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October, 2010

"Writers' Block"

by Webmaster

I am a songwriter by inspiration

My first song was written on my first cross-country solo drive. It was inspired as much by the excitement and challenge of doing something for the first time as by the things I saw on the way.

I didn't write another song until I made another cross-country solo car trip. Once again, the song was inspired by what I was feeling and seeing. Neither song is what I'd call a "great" song, even though the second song was a finalist in the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival's New Songs Showcase that year.

That was my first trip to the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival. My total immersion in bluegrass for a week, my exposure to new-to-me musicians and songs, and my total focus on music inspired two new songs.

I read books on songwriting, went to songwriting workshops and asked for help from better songwriters. I learned, and am still learning, the craft of songwriting. I use it to complete and polish the songs I'm inspired to write.

I used to worry about writer's block. With each new song, I'd worry that I'd never have anything to say again.

I don't worry about writers' block any more. I have periods of weeks, sometimes months, when I don't write songs. So, I do other things. Batteries don't power anything while they are being recharged. Fields are fallow in the winter, before the crops grow and bloom.

And, at the end of that recharging time, I might write a song. Or three.

Some times necessities come first. It's hard for me to write songs if I'm worried about money, working seven days a week, sick, helping sick relatives or pets, or dealing with car wrecks. I give myself permission to be in that space, realizing it won't last forever.

My priorities come back around to songwriting. And, inspiration comes.

But what if inspiration doesn't come? Or, what if inspiration only takes you so far?

Here are some ideas to help you past writers' block:

  • Don't Worry. Worrying about writer's block causes writer's block. Accept it and do something else for a while.
  • Honor Your Muse. If a song idea comes to you, acknowledge the idea and write the song. It may not be the best song you ever write. Then again, it just might be the best song you ever write. Don't question why you were inspired to write what you did. Accept it. And, write it.
  • Accept Imperfection. Songs are rarely perfect when they come to you. Dan Crary told me, "The word p. e. r. f. e. c. t. is a transitive verb, not an adjective." Once you've captured your inspiration, use the craft of songwriting to perfect the song. Allow them to be two separate processes. If you start perfecting too soon, you may lose the rest of your inspiration.
  • Make Notes. Inspiration comes at the most inconvenient time. If you say to yourself, "I don't have time for this now," the great song that could have come to you gets turned away. It may not return. Take a few minutes to capture the essence of a song. Sing it over and over in the shower until you can grab a pen and write it down. Dial your home phone from your cell phone while sitting at a red light, and sing to your voice mail. Keep a pad of paper and a pen by your bed and write down dream songs before you get out of bed.
  • Remember Your Dreams. We all have schedules and demands first thing in the morning. It's not easy to remember dreams. When you can, write them down. Also, try to remember the dreams you had as a kid. What happened to them? There could be a great story there. And a great story can become a great song.
  • Listen to Your Inner Voice. Is your inner voice critical? Well, if your inner voice tells you negative things about your songwriting, DON'T LISTEN TO IT. Answer it and tell it you are good enough and your songs are good enough. But, if your inner voice comments on other parts of your life, answer it. If you relive conversations and confrontations, and think of new things you could have said, listen to those voices. Sometimes they help you resolve issues and reach closure. Let those things that are important to you inspire songs. Some songwriters have made a career of writing songs that help them resolve issues and reach closure.
  • Don't Over-Analyze. If asking yourself why an idea came to you, or what it means, helps you write the song, go for it. But, if it stops you in your tracks, just accept the idea. As a friend of mine once told me, "You're a songwriter. Just write the song!"
  • Accept Parts of Songs. You might be inspired to write a verse, a chorus or just a great hook. Capture it. It might grow to be a whole song, or fit into another song. You might come back to it days or years later, rewrite it from a new perspective and finish a great song.
  • Allow Songs to Develop. Some songs come in 15 minutes. Others may take 15 months. Or years. Don't force a song into a premature birth or a preconceived mold. Allow it to become the song it wants to be.
  • Work With Co-Writers. They may have parts of songs that could use parts of songs you've written. Or, they may have an idea for the next line that will inspire you to write the next two verses. They may take one of those not-good-enough songs and re-write to something outstanding. They may take one of your songs to a place you never thought of.
  • Do Something New. Take a trip. Listen to songwriters you've never heard before and song styles you don't ordinarily hear. You might hear a phrase that inspires a whole song. You might hear a rhythm that will bring an ordinary chorus to life. You might taste a Thai curry, see a black and white photo of an old house, or feel a soft breeze scented with orange blossoms. Allow those sensations to open up new paths in your mind.
  • Do Something Boring. Drive alone with the radio off. Paint a room. Clean the house. Rake the yard. Take a long, hot bath. Any task that leaves your mind free to wander can allow it to wander into fertile ground.
  • Read, Watch TV, Listen to People. Eavesdrop. Open yourself to feelings, phrases and stories. Maybe a daytime TV show with real people airing their issues in public will grab you. Maybe a thoughtfully and poetically written novel will inspire you. Maybe your co-workers life with a three children and a truck-driving husband will inspire you. Maybe something in a blog will inspire you. I found myself writing a song about an autopsy using phrases from a Patricia Cornwall novel.
  • Look For Stories. There are songs that tell stories and songs about feelings. Underlying the songs about feelings are stories that inspired the feelings. It's easier to write overt stories: describe the scene and characters, narrate the plot. If you want to write a song about feelings, remember the story behind the feelings. Or start with a story and describe the feelings it inspires. Write from the point of view of one of the characters in the story.
  • Combine Ideas. Go back to your notes and take song parts that seem to be unrelated. Then try to make connections. The various parts might be the verses, and what you learn by connecting them could be the chorus or the bridge, or both.
  • Take Another Point of View. I once advised someone to write the story of "My Darling Clementine" from the point of view of the ducks she fed every day. When Richard Shindell wrote the opening line "My name is Mary Magdalene," he gave a new interpretation to the line he quoted in the chorus: "Jesus loves me." Write from the point of view of someone from history or a novel or movie.
  • Play With Words. Use puns, a clever turn of phrase, and clever twists of trite expressions. "Love 'em and leave 'em" is a trite description. I refer to songs of this nature, done bluegrass-style, as "love 'em and kill 'em." The change of one word could cause your point of view to open up to new possibilities.
  • Consider All Five Senses. Describe shapes and colors, odors and tastes, noises and music, textures and temperatures. Figure out which ones fit the scene in your story or the character. Describe the sensation of an emotion rather than stating the emotion: "Cold shivers ran up his back, his eyes widened and he froze on the spot" vs. "he felt afraid." Think of your song as a series of slides, then visualize each slide.
  • Use Tools. A dictionary, rhyming dictionary and thesaurus are commonly used by songwriters. Use Google and Wikipedia to get more information about your subject and Mapquest for geographical details. Free Will Astrology inspires me. There are sites that offer a quote a day. There are packages of magnets with words and phrases on them. They magnets can be moved around to form differents phrases and sentences. Dove chocolate includes ideas inside the wrappers. Celestial Teas have quotes on the box and may still have them on the tea bags. Fortune cookies can inspire you. Incidentally, you can Google "writers prompts" and get lists of ideas and exercises to help you get your creative side motivated.
  • Read Poetry. Try setting an old poem to music. Then rewrite it to use current expressions and details. Change it to reflect your own experience.
  • Write Write Write. Program your subconscious to write. Write in a journal. Write in emails. Write notes to your family members. Blog. Get comfortable and accustomed to writing. Make writing an integral part of your life and see yourself as a writer. Write a monthly column on a web site.
  • Limit the Scope of Your Song. Songs that try to bring about world peace are challenging to write. The best love song ever written may be beyond your ability (and is subjective, anyway). A photo of a single leaf may be far more powerful than a photo of the whole forest; a photo of a single face can be more powerful than a photo of a crowd. A lover who shows up to a lunch date wearing a shirt you love, carrying a single red rose, may be more touching than a book about the grandeur of love.
  • Don't Stop. Rather, don't stop at the end of a logical stopping place (a verse or chorus) if your inspiration gives you more than that. Ed Hawkins, an author and eBook publisher, told me that when he writes a novel, he never stops at the end of a chapter. He starts the next chapter, and stops in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph. Rereading to that point helps him get the ideas back.

I hope this list gets you past writers' block. If you have anything to add to the list, or success stories from taking idea(s) from this list, please email me and let me know.

Thanks for visiting AcousticByLines.

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