The painter Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].’”
Another painter you may have heard of, Pablo Picasso, said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Look, every creative person gets “blocked” at one time or another.
Songwriters often tell me they are blocked. Maybe it’s the inability to finish a song, or maybe it’s the failure to come up with a song idea in the first place. However it manifests, it’s a terrible thing to experience, especially the first time. I know, because I used to believe that I suffered from writer’s block for well over a decade. Ten years, man.
Though I am a big believer in confronting my issues, I try really hard—these days—not to identify myself with problems I’m having. In other words, I used to freely tell people “I have writer’s block” or “I’m a very slow songwriter,” often as a way to avoid a proposed co-writing relationship, or to explain my always-long-delayed album releases. The trouble with announcing that stuff to the world is that your brain starts to accept it as fact, and even if your block was only a minor blip, you start to live up—or down—to your subconscious’ expectations. You become “a songwriter with writer’s block.”
These days I try really hard not to label myself, except to say that I am a songwriter who tries to write every day, and tries to finish the songs I start.
Writer’s block comes from a variety of places, but probably chief among them is fear. Fear of failure from a career perspective can contribute to creative immobility. For example, that publisher/record company/manager who loved your last three songs—what if they think this new one is terrible?
But it is fear of creative failure—often due to perfectionism—that can really gum up the works!
(The irony of perfectionism is that in your quest to get things just right, you can end up doing nothing at all.)
This isn’t only true in the writing process itself, but can manifest itself in other ways. Feeling that you couldn’t possibly finish a decent song until you are fully educated—reading that songwriting book, studying classic lyrics, taking a songwriting course or workshop—all of these things can get in the way of just getting it done. Dive in! Write about anything. Take the pressure off yourself to create something “important” or “meaningful” and try to enjoy the process, without worrying so much about the result.
Life is so often about achieving balance: education and study are important, of course, but so is creativity and achievement. Don’t wait to “graduate” to be creative—just do it! Perfection is great to strive for, but again, it can get in the way of finishing. There’s no such thing as a universally perfect song.
I can tell you this, from my hard-won experience: there’s nothing wrong with writing ten songs that are merely okay in order to get to that one song that is great. And the act of actually doing the writing—getting it done—is worth much more than any lesson/lecture/workshop merely experienced without doing the writing. (People who perform regularly will know agree when I say “One gig is worth five rehearsals”. You can practice in your room all you like, but it’s when you get out on stage in front of people that your brain responds to the pressure and you are forced to internalize all that practice at home.)
Remember: the point of songwriting isn’t to get every word or syllable or rhyme in place. Songs are meant to make someone feel what you intended them to feel. If your song can do that then, undeniably, you are a successful songwriter.