From around the middle of 2009 until late 2012, I didn’t write any songs. There were three days in the summer of 2010 where I banished myself to the basement and recorded the music for three songs, but was unable to generate any lyrics I could tolerate, so I don’t count those. In effect, I had a three-year “dry spell.” As someone who identifies as a songwriter, it was difficult to stave off an identity crisis.
The first six months or so were easy. I was busy, I’d gone through some life changes. I’d had little songless stretches before. No big deal. At the end of a year I looked back and thought, “That’s kind of strange.” By the end of year two I knew something was wrong, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had no songs to write, and I was getting far enough away from the process that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again.
As I view it, writer’s block is what happens when the conditions for making work are, for whatever reason, not established or not attainable. The impediments may be strictly logistical: I’m not setting aside enough time; I can’t get enough privacy and am feeling self-conscious about being heard; my studio is cold and dark; I don’t have the correct tools for facilitating my writing practice. Or the thing holding me back from writing could be conceptual: I’ve not listened to enough new and interesting music to educate and inspire me since my last of batch of songs; I’ve not challenged myself to grow enough as a vocalist/instrumentalist/lyricist to the point where I have something new to say; I haven’t had enough new life experiences, or understood the ones I’ve had yet to draw from.
The third year was the real struggle. I was actively trying to write songs and was unable. I had a few chord progressions scattered around, a couple half-hearted lyric sheets in a pile on the edge of my desk, but they didn’t call to me, they didn’t demand my attention the way a strong song-in-process should. I went through various stages of depression, panic, insecurity, self-doubt. I questioned whether it was honest to think of myself as a songwriter or to just let it go entirely, move on. Maybe buy an elaborate video game system?
Most often, the source of the “block” is emotional. In order to write (and especially in order to write well), I have to be able to listen. I would even argue that listening is the single most important skill in all of music. And in order to listen, I must not be distracted. When my emotional life is in disarray, I’m distracted. Whatever’s going on in my personal life – it could be a relationship issue, some unresolved interpersonal tension, even anxiety about my identity as a songwriter – is going to slow me down as a songwriter unless I deal with it. In the best of worlds, I can do so directly through songwriting, but often I have to address the issue in order to write songs.
In the fall of 2012 I spent two weeks alone in a small cabin in northern Montana with no electricity, no phone reception, no running water, and I shattered my dry spell. During those three songless years, I ran through the entire litany of impediments to writing listed above and more! In order to shatter my so-called writer’s block, I had to stop everything, clear away all distractions and confront myself on the most intimate terms. It worked. And more important than the songs I produced, is the comfort in knowing the only thing ever stopping me from writing is myself.