Brain Blockages & Five Ways To Beat Writer’s Block

When involved in any kind of creative pursuit, one will eventually take a trip to the well of inspiration and come back disappointed. Thankfully writer’s block is not terminal – there are a few ways to get around it. I’ve found a number of times, whether it’s in the arrangement process or even just getting started on a tune, it at least reduces the frustration by having a few options to turn to when the muse flees. These are some of the things I find help…

1. Clear Your “To Do” List
No matter how burning the desire to create can be, it can be difficult when you know you’ve got other things to do. When you’ve got things stressing you out from other commitments or your day job then it can stop you from fully focusing on the creative task at hand. Personally, I find it most relaxing to compose after I’ve finished a major project or pile of work from my desk in the office – very soul restoring.

If you can’t clear absolutely everything from your to-do list, then at least get the most pressing matters out of the way. That will leave your mind free of distractions so you can focus on your creative work.

2. Get Out Of Your Workspace
Sitting in front of my keyboard and trying to force something out is just annoying, I find. Rather than sit there, getting more and more frustrated try getting up and doing something else. I’m lucky enough to live in Cairns in far north Queensland in Australia, where there are amazing natural sights to visit for inspiration. In fact, it was a trip to the Babinda Boulders that inspired the track Boulders.

Even if it’s just getting out from in front of your instrument, easal or studio space – relieving the pressure of sitting there can do wonders for clearing your mind. Potter about the garden, read a book, make a cup of tea. A good friend of mine swears by 10km runs. There’s no point in forcing the muse to perform – show disinterest and it will return.

3. Apply Some Strategy
When I was studying music at university, a lecturer introduced me to the Oblique Strategies. First published in 1975, they are a series of koans or aphorisms presented on a deck of cards that are designed to overcome creative roadblocks. They are particularly useful for composers, but can be applied to any creative art form. You can find a full list here, but here are a few to give you an idea:

  • Use an old idea
  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention
  • Give the name away
  • Emphasize the flaws

And there’s even the incredibly useful

  • Take a break

4. Do It Differently
I sometimes pick up my keyboard controller and turn it 180 degrees, which forces me to think harder about the chords or chord inversions I’m using for keyboard parts. I’ve also now got my Akai EWI USB which lets me work on melodies in a different way than just with keyboard or pencil. Often if you keep working in the same way for too long, you’ll either keep producing the same sounding work and fall in a rut of aping yourself.

I’ve sometimes started a song by going to the sounds in my synth library I never use and thinking “How can I modify this so it’s usable to me?”. And then whilst playing with the sound I’ve come up with a little motif and then gone on to write a song.

5. Check out the “Competition”

Good artists copy, great artists steal

Whilst wholesale plagiarism is never a good idea, it’s worth remembering that nothing occurs in a vacuum. If you are creating music or writing a book or anything of the like, then you undoubtedly (I HOPE!) have a voracious appetite for consuming the work of others. When you’re stuck and can’t come up with a good idea, try looking at other’s work – maybe a phrase or chord progression will speak to you musically, or looking at someone’s art will inspire you.

A trick I use sometimes is to score a scene from a movie: I grab a clip from a movie I like and mute the sound, then start writing my own score for it. Then throw away the video and continue on the composition.

Never throw ANYTHING away!
Everybody has their own way of overcoming a bout of writer’s block. I’ve shared a few of mine, but if you ever find yourself stuck on an idea DON’T throw it away! Another great way of getting started is to pull out old sketches or incomplete works and try finishing them – more than once I’ve done that, finished a piece and then thrown out the original half-completed section.

I hope this helps you – if you’ve got any secrets to dealing with an unfaithful muse, please share them below!

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