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Writer's Block

Writers Block Q&A


Sean McBain

What is writers block?

I often tell people who claim to be struggling from the fated ‘Writers Block’ that there is no such thing as writers block…per se. It’s not that writers block is a myth, it’s more like it is a misnomer. There is nothing blocking your ideas from flowing onto paper or into song but there is however something that is causing your ideas to ‘hang up’. It should be called ‘Writers Hang Up’. A blockage makes you think the only way out is forward and that there is something stood in the way of you and progress. My belief is that you are caught on something from your past and quite often your most recent past.

Have you ever walked past a door and one of the belt hoops on your jeans gets caught on the protruding door handle? Or we have all pulled too hard on our seatbelt when trying to put it on, only this yanking action engages the clamp which stops you flying through the window in a high impact collision. You try two or three times to release the belt and get angry because the belt is doing what it is designed to do. You’ll notice the key lessons in those two examples. Firstly, pay attention, watch where you are going so as avoid any potential hang-ups, and secondly, don’t get angry or frustrated you will only make it worse.

So what are the hang ups we need to look out for?

There are a variety of things. Life and its many responsibilities can be the most common. , Passion (whatever that means) can wane, this is linked to the seasons I often speak of. Often it is interpersonal relationships which lead to emotional issues and stress, sometimes the hang ups come from the music itself and your expectations of that music. I have seen a lot of hang ups come they are related to past issues, something that has yet to be dealt with internally. If we have no closure on an issue it remains a ‘jagged edge’ in our past.

There is what I call the ‘sub to super pathways of consciousness’ that we use. Song writing, lyric writing and prose writing is essentially the product of the movement of your thoughts in and out of your layers of consciousness, from the sub conscious to the to the super conscious. Simply put the sub conscious is everything that makes you who you are, and super is everything you potentially can bring into being. If you can move freely across all of your past experiences and seamlessly into the super conscious where imagination awaits, then ideas can flow freely. If there is a single unresolved thought, incident, issue, this becomes a hang up. Whenever a thought or an idea comes remotely close to the unresolved issue, you hang up. Suddenly all of your attention goes to that specific issue and flow can never be achieved. If we repeatedly try to negate the issues and never deal with it, we hang up.

How do you identify the source of the hang ups?

Well, as I said they come in a variety of different forms. If the hang up is a single incident that happened in say a relationship, then perhaps the hang up will be pretty easy to find. In other cases, I have seen people who need deep psychological therapy to uncover the ‘meta hang up’ which removes the many small hangs ups they themselves have put there. I can give you an interesting example from a young songwriter I worked with during lockdown. He was struggling to write and came to me for help, so we started by discussing his life and his goals and past experience with music and people. What became quite clear early on was his lack of identity as a person. He was young so this is common, but for him he had created this character online that had a strong identity, but it did not match up with who he was in real life. Everything he wanted to achieve was based on what he’d seen other people in his vicinity already achieve but only, (and here is what was critical) - on social media. There was no substance to his work, and by work, I mean song writing. He had a handful of songs, but his online persona made out like he was prolific and active. This was his hang up, by spending too much time focusing on his online appearance and comparing his success to others he had neglected the development of his craft. His hang up to creative flow was that he simply was not working hard enough on the songs to allow himself to flow freely. He lacked confidence in the one area that he proclaimed to be honing mastery in. This type of confidence that comes from competence and how do you build competence? You work hard, every day, do it badly until you can do it good. Then competence becomes confidence.

You sometimes have to write 10 stinkers before you can write one belter, when you are young you have to write those stinkers and allow them to disappear into the ether without anyone ever knowing how bad they were. If you post every single ‘bit’ of a song you write and share your works in progress, yet present yourself online as a prolific, skilled songwriter, people will let you know that you are not. And people were letting this guy know he was not.

With each terrible song comes a learning experience. If you write enough lyrics that rhyme, explore enough prose that challenges and listen with the intent of expanding your musical pallet, writing becomes more stretched and the more stretched you are the more flexible you are. This makes song writing a reflex.

What was the outcome of the songwriter you speak of?

I challenged him to take a months abstinence from social media and focus souly on writing new songs. He managed 10 days but he did write a new song, which he was happy with. So happy he couldn’t wait to share it online, which promptly ended his social media hiatus. But that was fine because he now knows for a fact his hang up to flow is distraction, remove the distraction, increase the flow, and write the song. Part of the fun is in the sharing so I was happy for him.

How do we remove the hang ups?

Write. Write some notes in a journal. It really is the best way forward for anyone who believes they are hung up. Writing acts as a kind of smoothing tool like a sander or a planer for the walls of the sub to super tunnel. That is the pathway from the sub conscious (past experience) to the super conscious (imagination and future aspirations). First explore yourself, talk to someone about things that are bothering you. It could be a loved one, friend, bandmate or even a Psychologist of you feel you would benefit. But talk to yourself too. If you think everything you write is terrible, Why? If you think you are not good enough? Why? As I said if confidence is the hang up, how do you build it? Only through writing because at the end of the day bad songs and good songs are still songs.

Now, sometimes it is a particular relationship that is the hang up. Consider the break-up of a failed romance. The songwriter in the relationship has plenty to write about for the initial period of post break up blues if they have had their heart broken. However, if they are the ones who did the heart breaking it’s more likely that their unclear conscience will become a hang up. Guilt can be prominent hang up to creative flow because guilt does stop every good thought in its tracks. This is where paying attention to yourself and your relationships at all times can stop any hang ups from forming and stop them from snagging flow.

Another powerful hang up is fear. I mean if you are putting yourself out there as a creator of music you are looking for that music to be accepted. If the music is not accepted, then that could lead you to believe that youare not accepted. I speak about this often how artists put so much of themselves into their work that it is difficult to detach from it so any slight on the work is a slight on the individual. There are two traditional ways to resolve that, firstly you detach from your work, not an easy thing to do if you are taking your work seriously but it can often be the best resolution. The other way around it is to go even deeper on its ownership. Become so blind to the views of the world and embrace the self-serving nature of art. You know what the piece means to you, so who cares what everyone else thinks. I prefer to promote a mixture of the two in my clients and for myself. I own and love my music otherwise I would never release and therefore I don’t really care what others think, and when it is out there to be heard by others, I can do nothing about their taste and opinion, so I choose do detach when it enters someone else’s ears. That’s an interesting thing that I think about a lot. I think a song is a living thing in many ways. It takes on a different meaning when it enters a different mind. In that mind it encounters the different perspectives and different memories of its host and therefore has a whole new meaning and energy. It becomes a different thing so you should detach from your work once it leaves your record and enters a new psyche.

At the end of the day, as artists and creators, we have to accept the uncertainty of our discipline. We are on the edge of the new, most people know nothing about the cognitive expenditure and personal exploration of song writing. They just listen to the end product and say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’. Remind yourself that if you can write songs, you are one of a very small percentage of the population with that talent and you should be proud of the fact that you can do it at all. It is the one thing in this earth that you are not mediocre at, celebrate that and go forward in confidence that what you are doing is what you are supposed to do and what you enjoy doing.

What do you mean by cognitive expenditure?

Well simply put it is the amount of brainpower needed to complete the task at hand. Basically, from a cognitive point of view song writing is really, really hard. You are using several different parts of brain circuitry at once and more so if your write from playing an instrument. A typical pop songwriter, writing from a guitar or piano is using all sorts of circuitry to come up with their idea. For example, when simply listening to a piece of music, musicians use the occipital cortex, which is the visual cortex, while non musicians, use the temporal lobe — the auditory and language centre. This suggests that musicians may visualize a music when listening. I know this is true for me, I often say I ‘see’ the sounds and textures, though this may be because I also produce music and spend a lot of time looking at sounds on a computer screen. Nevertheless, visual function uses more energy than listening, but we are using both. Then when we sing, we organise our thoughts into words and form vowels and consonants which is mostly the left hemisphere but for singing we also need melodic shape and that requires the right hemisphere. Then there are all the fine motor functions of playing the instrument or engaging the larynx to sing notes. There are millions of neural pathways beings ignited in the act of song writing.

Now all of that is very complicated and long-winded way of saying that what you do or are trying to do is very difficult and you should not be so hard on yourself if that killer chorus just aint happening, stick with it and enjoy the process.

Next piece will be on the topic of ‘seeing’ sounds, fractals and biophilia in music.

If you struggle with writer’s block or any other issue effecting your creativity, I would love to help. Email: info@seanmcbain with some brief details about your issue and I will get back to you and arrange a one-to-one session. Right now, all sessions are free.