The Top 11 causes of Writer’s Block & How to break the cycle
Writer’s block is a creativity killer that we’ve all run into time & time again. Sometimes these periods can last days or months. In my case, it was years. Sure, I still toyed around with new programs & made a few decent ideas, but nothing was completed or released during this time.
The sad thing is that it’s easy to use writer’s block as a crutch so we define every creative obstacle as a form of writer’s block & give up. Many of us don’t even bother to try to define what writer’s block even is.
Lack of inspiration?
Lack of Motivation?
A creative black hole?
All of these definitions could be accurate, but let’s start calling it by it’s real name. Fear.
Fear is something you can face & overcome, unlike something as impenetrable as Writer’s Block. Sounds like a disease with no cure but to wait it out doesn’t it? It’s not.
Let me try to shed some light on the subject & hopefully set you back on the path of creating right away. Below are habits & belief systems that have lead me to the dreaded Writer’s block & some ways to crawl out of that hole.
Avoiding simplicity – A huge obstacle many people have is that they are trying too hard to impress themselves & their peers. Every idea that they come up with seems too obvious, too simple or both. Sound familiar?
It’s important to remember though, you are writing a song, not a riff. The only way a song can work is when it lays on top of a simple foundation. When you let go of your ego & just bang out a few chords you’ll find that more complex ideas will come to you as you play those simple parts back.
Complex parts are always derived from a more simplistic idea, so don’t be afraid to start simple & add layers until you hear something interesting. If you come up with a better idea later on, you can always scrap your simple parts later. More often than not though, it’ll be the simple parts that will give your song it’s backbone.
Don’t over complicate. Start with something you might consider overly simply, obvious or amateur if you have no other inspiration. Keep building the idea until something interesting comes of it. If it doesn’t turn into something you love, don’t sweat it. You’ve pushed past the fear of simplicity & survived.
Avoiding sucking – This is a huge one. Anyone is capable of sucking & we don’t want to be in that anyone category, so instead we hold out for genius. This can be a very long wait. During this time, you get more & more out of practice, so your current skills start to get rusty. The longer you wait, the harder it is to jump back on that horse. It’s a much better idea to challenge your fear of sucking head on every time. If you can’t make genius, make soemthing that sucks just for the hell of it. Have a laugh. Do you have any idea how much genius was created this very way?
Why are you so afraid of sucking? Tell me one thing you are good at now that you weren’t worse at when you started? Everyone who has created genius has a lot of suck in their closets that you haven’t heard. Don’t sweat it. Your job it to choose which of your creations are the best ones to share. Never stop creating altogether because you are afraid of sucking. Anytime you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you are going to have to face the fear of sucking. Might as well get used to it now instead of later.
No Feedback – This is a big one these days. We create for ourselves, but if we are honest, we also create for the reaction & feedback of others. It’s why we all got into this.
When all you have to do these days is make a clever post on Facebook to get “liked”, this instant gratification becomes a curse when you are writing music. You want to know as you are in the process of writing whether something is good or bad.
The excitement of others fuels the creative process, whether it be friends, bandmates or family (although, you’re family will rarely tell you you’re work is genius). It’s good to look over your shoulder for some feedback when you are unsure. Not having it can put you in the fearful position of having to think through a creative block on your own, not knowing if you are building on an idea that doesn’t have a good foundation to start with.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes you are gonna have to grow some balls & be willing to say “I like this & I’m willing to take the risk that you won’t”. To always rely on other people is going to hinder you from finding your own unique way & that is what the world wants from you anyway.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t work with other people or get opinions. Just always be prepared to accept criticism & go your own direction anyway. It’s liberating.
Creative beliefs – A big part of writer’s block is the belief that some people have got it and some people don’t. What you spend your time doing is figuring out which side of the fence you are on. This is a trap. Nobody can be inspired if they hold the belief that whatever it is that makes someone a true artist, they don’t have it.
You are going to have to reprogram your belief system to the understanding that there are some people that preserver through their creative challenges, and those who give up.
It’s pretty easy to know which side you stand on with that belief & the remedy is crystal clear. The it is something that comes from putting so much time into your craft that you no longer fear it.
Social media – This is really similar to having no feedback in our creative lives. The first thing we want to do when we feel insecure with our creations is made a clever post on your social network of choice. This gives you your “fix” of approval.
The downside is that it becomes so easy to get approval this way that doing real creative work takes a backseat. A good way to break this pattern is to intermix creativity & social media by announcing your creative goals & putting up your progress for those who support you.
It’s really important to create partnerships with other musicians of a similar vibe or style. These are your “go to” people when you want feedback on an idea.
Get yourself a Soundcloud page & post private links to people you trust to be the most constructive & honest. You may also want to make a separate page on your Facebook or Google+ strictly for your music. If you are going to be on those sites, you might as well use them to build your support team.
Brand yourself as an artist so people will expect work from you. This should help break the pattern of instant gratification. Also, never forget that you are in the driver’s seat. You can ask for directions, but never hand over your car.
Tutorials – It may seem taboo for a guy who makes tutorials to inject this into one of his blogs, but I think it’s important to realize that tutorials alone aren’t likely to build your songwriting confidence. In fact, if you aren’t putting what you learn immediately to use, these tutorials won’t likely do you much good. If you only consume information & dont put it to use, you’ll lose the habit & motivation to write. Then you’ll become afraid to write, and that’s exactly what writer’s block is.
Sometimes watching people way above your skill level can inspire you, but other times it can make you feel unqualified & unprepared to make music.
Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Put on a Sex Pistols album & rebuild your confidence by making something within your current skill levels.
I personally like albums made by less talented musicians, because I feel like I can hear that angst in the music of not being able to fully express themselves. Have you ever read somebody writing about something that affected them so much that they struggled to find the words? That is powerful & should be embraced.
I don’t mean you should lower your standards. Instead except that the genius isn’t in the complexity of things. It’s in looking at simplicity from a different angle & layering these simple ideas to build something new.
Too many choices – This is something I know all too well about. When I played guitar in bands, life was simple. I have my Guitar, my amp settings & a limited amount of guitar effects. From there, I had to come up with something that meshed well with the other players. In all honesty, I probably had about 6 settings I used regularly. This made it super easy for me to just focus on writing.
When I started using drum machines, samplers & synths, the options were exciting, but it took ages to choose a sound palette. By the time I got ideas laid down, I had forgotten the original inspiration, leaving me with an uninspired set of sounds.
I’m not blaming the choices. I’m blaming myself for not having the foresight to know my own sound & search for those few patches that sounded like me.
I encourage you to take the time to build some go to sound patches, drum kits, etc. These are patches that already sound good & inspiring to you. These should be the first sounds you go to when starting a new track ( a guitar or Piano is also a great place to start). This way you can bang out something that sounds good as the ideas come to you.
You can always change things later, but you’ll have the advantage of solid ideas to give you direction when exploring unfamiliar sounds, synths, samples etc.
If you want to bust your writers block, have good sounds ready at all times or your favorite instrument at arms reach. Would you be surprised to know that Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode/Yaz/Erasure) starts all his songs on guitar? He saves all the noodling on synths til after he knows he’s got a song worth writing. Something to keep in mind.
Past failures – So you write a song or a few songs you are excited about & the reaction you get it less than enthusiastic. This one is tough. I’ve been there myself. After sharing this music you’ve worked hard on, your motivation to continue making music is shattered & writer’s block sets in.
The thing you need to realize is that everyone does stuff that isn’t up to par.
Secondly, you’re friends will rarely share your excitement. Sometimes they just aren’t into your style. If you aren’t directly copying another artist, you’re likely to come across people who just don’t get it. People tend to praise the familiar, so if you’re getting a lot of praise from people close to you, be cautious. You might not be very original.
Now let’s say this person who isn’t into your stuff has a point. Have you exercised that constructive criticism muscle lately? It’s time you start.
Here’s what is great about constructive (or even critical) criticism. When you are put in a situation where you have to defend your work, you are putting your conviction to the test.
The people who challenge your work are the only ones who will give you an opportunity to defend it. Most likely, you’ll discover the parts of your work that you are most proud of because the criticism won’t bother you as much. It’s the stuff you aren’t as confident in that really bites you in the ass. To hear someone point out these things is just confirming what you already know, you’re not quite there.
Would you prefer to release something that is substandard because no one challenged your work? Every Major artist who works with an engineer will hear “maybe not so much of that, it’s not really working”. That’s what they are hired for (I think George Lucas could have used more of them with his last few movies..”You nuked the fridge? really??”).
To have past failures doesn’t mean you suck, it just means you haven’t written enough music. You should look forward to criticism, it’s a form of quality control that every artist needs. We aren’t talking about perfection here, we are just trying to get it to a higher quality standard. In the end, perfection doesn’t end up sounding good anyway. It’s like quantizing everything you do 100% to a 1/16th note grid. Life=gone. Imperfection gives life to your music & art.
Past successes – This can be even worse than past failures & is something I’ve had to deal with myself. After having some success with my tracks in the progressive house field, it first made me question what I was doing right & how to repeat it. Then my ability to write was hindered by the fear that my new tracks would sound amateur & ruin the reputation I had built. This led to literally years of not finishing tracks.
It took a lot to get myself back in the game & by that time I had lost some of my chops & the tracks weren’t as well received. Now I realize that had I not stopped, the quality of work work would have likely been better, but even if it wasn’t, I’d get over that hump and on to new tunes soon enough. It’s a hard lesson that I hope you don’t have to go through.
When you have success, take note of what you did well but move on & do something new quickly. Don’t sit too long feeling good about yourself or you’ll become crippled & not able to move. Try to ignore the fact that you were well received & just keep making music you like & have fun making it.
There are bands that have made brilliant albums later in their career that will always be known for 1 hit song early on. Radiohead – Creep for example. Just imagine what a loss it would be for music if they stopped after their first album(deal with it haters). They did the right thing by pushing outside their comfort zone. Creep might be their most popular song but I certainly wouldn’t consider it close to their best.
Don’t stop writing, don’t get comfortable & don’t conform for success. It could be the end of you if you do.
Chasing the dragon – So many musicians are searching for a shortcut. That 1 tune that will change everything. So instead of listening to their own creative intuition they are constantly searching for friends, charts, radio & tv to tell them what they should be doing.
The problem with this of course is that it’s very rare to build a career by doing what is currently popular. By the time you finish your perfect dubstep album, the trend is over-saturated & played out and of course, since you were putting your focus into following trends, you lost your ability to have confidence in your own ideas. Now that style is toast & you look for another trend to follow.
This habit of chasing the dragon will likely get you nowhere & you’ll likely never build your own sound. Your new goal is to make songs that sound like songs other people have already made so that your friends will respect you.
Now I have no problem with being a fanboy of some sort. It’s pretty much how we all start. We hear something we connect with & think “I want to do that!”
Fair enough. Just make sure you are ready for the long haul & that you are injecting other influences that excite you, not what you think others will like. It would be hard for me to think of a more sure way to give yourself writer’s block than trying to please others.
Want to break this habit real quick?
Write something you like that you expect your friends won’t. Do it on purpose just to freak them out. Don’t purposely make a song that sucks, just pick an influence of yours that is less popular & have fun with it. Stop asking what others would do & start asking “what would I do?”. It might not be your best work, but it is incredibly liberating. And who knows, maybe your friends will end up liking it anyway.
Gear envy – Sometimes I wonder if we are music makers or just purchasers of toys. I’d say I am a bit of both, but I’ve leaned too far on the gear end before.
You’ve got this amazing song idea in your head, but you don’t want to start it ’til you get that new gadget. You saw someone going apeshit with it on YouTube & you now consider it the holy grail. This is exactly why your music hasn’t been up to par!
You get it home, love it for a month (but never actually make a song with it), and then you’re back to YouTube looking for another piece of kit, sample cd, soft synth, plugin or whatever.
All you are going to do is spend a lot of money, have some bragging rights but never get anything done. You, my friend, have become a gear hoarder(they will soon make tv shows about you). Plus you haven’t even learned what your current tools are capable of.
I promise you, you can write a great tune with what you have now. Let’s be honest. Think of the best tune you ever wrote (or the best unfinished idea, if you aren’t there yet). Was it the gear that made it great? Are your newest tracks with your latest toy always your best? I’m willing to bet there is something else. Something not so tangible that makes it good.
It can be maddening to see these popular musicians with craploads of gear filling up their studio, but I guarantee what got them there wasn’t the gear. It was good ideas & doing the best with what they had. Even u2 started small, and some people would argue that their best albums were before they had every toy known to man. Luckily, they aren’t hindered by the gear. At the end of the day it’s a guitarist, bassist, drummer and singer jamming things out that makes good songs.
If lack of gear is giving you writers block, then just tell yourself you are making a demo with what you have & will it improve later. I think you’ll be impressed with your results. Any result is better than no results.
I hope this article, which turned out to be a pretty long one has given you some food for thought. Writer’s block is simply fear disguised as other things. It’s certainly not something that is out of your control. Make creating a habit, even if it’s for 15 minutes a day. Whatever you do, never stop because of fear. Take a break on your own terms when your confidence is high.
Next I’ll share with you some approaches to improve your songwriting productivity.
Happy music making