Nashville songwriter and mentor Mark Cawley shares some tactics for reviving those elusive creative juices when you’ve lost the flow
It sucks when you sit down to write, you have the time, you have the will, you have the tools and… nothing. Nothing for hours, nothing for days. You beat yourself up and the critic takes centre stage. “How did you ever come up with anything in the first place?” “What makes you think someone will actually want to record your song?” “You call yourself a songwriter… really?”.
Lots of names for this, probably the most familiar is writer’s block. You’ve also heard writers refer to their “muse” usually talking about it as if it were a woman who provides inspiration. Great when you’re in a relationship with your muse and ideas are flowing but what do you do when the muse goes missing?
First of all I would say, if you’re depending on inspiration in the form of a muse, you’re already in trouble. You may be inspired sometimes and come up with something that feels almost like you were guided but the truth is if you plan to do this as a career you can’t depend on the muse being around 24/7. So what do you do? You prepare. You prepare for the times that you want to write but don’t feel that divine inspiration. Great when inspiration shows up but you can get old and poor waiting!
Over the years I picked up lots of tips from writers and artists I’ve worked with about this subject and ways to deal with it. For instance, deciding to be intentional in your search for lines and titles. Things that could make their way into your writing at a later date. Wandering down bookstore aisles, watching TV and movies with a pad and pen waiting for that one great line. Taping the smallest of ideas, snippets of melodies, conversations, anything that might take the place of the muse for a day and get you writing. Keeping a running list of lines, titles and ideas and keeping it nearby can get you unstuck and the truth is, if you like something enough to write it down or record it in the first place, there might just be some magic there that you can tap into later. Thinking of your path as a writer’s life instead of a day at a time, more like a marathon than a sprint, can begin to ease the pressure of a bad writing day. It’s hard enough looking at a blank piece of paper but if you’re waiting on your muse to show up to get you going it can be a loooooong day.
Try using some tools to get you unstuck. Switch instruments, try creating your melody away from your instrument, deconstruct songs you love, spend a day just listening, immersing yourself in one artist. Once you decide this stuff is every bit as valuable as the days in front of your computer, keyboard or guitar it actually starts to be freeing. Less pressure. I might not be telling you anything you don’t already know, but putting these things into practice and perspective is the deal. It’s a revelation to find that the muse is just one of the tools available to you as a songwriter. I promise if you focus on learning more and more tools, the next time the muse goes missing you might not even miss her!