Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Writer's block - some thoughts on overcoming

Writer's block... seem to have it now as I stare at this page! For any artist, musician, writer, who creates original compositions just those words strike fear. For the purposes of this entry remember,  this is really a music blog, that will be the sometimes unavoidable focus of this article. But a most of these concepts apply to any medium.

Just do it
A great piece of advice on writing came to me from my lovely wife. She - a part-time journalist and one-time journalism major back in her college days - has dealt with this issue a myriad of times before. Her advice (paraphrasing here): "Get a pencil, and just start writing - anything and everything that comes into your mind. No matter how nonsensical. The act of simply writing will just get the mind flowing. Soon it will transform into something usable. Or a grain of something you can build on". This, works. Plain and simple. No matter what the medium, sometimes you just need to start 'doing'.

Other angles
In art college (I went to school for graphic design after years as a pro musician) I had a professor who assigned a mock project that required us to paint a cover illustration for a yachting publication. My painting consisted of: Boat on the ocean, sun and channel marker buoy in the distance, seagulls, at sunset. Fairly typical marine scene. Once completed he said "Fantastic! Now redo it, as if you were seeing the scene from the other side". So I re-painted it - sun behind, buoy in front, ship in the distance, added a marina in the background... Whew! He saw it and said "Fantastic! Let's do it one more time as a seagull looking down on the scene.". He had us do this 5 times! I wanted to murder him, but in the end - we had a fully developed 3 dimensional view of the idea. The cool part was that my original perspective wasn't the best one! One of the single best lessons I ever had. Sometimes seeing it from a completely opposite angle changes everything.

Add some other minds to the mix
To begin with, it should be said that a BIG part of the problem these days - in this 'wonderful' time of computer and home do-it-yourself technology - is that artists can sit alone and write ideas endlessly. In isolation, without cost... Sounds great right? Well, it is... But not always. What you need to remember is, your same ideas, when collaborated with others, could change drastically. Maybe even taking what now appears an obvious rip-off, or lifeless piece to completely new places. Your ideas maybe aren't bad... but maybe the fact that they haven't been fleshed out with humans is a big part of their perceived lameness.

I just lived this example. I was asked to join an original band project. I did what was requested of me and wrote a piece of music for us to work on. It was well received and we jammed on it for a bit. The bass player really liked one part, he heard something in it. It was a part I had used as just a filler, a mini-bridge before the chorus. At his urging, the tune got completely re-arranged. The part I was using as the main verse got dumped altogether - replaced by this 'filler' riff. The whole picture evolved from that new place as the individuals added 'what they do' to the idea. The tune in the end, is very much nothing like what I wrote... I mean it is - but it really isn't any more. But it is honestly a better piece overall.

Writing is a process
It's an art. The hard reality is; you need to write some really weak pieces (a lot), before some good ones may be allowed to come. So I say "let the crap flow!" get it out of the way. Write your obvious riffs and get them out on the table, so the real stuff can flow. Don't be frustrated - see it as growth.

Or give up
Which is what most people do.

How about turn the tables on it and TRY to write or create a horrible piece. Write the worst song ever.

You have to ask yourself, did you honestly think all your pieces would be groundbreaking? Because if so, you better check that ego. Writing original pieces is NOT easy. Thank goodness too! Because if it were everyone would do it... making it... no longer original. After all, where's the fun in that!

Some music solutions
  • Take your riff and change the time signature. I guarantee any riff played in 7 or 5 will add a whole new dimension. What about 3? 6? 9? 11? Try them all.
  • What about power chords? Augment or diminish one here and there (move the fifth up or down one fret).. Or add one or two if none appear in the piece.
  • What about sliding into notes instead of hitting them square
  • Or displacing one or two notes by an octave
  • Make one of the notes of the riff a chord
  • Play it on a different part of the neck
  • Skip strings on a guitar - or add a large intervallic leap on other instruments.
  • Half time feel, double time
  • Change the key 
  • Drop the tuning 
  • Add open strings to the idea or chords
  • Alternate open tunings
  • Maybe use less distortion effects, change the feel from up-tempo to a ballad 
  • Try even adding random noise (feedback, harmonic, toggle switch, pick scrape) into the picture.

Let's get all Zen
We all go through more fertile periods in our life. So in less fertile times, you need to rely on your cunning to make your art. There is a great analogy a super successful salesman once told me. He probably stole it from somewhere but I thought it was awesome:

"Most people when they get a job picking apples, grab a basket and walk around the orchard. They grab only apples they can reach. Problem is, most of the good apples are already taken by the people who went before. When the basket isn't quite full, they will grab the best ones they can find off the ground. Cash their basket in and call it a day. Then there is the another kind of person. One who will do what it takes, maybe go grab the long extension ladder. At risk to their personal safety and convenience they will pick the best ones that live near the top of the trees. These are the people who do work of substance."

Speaks for itself really. Sometimes we all need to dig deeper. 
I think maybe we should grab the ladder : )

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