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It's In There Somewhere...
(Another article about writers block)
An article by Stephen A Chin

Tell Me Your Troubles

I'm surprised at how many songwriters come and tell me their troubles. Not troubles of their loves, or of their lives, (which would probably be more interesting,) but specifically about song writing. And the trouble that I hear the most about? Inspiration. Or rather the lack of it. Yes, were once again talking about our friend writers block.

Before I go on, I'd like to clarify the situation. I don't write two songs a day, 365 days a year. I once wrote 5 songs in a day, (at least two or three of those were good enough to remain in my repertoire). However, I've only written about 3 songs in the last year. Does this mean I have writers block? No, it means I've only chosen to write 3 songs in the last year. And here is the first point to make. If you haven't written anything for a while, ask yourself have you tried. I'm not talking about spending ten minutes with a guitar in your hand, strumming G and C and looking for a rhyme for anti-distablishment. Or orange. I accept that everyone has different ways of writing, but don't kid yourself. That isn't trying.

I Know Nothing

Something that I hear a lot from people who don't have a wealth of musical knowledge is, "I don't know what chords go with what, and I've exhausted all the ones that I know," or other similar comments. If that is really the case, you have two choices. Either, go away and learn some more theory, or throw away the rule book. Actually, there is a third choice. Learn some more theory, and hide the rule book, somewhere you can't find it whilst you are writing.

If you feel that you need to learn some more theory, there are a host of sources for it. Take a trip to your local library, and if they're still using the Dewey Decimal System, hunt out the 780s section, (781.2 to be precise,) and start reading. If they're using something else, ask the librarian, or follow the signs to 'Music'. Surprisingly all the music books say the same things, they just put it differently. (I would however steer you away from anything with Serialism, Aleatoric or Schenkerian Analysis on the front cover for the time being). You can never have too much knowledge of theory. Don't believe anyone who tells you that theory stifles creativity. When you really understand it, you suddenly find yourself being able to justify anything. And I mean anything.

Which brings me nicely to the other side of the coin. Throw away the rule book. Stick your hands or fingers down somewhere else, and find something that sounds good to you. Now I have no proof of this next statement, but I'm guessing that was the same method that worked for most music writers, from Beethoven, through the Beatles, to the majority of professional songwriters today. Don't be scarred just because you don't know what it's called, or because some well meaning music teacher told you that those two chords didn't go together. It's fine. If they work in your head, they work. And that's that.

Nothing To Say

I always find it strange when people tell me that they can't think of anything to say or write about. Invariably these people, when questioned, suddenly find that they do have something to say or write about, or they don't actually stop talking long enough for me to ask.

Lets start at the extremes. If you can't think what to write about ask yourself who or what you feel passionately about. Or strongly about. Don't feel strongly about anything? I think you probably do. A simple exercise to get you thinking:
What did you last Laugh about?
What did you last Cry about?
What last made you lose your temper?

And we can equally tone it down from the most passionate emotions to the more normal:
What last made you smile?
What last made you frown?
What last made you angry?
What last made your tummy turn?

Hiding behind all of these questions is a song. If they aren't triggering you into writing, then ask your self all of the other major questions. How? Why? Where? When? For example. Why did you last Laugh? How did you last lose your temper?

My guess is that if none of those have you feeling reflective, or subjective enough to write, then you're either hiding something from yourself, or you really aren't trying.

However, if you choose not to write about any of those because it's too close to something you want to keep private, read a book or Newspaper, or watch a film, or even listen to an Album or the Radio. Then project the questions from above. It's easy. If your creative enough to call yourself a songwriter, (and if you weren't why would you be reading this,) then your creative enough to make something out of the above.

Fear of Fromage and Failure

Cheese. Or tacky phrases. Or just plain old dull language. We all fear them. It's what our credibility relies on. So with such a burden on our shoulders, how can we go on writing?

It's all too easy for all of us to drop into poor literary choices whilst we're writing. "Love" always wants to rhyme with "Above". It's a fact of life. And surely we all want to love until we die, or dance the night away. Yet we all know that we shouldn't do any of those things in a song. And if it's just not very interesting, well what's the point of taking up the space. However, I'm sure you don't worry about any of this when you're talking to your friend in the pub, or your boss at work, or even the chap at the supermarket.

I for one have an awful rhyme on my answering machine, which was purely by accident, but I'm not letting it bother me, or telling you what it is. (It's not hard to guess.) So don't let it stop you from writing. Once you've got your song started, you can always go back to the particularly questionable lines. That's what re-writing and self editing are about. (You do edit? Don't you...? Maybe that's another article I need to write.) And you may decide that you can justify using them anyway.

Fear of failure is the biggest preventer of writing. We all set ourselves writing goals. Me, I'd like to be able to write as well as Carole King, be as respected as Bob Dylan, as prolific and successful as Dianne Warren, and have the acclaim of Mozart. It's unlikely to happen, but I still set myself these impossible targets. The secret is not to strive to reach your goals every time. Fear feeds fear. And Fear loves to eat your creativity. Don't be afraid to get something down today that isn't your best. Tomorrow, or next week you can edit out the rubbish and in your flush of confidence having knocked out seven new songs, you can mould your piece of clay into a masterpiece. Or you can throw it away in the bin, as the other six songs are all excellent! OK, it doesn't all work quite like that. But you get the point.

A Writing Place

Last, and most definitely not least is your location. If having taken on board everything that I've said you still can't write, then your problem is probably your writing place. We all have one, but we don't always know where it is, what it looks like, or how it feels. It's basically where you are most comfortable writing. Your location can sometimes be physical, but it can equally be psychological or philosophical. Which I suppose makes it a little more difficult to find.

So how do you find your writing place? There are a number of ways of finding it, but here is my recommendation. Bring up your spreadsheet on your computer, or draw a big grid on a piece of paper. Your Columns should be labelled a little like this.

Song Name - Physical Place - Nearest Person - Instrument - Writing Implement - Time of Day - Time to completion - Prior Activity

Then fill in the Table with your favourite or best five to ten songs.

You should end up with a table vaguely like this.

Song Name Physical Place Nearest Person Instrument Writing Implement Time of Day Time to Completion Prior Activity
Bed of Flowers The Bedroom Girlfriend in Bathroom Guitar Paper and Pen 10am 10 minutes Sleeping
Living in the Street The Living Room People in Street A cappella Computer 10am 3 days Sleeping
Smokey Room The Living Room People in Street Guitar Back of Cigarette Packet 2am 30 minutes Sleeping
Plough the love Field in Derby Farmer 2 miles away Kazoo Paper and Pen 10am 30 minutes Milking Cows

Hopefully you'll start to see some sort of correlation. Rooms which are best for writing, Times that are best for writing, and so on. You might like to add further columns like 'What I had for dinner'. 'Last time you had a bowel movement.' Whatever you think might affect your state of mind. Then, next time you need to write you'll be able to set up your situation, and help put yourself in the right frame of mind.

The Outro

As I've written all this, you may think that I never have trouble writing. Well I do. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and be exceptionally good at it. Don't expect it to be easy every time. It's not. But just because you're having a little bit of trouble, don't feel your muse has gone. Or that you'll never write again. Or wonder why it seems so easy for everyone else. Roll up your proverbial sleeves, open your mind, and see where a little hard work and creative thinking will take you.

At the moment I'm trying to write a song for a sixteen year old Rock Chick, whilst being male, over thirty with a penchant for Jazz and Trip Hop. And I'm stuck on the second verse. But it's not writers block. Maybe I just need to research sixteen year old Rock Chicks...

Happy writing, and maybe meet you at the Ivor Novello Awards.

It's In There Somewhere... ©2004 - 2024 Stephen A Chin & Virtually Acoustic.