only way to limit your time frame. You can schedule your songwriting time and be strict about that. The funny thing about giving yourself a finite block of time is that once you're in flow, you'll inevitably want more. I encounter this in object writing exercises. The exercise period is 10 minutes long, and every time I start, it feels like I have to fill an eternity. I usually get frustrated by the end of the 10 minutes because I'm just getting on a roll! You'll astound yourself with how beneficial it can be to limit your songwriting sessions.
Parameters are your friend. Things need boundaries to be distinct. It's easy to feel constrained or hemmed in by rules or limits, but artists who complain about these things are the least productive and have the least to show for themselves by the end of their careers. Usually, the best of the best have mastered a game and can transcend the rules of that game to arrive at something novel. Bach may be the ultimate example of this. He is the best composer of fugues the world has ever known. It doesn't mean that he only ever followed the rigid rules of polyphony; there are plenty of examples of when he didn't. But you can bet the man could write something to the letter at the drop of a hat when he needed to. Interestingly enough, Bach never reported having writer's block.