1) GENERAL OVERWHELM
This is such a common perception of people’s day-to-day lives. We’re just too busy, there’s too much to do, too much to organise. But this is a myth. It might help to see this problem as a silly character: “General Overwhelm”, an army officer, likes to convince us that we just can’t do it, that we’re simply not strong enough to forge a path through the to-do lists and get the vitally important, meaningful stuff done. But old General Overwhelm is lying to us. It’s all about perception and taking small steps towards having more control over both what we do and how we interpret what we are dealing with.
If you can reframe how you see a difficult situation, you gain the upper hand. For example, if you’d like to get some songs completed but you’ve got a part time job with erratic hours, set yourself a deadline of how long you’ll stay in that job. Work towards a goal of becoming self-employed. Also, establish what financial goal you want to achieve. Once you know what you’re aiming for and your cut-off date, you know that this circumstance is under your control. Secondly, if your timetable changes constantly, look at where you can either negotiate to have some regular hours, perhaps one day a week and set aside even just a couple of hours as your regular songwriting time. Once you have one small thing in place, you can start to fit in more writing. It’s like being lost at sea in a storm. If you can get yourself a compass, a radio or at least see the horizon, you’ve got a hope in hell of being able to navigate your way back home.
2) RESISTANCE TO STRUCTURE
The solution to the first problem may already have triggered this second one. Are you the kind of writer who waits for ‘the muse’ to show up? Do you resist the idea of scheduling specific time slots for songwriting? If so, you’d better ask yourself if you want to write as a hobby or professionally. If it’s the latter, you need to be able to write regardless of whether the elusive “muse” shows up. You need to be able to establish a time to write and stick to it. I’m reminded of the quotation, “I sit down to the piano regularly at nine o’ clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous.” -Pyotr Tchaikovsky
There are other ways around this problem of structure if you have allocated time for writing and you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, but this is the first thing to put in place. Merely by having established a habit of regular writing time, you’ll notice that the likelihood of your actually writing new songs increases.
3) LACK OF CLARITY ON THE GOAL
This is a really common problem. It’s so easy to have a huge goal that is wonderful and exciting and you’re all fired up to get started, but the completion of it involves some kind of miracle. Like for example, writing and recording an album. Writing an album’s worth of songs might not be that difficult, but getting them professionally recorded, depending on which instruments you want to use and the nature of your own personal studio set-up, could potentially be expensive. How do you find the money to do it? This is where a question, a mere innocent question can bring all your plans toppling down. The key is not to ask the question with a sense of fear or resentment as your brain tells you, “I can’t. It’s impossible.” It’s just asking a question. Why not get into the habit of asking, “I wonder if…?” or “I wonder how I might…?” with an open mind and a curious spirit? That way, you won’t be placing judgement on the answer, which will make things lighter, easier, more feasible. Don’t let the final stages of the plan to reach your goal stop you from taking the first few steps towards it. Keep in mind the old adage, “Leap, and the net will appear.” Why not entertain the possibility that by starting out towards your goal, you will find the resources, support and energy you need to get to the end? The most important thing to do is START. And then keep in mind, “One. Step. At. A. Time”.
4) YOUR ATTITUDE TO CREATIVE WORK
Were you brought up being told that playing an instrument ‘won’t pay the rent’? I certainly was. I remember having taught myself to play a few things on the piano at the first opportunity I got at the age of 17, living as a lodger in a new home where there was a piano. I was so proud of myself. I’d worked out enough by ear that I could play a few things that felt strong, interesting and soothing. One day I summoned the courage to walk into a cafe that had a piano to ask if I could play. I played a few pieces for the handful of people sitting at their quaint little tables, some improvised, some practised, and the people nearest to the piano thanked me and said they enjoyed it. Newly thrilled with what seemed like such an enormous achievement to a girl who’d never grown up with a piano, nor had had even one lesson, I excitedly told my Mum all about it. Her response? “Well, that’s not going to pay the rent, is it?” Consequently, I spent the next 10 years or so, not only paying for piano lessons out of my own pocket but anxiously trying to prove I had a right to be a musician even though it wasn’t earning me any money.
This kind of pressure – to earn money from music or to prove to an authority figure that you have a right to be a creative person of any kind – is stifling. For most people, it’s what sucks the life out of the joy you initially had about your creative work and for some, even forces you to quit. Whatever happened to writing and recording music for the joy of the expression or the thrill of creating something from nothing? Surely the whole point of doing something creative is that it’s an expression of your own thoughts and feelings and there’s a purpose in expressing that because other people who are most like you can relate to it. The moral of this story is – take a step back when it all gets too serious. Why does writing music have to prove anything? Why do you have to earn money from it right away? Does it all have to be so SERIOUS?! Chances are, this seriousness has a stranglehold on your creativity and that’s why you can’t write a song at the moment. How about writing a silly song about a platypus instead? And maybe you can even cleverly make it not about a platypus as such, but about being a misfit. Wouldn’t that be FUN? Fun could well be something that has been largely underrated for far too long.
5) PUSHING YOURSELF TOO FAR
This somewhat follows on from number 4 in that once you’ve put so much effort into TRYING to write a song or get an album project off the ground, you can sometimes find yourself too exhausted to actually write something interesting or heartfelt. There needs to be room for you to look after yourself as well. It’s no good working yourself into the ground until you make yourself ill. You have to look after yourself as well and keep your energy levels up enough to support your goal. Taking time out to have fun, do something different for the sake of breaking up the monotony of a daily routine, or just taking an evening out to have a relaxing bath and an early night could be the easy solution to your writing block. It’s amazing what enough sleep and a bit of self-care can do to make you feel energised and ready to write something spectacular. This may run a little bit counter to the first point on the list, but every rule has its exception and every routine must occasionally be broken.
All in all, there’s a balance to be struck between having a routine and having freedom, putting in the hours and yet not taking it all too seriously. If you can look after your body with regular exercise and healthy meals, that goes a long way in itself to allowing you the leeway to have a timetable that changes, a tour schedule for a month that seems overwhelming or a minimal income to start out on. It doesn’t sound very rock ’n’ roll, but I suspect, this is the kind of thing people like Mick Jagger or Kate Bush now do but don’t talk about in interviews because it would ruin their rock/pop prowess. Maybe it’s precisely this aim to put even just a few new good habits in place that keeps songwriters going beyond a two-year career to span decades. It’s certainly worth a try.