Actually, this column contains ways to get past writers' block. Yes, usually it's "writer's block" not "writers' block." But, I moved the apostrophe just to make a point. We all get it—writers' block, not the point.
We get a hook, a verse, a groove, a chorus, or an idea, and then nothing happens. Lightning does not come down. Words don't flow. The muse has abandoned us.
Or worse! You've written 12 verses and you're only half-way through the story and you've managed to bore yourself. or you realize that every phrase has been recorded in better songs; every chord change sounds like songs you've already heard or written yourself.
You convince yourself that you'll never write anything good again. Panic attacks! You break out into a cold sweat. Your mouth gets dry and you can't even form a chord on the guitar, or keep your hands steady on a keyboard. You wander around the house muttering to yourself.
Hey! Write about the fear of writers' block. You can describe each reaction: what does fear taste like? ... sound like? ... smell like? ... look like? ... feel like on your skin?
Aha! Some thought's for getting past writers' block:
- Use details relating to all 5 physical senses: taste, smell, sounds, sight, sensation. Write down images that could stick in your mind, that convey the emotion without using the word that names the emotion. Be as specific as possible. Come up with as many images as you can, then see if they form a pattern. I did that in "Already Gone" (a 2010 Western Music Association finalist for best original song). I put the sounds in verse one and the sights in verse two.
- Tap into the true emotion. Acknowledge it. See if you can use that true emotion in a story. Let the story unfold. I wrote "Already Gone" when my car broke down in Kansas and I wanted to go home! I was alone in a strange town, had a lot of unexpected expenses, was missing work and not getting paid, and there was a snow storm coming in from the west.
- Listen to what you're saying to yourself. Ignore the self-criticism but listen to the words themselves. You might hear a great line for a song. I was angry at the man I was living with, at how much he was gone and how little he did when he was home. While ranting about it, I came up with most of the third verse to "Maybe This Time." I wasn't trying to write a song. I was into the anger, but part of my mind was monitoring what I was saying to myself.
- Pay attention to what you hear and read. Read magazines and books, watch TV, and listen to the radio. Eavesdrop on conversations. You might start to hear the same idea, the same phrase repeated. Or you might finda phrase that grabs your attention because of it's imagery. Two words in a book promted me to write "Ice Maiden." They became my title and the heart of the song. I wrote "Apache Plume" based on a street name.
- Read, watch or listen to something outside of your normal range. "Ice Maiden" started as a very loooooong ballad. I was bored and ready to do throw it away. Late one night, I heard a Reggae radio show. I rarely listen to Reggae, but I found myself puttin phrases from my boring ballad into that rhythm. Suddenly I had a very short but workable song.
- Allow yourself to ignore the music police. No one will arrest you if you write a Reggae song in a minor key about a woman as cold as ice. ("Ice Maiden") You're allowed to write your own rules. Ignore the strange responses you get from stepping outside the box. Or, better yet, listen to the strange responses and turn them into a song.
- Find stories you like. Books, magazines, TV shows, friends' and relatives' lives. "State Line Cafe" came from a magazine article. Some of the details were in the article, ripe for the pickin'.
- Use literary tricks. Alliteration (use of the same initial consonant sound) and rhymes can help your mind wander into uncharted territory. They're good techniques to use in songwriting and the unusual word can take a trite phrase and make it new. The verses in "I'm In It for the Food" were inspired entirely by words that rhym with "food." I took the trite phrase "day and night" and applied alliteration to it for the bridge in "Maybe This Time." The line because "She got caught between starlight and sunshine."
- Invent a background story. Sometimes our ideas are too vague to be adequately expressed. Invent a story with characters. Imagine what the characters would say and do if they told the story from their own point of view. It's easier to write sensory details if you are telling a story. I started with only two words for "Apache Plume" and "Ice Maiden."
Advice I heard at the Durango Song Expo: "When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'" — Chuck Cannon
From Songwriting and Writer's Block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck by Disc Makers
1. Start with a title
2. Look and listen everywhere
3. Carry a notebook, voice recorder, or both
4. Keep unfinished ideas
5. Write a lot
6. Identify your own clichés
7. Keep your inner critic at bay
8. Ask for help
9. Write on a secondary instrument
10. Take a break
11. Use your favorite artists for inspiration
DiscMakers came up with a great list and explanations for each item. I won't repeat that; I'll just add my own comments to them.
- "Montana Memories" came from the title of a magazine article. "I'll Hold You Close" is a variation of a book title. I didn't need to read the article or book.
- Ideas are all around. Look at all the songs that have been
written about simple things: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, She Loves
You, Doe a Deer, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Along the Navajo
Trail, Crazy, Walkin' at Midnight, Mean, California Girls, Red
Sails in the Sunset, Deep River Blues.....
- I use my cell phone to call my land-line voice mail. Then I log into the website and download my voice mail in .wav format.
- Keep parts of songs, too. I took out a song that wasn't going anywhere and extracted the best phrase from it. My intention was to put that phrase in another song. But I wound up rewriting the left-over song into something I like a lot better. A potential co-writer took out the "best part" of a new song that wasn't going anywhere. I let him take the chorus and I kept what was left. He's done nothing with the chorus, as far as I know, and I polished what was left. Both of these songs are going to be on my next CD.
- Beware of texting. That's not really writing. Write in journals, in emails, in columns on web page, and blog. Tell your subconscious it's okay to let the words flow.
- Identify your own cliches so you can change them. Don't let the cliche stop you from writing the song. You might decide to write a funny song using nothing but cliches. I think in terms of lyrics but musical cliches exist too. Everyone told me that the signiture chord and rhythmic structure to "Moondance" has made it impossible to use in any other song. Ditto the hook melodic line in "Smoke on the Water" and the bass line in "Stand By Me." But they can be taken and modified to work for you. So can your own musical cliches. Think: variations on a theme. I used a melodic theme with variations for the melody in "Stones."
- Don't let your inner critic (or fear of the music police) stop you. So what if someone else has already written the song? Make it your own: change the point of view, provide new images, write your own words and music, change the ending from sad to happy (or vice versa).
- Cowriters, song critique sessions, songwriting workshops, online site that critique your songs: they are there for the asking. Dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?), rhyming dictionaries, books of quotations: you don't even have to ask. There are web sites with writers' prompts to help you get started.
- Don't let your lack of expertise stop you from playing around with another instrument. Sometimes your limitation and "mistakes" can lead you to new and different musical ideas. If you only play guitar (or any other stringed instrument), try a new tuning on it. Or, try a keyboad. Play (in the sense of a child having fun) with it.
- Sleep can be a wonderful release of mental barriers. I got the hook for "Whole Lotta Pain" while I was sleeping. Try playing cards and see what melody lines are inspired by the order of the cards. Work in the garden. Paint a room. Go to a garage sale. That's where I saw the street sign that inspired "Apache Plume."
- Don't limit yourself to your favorite musicians or writers. Look at paintings, photographs, videos (without sound). Read poetry out loud and listen to the rhythm and the natural rise and fall of your voice to create a melody and rhythm. Listen to the music in the sounds of traffic on a busy street. Listen to the words in the wind when it blows through the branches of a tree.
Advice I heard at an NSAI meeting: "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Thanks for visiting AcousticByLines.