If you're a songwriter, it's even scarier than a shark.
A writer (Was it Hemingway?) called it the great white monster, the blank page that is. I sometimes write on white or yellow legal pads or on the computer, but the idea is the same. What do you do when you’re not inspired?
It used to bother me a lot when songs were slow in coming. I’ve tried forcing it in the past by doing stream of consciousness journaling or agonizing over some idea that just won’t gel. I’m more relaxed about it now, but I have to say I get a little bit antsy when I haven’t written a song in a while. I still try to do a little bit of creative cloud seeding: listening to songs, studying guitar, learning a new song, etc. For the most part, though, songs decide when they are good and ready to come to me.
And they tend to come when my thoughts are racing.
Those thoughts aren’t necessarily profound. Often they come at inconvenient times such as when I’m getting ready for work, thinking about all the things I need to do. In the shower just before dressing and rushing out the door has been a great incubator for many of my song ideas.
Sometimes somebody says something or I see something that opens up a floodgate of thoughts that have been dammed up in my head.
I think a lot of songwriters get confused about inspiration. They think that only sad or negative things can really inspire. Listen to all the unhappy songs on the radio or at open mics. I find that the more “serious” someone considers oneself as a songwriter, the more unhappy his or her songs often are.
When people are unhappy about something they tend to obsess about it. Negative thoughts bounce around in one’s head, crash into each other, and start to form a song.
Of course there are a lot of happy songs too. Love songs, especially. When are you more obsessed about something than when you’ve fallen in love or become infatuated? The resulting euphoric mental chaos also leads to new thought combinations, which lead to a song.
Sometimes you’re just really happy. Example: Simon and Garfunkle’s “57th Street Bridge Song” (a.k.a. “Feeling Groovy”).
I often go through periods with lots of ideas that I can’t complete. That usually means that a full, satisfying song is on the way. I just need to find the right spark to ignite all the mental underbrush that has been accumulating.
Funny, though, I never seem to recognize the process until I’ve written the song I’m happy with. Until that point I keep saying, “Crap, have I lost it? Will I never write another good song?”
It’s important, though, to exhaust the possibilities with each idea. (I heard one songwriter say that you must finish the song.) Sometimes the process just turns out to be a dead end, or more positively put, a writing exercise.
Sometimes inspiration nags long enough that a good, complete song emerges.
Sometimes a song comes more-or-less fully formed. Happy, happy! Joy, joy!
I could really grind it out like the pros do in Nashville or elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem like much fun. Or like the story behind the writing of “Hold On I’m Coming,” More fun in retrospect than while it was going on. (They were struggling all night without any progress. Isaac Hayes went to the toilet. While he was there the other guys started riffing. Isaac shouted, “Hold on, I’m coming!” The rest is history.)
The creative process is a very vulnerable one. But I’ve been writing long enough to know that there is an ebb and flow to the process. Some periods are more productive than others.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn.