The Myth of Writer’s Block

Photo by Michael Connell

I was having dinner with some composer friends a few weeks ago and the subject of writer’s block came up. Mostly, we talked about the fact that we rarely get it. Perhaps because we’re all media composers and seldom have the time for such creative obstacles, we’ve all developed strategies to deal with the occasional lack of inspiration. It seemed to me a great idea for a post.

To make it even more useful, I decided to enlist the aid of a few compatriots. Tim Huling was one of my composition teachers and was there at the table for the original conversation, so he was a natural. He sent me the basic list, which I elaborated upon and added to (and he added that some of the ideas originally came from Michael Rendish, Assistant Chair of Berklee College of Music’s Film Scoring Department.) SCOREcast founder and creativity blogger Deane Ogden sent me some excellent thoughts, despite being in Asia for a movie premiere and impending marriage(!). And Jeffrey P. Fisher, author of Fish(er) Tales and the Moneymaking Music Tip of the Week, generously donated some wisdom as well. Thanks to all of you!

As Deane wrote, “I know we aren’t supposed to admit that we get creative blocks from time to time, but the truth is that we do. Perhaps a better and more truthful way to frame the conversation is to say that ‘we don’t have time to let those blocks effect us negatively.'” Since those blocks occasionally do strike, here are some thoughts on keeping the music flowing:

General Tips

  • Understand the nature of creativity. According to Jeffrey, “Recognize that the real creative process comprises four basic steps:
    1. Doodling. Here you play around with ideas, collect material, and generally putter around without any real focus. When ‘doodling,’ many people feel guilty that nothing ‘real’ is getting done. They confuse this crucial step with wasting time. It’s not. Give yourself permission to play because out of the play can come some real inspiration.
    2. Do nothing and let everything percolate. This is where ‘writer’s block’ lives. It’s often frustrating because you can’t seem to find direction. Once again, the paradox needs time for ideas, and time is what you have so little of. Recognizing the importance of this stage can help you deal with the anguish of hoping for something good to happen.
    3. Ah, the muse. Suddenly, a spark of inspiration hits and the creativity flows from a higher place. Often, the work is effortless and productive. When inspiration strikes, we all welcome it with open hearts and minds. It is here where we’d all like to spend our days, in the throes of passionate creativity.
    4. The real work. Now you call upon all your skills to create something special from your inspiration. Once again, it’s another place where we like to visit often.”
  • Just keep writing. Perfectionism, especially at the early stages, will kill your creativity faster than a bucket of ice water over your head. Even if you think what you’re writing is terrible, just keep going. Momentum is a good thing, and you never know if there’s some tiny nugget of greatness buried in the garbage that will form the basis for an entire set of cues.
    Along those same lines, Tim wrote, “Don’t be afraid to write something that feels wrong and set it aside for later revision if time allows. Depending on your relationship with the director, you might ask him or her ‘what’s wrong with this?’ A peer or mentor could be asked the same thing.”
  • Take a walk, a shower or a nap. In other words, get out of your head and stop forcing your creativity. Focusing too hard on a problem only makes it more difficult to solve. Inspiration comes when you stop trying to write and simply let it come. Going for a walk, taking a shower, reading a book, exercising, meditating, sleeping: all of these activities help your brain to relax and let go, allowing ideas to come naturally. As Tim wrote, “Fresh air, the physical rhythm of walking and the stimulus of the surroundings can prompt ideas. The feeling, sound and reverberance of the shower can help let the subconscious take over.”
    Or as Jeffrey put it, “Creativity, I feel, needs just as much downtime as uptime to be effective. It’s about doing things and not doing anything. Nurture the creative process by reading, watching, and experiencing all you can.”
  • Listen to other music. It may not be hip to say, but I personally get a lot of inspiration from other composers, bands and songwriters. I always make a playlist of music similar to what I’m trying to write and listen to it frequently. This gets my brain in the proper space, be it cinematic action, ambient techno or Lutheran church hymns. Once I’m primed in this way, it’s much easier to write in a similar style. The point isn’t to steal from other artists or even to imitate them, but to draw from what’s come before you, build upon the standards of the genre and add your own voice to the conversation.
    As Deane said, “For me, the best way to defend myself from blocking is to listen to a lot of music. Stimulation. I believe each of us has a creative well to draw from that operates much like a bank account does. If the account is empty, nothing can be spent. But if the account is well funded, spending can happen at the speed of thought. Same with creativity. If our creative well is dry, which is to say that if it hasn’t had anything filling it in awhile, pouring out from it will be very difficult. All of us would love to say that we simply have ‘music bubbling up from within us,’ but that is simply physiologically not the case. The inspiration has to come from somewhere.”
  • Refill your creative well. I know people who go hiking or camping to get inspired. Some go swimming, practice photography or cook an amazing meal. Getting out of your stuffy studio, even for an hour, can do wonders for your creativity. Figure out what feeds your muse and make a note of it. Make sure to do whatever it is from time to time to keep yourself charged up.
    As Deane wrote, “Maybe your creative well is funded from watching your children play on the living room floor or seeing a sunset every day from your backyard barbecue. The point is that you need to get out of the four walls of your musical prison and live. To refrain from that is to withdraw yourself from inspiring events, and eventually to starve your muse.”
    Or as Jeffrey remarked, “The more you know, the more you can draw upon for inspiration. Haven’t new experiences always sparked your muse? Haven’t you created music after you heard a new synth patch, after a relationship went sour, or any other event greatly impacted your life? Does it make sense to you that adding more experiences to your life should result in more inspiration? Worth a shot, don’t you think?”
  • Take a different approach. Try something other than what you’re doing. If you’re sitting at the piano trying in vain to come up an idea, try instead to hum a melody, or write on another instrument. If you’re stuck in right-brain creative mode, use music theory instead—what chord or interval makes theoretical sense.
  • Play. Goof around. Let go of the need to write something and just do something musically fun. (Of course, you’ll want to record the whole thing in case your experiment produces something interesting.) As Jeffrey suggested, “Harness your youthful exuberance. Children learn through play. They try things out to see what happens. They rarely take the ‘that’ll never work attitude’ that so often plagues adults. Though it is fundamental to learn from the experience of others, it is equally vital to sometimes let go of old ideas and reinvent the wheel. Along that path, you may also reinvent yourself.”
  • Get help. There’s nothing wrong with using your peers for some occasional brainstorming. Show the footage to a colleague and get his or her ideas. Call in a musician friend or two and just jam (Thomas Newman supposedly does this frequently).
  • Build your creative muscles. This won’t help you on your project due tomorrow, but it is a vitally important activity. Never stop learning, growing and improving as a composer. As Jeffrey said, “You need to cultivate and enhance your creativity every day. You can’t make music on demand unless you’ve honed your craft first. You can’t do novel sound tricks unless you already possess expert knowledge about how your gear works and how to use it to get the sounds you need. Of course, serendipity plays a role in all creative endeavors, but without a firm foundation you may not recognize those serendipitous moments when they arrive.”

More Specific Strategies

  • Look to the film. Tim wrote, “What’s the rhythm of the film? What are the size and pacing of the shot(s)? What colors are present? Is it vibrant or muted? Make a list of as many adjectives to describe the scene as you can—don’t stop until you can’t think of any more—and then make a parallel list where you come up with musical ‘analog’ of each aspect (e.g. fast cuts = fast tempo).” More elaborately, composer Ron Jones has a series of 20 or so questions he asks about each moment of a potential cue: What does the director want here? What does the producer want? What does the character want? Really drilling down to the core of the scene in this way can not only free your creativity but it also helps you to really nail the cue.
  • Write a song for the character(s). Take some small or large part of the dialog of one actor as set it to music. This will probably need some heavy revision, but it may yield fruitful results. Game composer Aaron Walz suggests writing a brief description of a character or a scene and setting that to music. Words give rhythmic clues, and may also unlock melodic ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
  • Start with a rhythm. As Tim suggested, “Sometime the rhythmic dimension is the easiest to tap into. Take a percussion instrument and compose for that alone. Then decide what scale or mode would probably work for the scene (a darker color like Aeolian or a lighter color like Lydian?) and what shapes make sense (choose an energy and direction that’s analogous to the drama and emotion of the scene). Use the rhythm, scale, and shapes to construct the cue.”
  • What Would Williams/Goldsmith/Newman Do? Tim proposed, “Imagine the music your favorite composer, or the composer you think would be scoring your film if you weren’t. Write what they would write (it’s not plagiarism—you wrote it!) You may want to revise it to ‘dial down’ elements that are touchstones of that composer, e.g. suspended chords on a marimba if your chosen composer is Thomas Newman). Consider doing this more than once, for multiple pretend composers, and using elements from each idea.”
  • Write the wrong cue. As Tim advised, “Come up with everything that would be wrong to do and then reverse all those things!” This works because it tricks your brain into sidestepping the problem and invites it to be creative in a different way.
  • Use your library. Tim wrote, “Take a bunch of music you’ve written for other projects, or this project, and put it in place in the scene and see what works and what doesn’t.” Sometimes just hearing music in the scene will help you discover what will work and what won’t. You can even use music by other composers—in other words, create your own temp track. Obviously, this requires you to be extremely careful about not accidentally plagiarizing their work, but this can be a useful way of discovering possible scales, harmonies, rhythms or tempos you might not have thought of yourself.
  • Does it even need music? Perhaps the reason you’re having so much trouble is that the scene doesn’t actually need music. Of course, you’ll need to OK this with the director, but sometimes the best solution is to acknowledge that there isn’t actually a problem.

Hopefully these ideas will help you get through the occasionally fallow period. Many of them are useful even when you’re not having trouble writing, since we should all be trying to improve our craft and maximize our creativity and originality.

If after all that you’re still feeling stuck, here’s a final thought from Jeffrey, “Heed this advice from Cole Porter: ‘All the inspiration I ever needed was a phone call from a producer.'”

7 comments

  1. Terence Jones

    I’ve heard some of this advice before elsewhere, but there’s a whole bunch of new stuff here on possible approaches that’s extremely useful to someone like me at the beginning of their career. I’m tempted to print a copy of this article out and pin it to my studio wall as a reminder for those “difficult moments”! :)

  2. Eric Goetz

    Your best post, yet, Jeff! Thanks for the list. I agree with Terence. Having a step by step process of stuff to try when inspiration is not there is critical. Often times we are too stressed to think clearly, and the list comes in key when thinks aren’t flowing.

    On additional thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes I’ve noticed, particularly when working on a drama, that sometimes I get caught up in one of the character’s emotions and that’s what’s blocking me. For example, maybe that I’m feeling doubt about myself because that’s what precisely the character is feeling in the story. Once I realize that it’s not about me, and it’s about the character, than I can still access those feelings without getting caught up in them. I’m not sure if other’s have experienced this, but it happens to me, a lot. Indeed, it’s a sign that I’m doing something right (empathizing with the character), but it often feels wrong, thus, I doubt my work and get blocked.

  3. Pingback: Two Things for Creatives to Check Out ASAP | deaneogden.com » composer, drummer and creative advocate
  4. Dean Jensen

    I recently got some feedback on a cue, basically along the lines of: “I love this, it’s great, it really expresses the feelings we talked about here. Could you do it differently, while still keeping kinda the same?”

    Er, ok, now what? Hmm. Having recently read your post, I found myself reflecting on these suggestions, and, sure enough, with just a little persistence … bingo!

    Thanks!

  5. Rick Balentine

    Jeff this is great. For working composers that do music for anything and everything that moves it is easy (at least for me) to hit the block. Great wisdom and advice, will keep this handy for when it comes. Thank you.

  6. Nick Repetto

    Your article was recommended to me by Deane Ogden and I am so glad I read it!

    It’s so funny how similar my approach is to overcome this obstacle (I tend to walk my dogs and get fresh air – sometimes their barking gives me rhythmic inspiration – it’s silly, but it works for me!). I certainly do appreciate the other insights into avoiding this sometimes unavoidable part of our creative craft. I studied with Tim Huling as well at Hummie Mann’s Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program, and Tim always provides solid advice.

    I appreciate you putting this article together and sharing it with us! Oh! – and I’m printing it right now, and pinning it to my studio wall! :)