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Writers’ Block

Introduction:

I have writers’ block, when it comes to composition.  I have had it for nearly two years. I have not written a full piece of music that I have been happy with in a long time.  It is starting to stress me out…

What is writers’ block, though?  Many people say that it doesn’t even exist, and that it is just a combination of procrastination, trepidation, and fear of artistic commitment.  That’s probably true , using the term ‘writer’s block’ as some sort of catch-all term for one all encompassing monolithic problem is probably not helpful or appropriate.  Regardless, it feels like an appropriate term and the notion of ‘blockage’, is particularly apt in my case as many of my problems seem to stem from not being able to get close enough to this type of work to develop any ideas or to encourage any artistic ‘juices’ to flow.

When I sit and think about my dearth of ideas and what seems like a crippling lack of creativity, I feel like I can see a number of reasons why this may be the case.  While this is, in some ways, useful as it helps me to see the potential causes, it also has a compounding effect as I know how difficult it will be to try to get past some of the hurdles.  This leads to a spiral of worry about the potential of being in this position permanently and leads to bigger and more important questions such as:  What effect might this have on my teaching?  How might this impact on my musicianship? What on earth can I do to get over this?

The following is my explanation of what I think the main problems are:

1. It doesn’t matter anyway – I always have something more important to do, anyway:

Don’t think that I haven’t noticed the irony of this situation, in which I try to wrestle with worries about writer’s block by writing a blog post on the subject. In fact, if I am honest with myself, part of the problem is that I find myself in the position where I need to spend a big chunk of my time writing (i.e. articles, book chapters, funding applications, etc.) about music. The rest of my time is spent writing lectures and developing exercises and projects to help students learn to be musically creative, or to learn theories/techniques that will help them develop as musicians and composers.  The more I try to find time to sit down to write music, the more I find that I am either too tired to be creative, or I am worried about having to be creative.  So, given that writing music is not something that is always required in my day to day work, it feels like this is the easiest thing to ignore.  That said, as someone who spends a lot of time teaching popular music composition, I do feel that it is something I should be doing much more of.  Hence the worry…

In the cold light of day, I realise that what I need to do is to just make some time in my schedule to work on compositions.  I am sure that a bit of time to think and to experiment will be beneficial but this is actually a really difficult thing to do.  Every minute spent on that is time that I should be working on research papers or other academic work that will help me to develop my career or secure funding, for example – not to mention spending time with my young family.  So, given that everything else seems much more pressing and important, it is hard to allow myself to devote the time needed to write music.

2. I have plenty of ideas (…but they’re all rubbish):

I remember being an undergraduate student and carrying a small Moleskine manuscript paper notebook around so I could write down ideas when they came to me.  It seemed like I had an inexhaustible supply of inspiration and that every day I would have a good number of ideas that I would be able to turn into something decent.  In fact, I was regularly able to write and would frequently write a few new tunes during the week and perform them at weekend gigs. Wether or not that is true, or just an exaggerated memory I cannot say (although I still have the notebooks).

Nowadays, I can go weeks without writing anything that I deem to be of an acceptable standard, and many months before I am happy with something I have composed.  Is this really writers’ block, or could it be a change in the way I evaluate my work?  Maybe I have become more ‘refined’ or my standards have changed such that I am now less likely to allow myself to produce low-quality work.  Perhaps my seemingly prolific undergraduate self was actually producing mediocre music, but due to the sheer rate of output, I have a heightened memory of the music I wrote at that time.

It may also be the fact that I am now so keenly aware of the ways in which I critique and mark my students’ compositional work that I am reluctant to subject my own music to the same scrutiny.  Alternatively, maybe because I spend so much time discussing composition with these students through the lenses of music theory, musical analysis, music production etc., that I am too tied to some of the ideas, processes and practices that I try to encourage them to engage in. This seems to have led to a situation in which I have lots of ideas for how to improve or develop draft compositions that students bring to me but a complete mind-blank when it comes to trying to develop my own ideas.  Unfortunately, when I try to sit and work on my compositions, and feel the pressure of writers’ block, I am inclined to dismiss any ideas I do have as rubbish.  This is really frustrating, demoralising, and worst of all, completely hypocritical of me.

3. Is this just a pale imitation of something I listen to?

In addition to dismissing many of the ideas that I have as rubbish, I also have a really unhelpful tendency of convincing myself that music I have written is just a poor copy of something I like listening to.  Many a time I have come up with something, made a demo, and then cursed the fact that it is just a poor copy of Thom Yorke or Elbow, for example. Of course, one’s inspirations are bound to come through in their own music.  This is only natural and it is actually quite endearing when you hear traces of other peoples’ influences.  Somehow in my mind, though, if traces of other peoples’ work comes through in my music then it must be because I am copying them or that I don’t have an original voice of my own.  This is, of course, the ramblings of a person who is (a) increasingly concerned about the impact of writers block, and (b) spends a good proportion of his teaching and preparation time time listening to and pulling apart the recordings of others in the hope of being able to give some insight into how a track was made, or how a particular effect was achieved, for example.  As such, I am probably too close to the projects or to the music that I listen to that it is actually a detriment to my own compositional practice.

So, what am I going to do about it?

I don’t know what the answer is but I am determined to find a way to get passed this issue.  In fact, the very act of writing this post and putting my worries down on ‘paper’ has been useful.  Therefore, I am going to try a three-pronged strategy to deal with the problems discussed above.  Firstly, I am going to make some time during the summer to try to write and record some new music.  Secondly, I am going to persevere a bit more with new ideas and try to find ways to develop them, link them to other ideas, and to avoid making critical judgements until I have explored the musical possibilities. Finally, I am going to share my ideas with friends and colleagues and seek their feedback, rather than simply deciding that the work is just a poor copy of my inspirations.

Most of all, I am going to try to relax and enjoy making music – maybe then some of the creativity-draining, idea-crushing effects of worrying about writers’ block will disappear.

Any other suggestions will be gratefully received…

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

11 thoughts on “Writers’ Block”

  1. Hi Zack,

    A creative block is always in my opinion a too actice left brain problem.
    In my drawingclass I work with the methode of Betty Edwards ( book:The New drawing on the Right side of the Brain)
    In this course there is a excercise ‘blind contour drawing.’
    By doing this excercise dayly you actual activate your rightbrain ( were all the creativity comes from..)
    Perhaps it can help you learning to draw by this methode to overcome your writers block.

    A very pracical and succesfull book about overcoming an artisttic block is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Very interesting…!
    Wish you the best,

    Marianne

  2. Dear Zack,

    I know little about composition, but I did your theory Mooc a while ago.

    A suggestion — why not beg borrow and steal? fantasia on a theme by x? blazenly take someones theme and develop it as a means to leaping over the first part of the blockage.

    Just an idea.,

    good luck x

  3. Lucky you – at least you learned how to compose and have composed some music you were satisfied with already – some of us would like to be where you are now ! Cheer up , you know how to compose so it will happen again when you are inspired!
    I hope that it will be soon – loved your music fundamentals course would like to repeat it and improve musically.
    Best wishes

  4. I sympathize with you. Even when I block out some time to “be creative,” my other commitments are still clogging my brain and it is difficult to be totally in the moment playing and creating music.
    One practice that helped me with visual arts is, when blocked, I would try a new medium. I normally worked in ink or pastels, so I would switch to acrylic paints or sculpt with clay, whatever. Anything at which I was unskilled would work. This would force me to adopt a beginner’s mind and a child’s playful, exploratory attitude. When I returned to my usual tools, then, I was reinvigorated and open to “play” again, and the critical voices in my brain would be silent, at least for a time.
    So, maybe a ukulele would be just the thing to try! :-)
    Good luck, Zack, freedom and joyful play are still in you!

  5. Hello Zak
    For me writing music is a nightmare. I get an idea and hear it in my head completed (and sounding good) when I start layering the different parts together my focus on the original idea loses clarity and I go off on a tangent to such a degree that my head is swirling with bits of music, effects settings, mix balance etc and I end up with something else which is invariably (to my ears anyway) rubbish and not at all what I had in mind. The original idea seems lost forever. Bummer!
    The thing is I seem to be able to work with other folks and help them achieve the result they want I just can’t do this for myself.
    But hey music is a harsh mistress so we just keep going…
    I think we just need to stick with it and we will get there in the end.
    May you be inspired soon
    Bill

  6. Brilliant, and much that I can relate to. It actually seems very simple when coming out of someone else’s mouth (computer).

    At the moment, I am starting (forcing myself) to write more regularly again, aiming for two hours a day, not thinking about pitching it, translating it into money (the money work comes later in the day – hopefully!). I am starting to put that part of my brain to use again, a part that teaching and writing music for corporate videos doesn’t really engage. I can relate to your notebooks of ideas in days gone by, and agree that they are not as flowing as they once were – and I face the same questions as you with that!

    Playing/writing with others definitely helps. I used to write so much when regularly playing in bands (even now the need to earn a living draws me to function bands more than writing bands), as even if ideas didn’t get used it gave us all a regular opportunity to bounce ideas off each other.

    Onwards, and I hope having formulated your issues helps. You are not alone with them!

    Richard

    (P.S. You may have seen it but great lecture by John Cleese on Creativity on You Tube, which addresses the need to clear head space and time for writing – no bills, e-mails, cleaning, lecture preparation…)

  7. Hello Zack

    Sorry to hear you are feeling a bid discombobulised.

    Your account of your busy schedule explains why there appears to be no FOMT MOOC this year, a fact mourned by fans of this project. A few of us kept up a blues discussion group after the last MOOC, and have talked about many things, including other MOOCS, including one on the blues, albeit a more jazzy and complicated sort of blues than we play ourselves. I am sure we are all sympathetic to the problem you describe here, and hope that you resolve it soon.

    But the idea did occur to me that there is one genre to which many people automatically turn when they are fed up about something, and that genre is, of course, the blues. I have always found that playing the blues when you are frustrated about something is a perverse way of cheering oneself up and getting into a more relaxed frame of mind.

    But might this genre be the way forward musically in the short term? Tear away the layers of complexity and go back to the basics. Release yourself from fears about whether your work is derivative by working in a genre where, traditionally, working the changes on a established lyrics and chord sequences is part of the genre. Forget the myriad options and potentialities of software and gadgetry which can overwhelm as much as they can empower. Think about a small ensemble and work with a more limited framework. Think about how bad you feel when you can’t compose; and then write some blues.

    Just a thought.

    1. Hi Count,

      Thanks for the comment. Just a really quick reply at the moment on you’re point re the FOMT MOOC. Yes, schedules are really busy but do not worry – I’m hoping there will be an announcement today that might prevent any further mourning!

      More soon…

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