About three years ago, I hit a creative wall that left me virtually songless for a solid two and a half years. I don't know exactly what caused it; I think it was a mix of life changes from getting married, starting a new job, having a kid, etc. It was soul-crushing. Writing is how I process the world, so a season like this caused my brain to pressurize incessantly with no release to the point of me almost accepting the lie that I couldn't write. That is the ultimate death of a writer and I'm sure it happens to far too many of us. The continual feedback loop of self-doubt and criticism mixed with the desire to say something profound in every line almost made the writing stop.
Here's the thing...it didn't.
I picked myself up off the floor along with all the scraps of semi-good material from the garbage I wrote for two years and realized that I can do this. I realized that not only could I do this but I now had two and a half years worth of ideas and experiences to work with.
Writers: don't let writer's block stop you. We need your songs, poems, stories, pictures, and paintings. You need them for yourself just as much.
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Here is what changed it all for me...
About nine months ago, I was in the middle of a year-long obsession with Bon Iver (along with all of Justin Vernon's other stuff). I nerded out hard core for a solid twelve months, watching every video, listening to all of his albums over and over and over, learning how to play all of his songs. I've never stepped into someone else's mind that intensely before but it changed me.
I was learning his song Blindsided and came across the lyric "Taut line, down to the shoreline, the end of a blood line". For whatever reason, in that moment I thought about the words blood line, along with the concept. I thought, "there's a song I could write hiding in there. Two words, so many places I could go with them." I challenged myself to write a song called Blood Line. And I did.
The song I ended up writing was mediocre at best (I'm not going to play it or post it for you...sorry!) The experience got my mind spinning though - what if I started with some object, concept, phrase, entity, anything outside of my own mind and experience and started writing about it? Since I had spent the last two and a half years struggling to write out my thoughts indirectly (which was my goal because direct thoughts in lyrics are boring), how about I start with something else and then bring my thoughts and life experiences in along the way?
This is the art of showing instead of telling, which is imperative for writers and artists of any kind. I always knew about this concept but I never knew how to actually implement it in my writing in an efficient manner. There is a famous quote by the author Anton Chekhov that says, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass".
Okay Mr. Chekhov, that is great but that takes a LOT of brain power and creativity. This was a constant challenge for me as a writer. I like to say what I see and it exhausts me to try finding symbols and metaphors for everything. I always thought you could write good lyrics with just a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus. Turns out you need to get outside of your mind first.
Starting with a concrete object, word, or phrase outside of my own mind changed it all for me. Now I don't feel as though I need to be profound or that I need to even create anything at all. I am merely describing what I am seeing and along the way I can insert major themes from my own life as they occur naturally. It was a simple shift for me, but it has made such a drastic impact in my writing. Here are some numbers to put it in perspective: for the two and a half years of writer's block, I wrote something like five to seven songs; since making this shift nine months ago, I've written around twenty-five songs. While quantity and numbers reflect little of the actual merit in writing success, they point to a critical fact: I have my confidence back and I can now fight the self-deprecating voice that always has a say in the writing process.
Writers, all of you...don't let writer's block win. You are capable of incredible work. For me it was a matter of hijacking someone's brain for a year and then letting real objects become the focus of my writing. I found that by doing this every day, I eventually got over it.
I beat writer's block for now. I have my confidence back. Look out world.
In my next post, I will demonstrate the new way I write more practically. I will force myself to create something and I will go through the whole process in blog form, not premeditated in any way and see what happens. Stay tuned!
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Side note - if you need help with showing rather than telling, look no further than Ryan O'Neal over at Sleeping At Last. Seriously, the guy's lyrics are unreal.