Jake Old: Combating the ongoing writer’s block

Jun. 06, 2014 @ 03:55 PM

Last October, about a week or so before I moved to East Tennessee, I began writing a song that had a rare quality: I enjoyed it from the moment I first felt the inspiration.

Normally I am my own biggest critic when I write music. Sometimes I think I can find a more interesting guitar riff; other times I realize that the lyrics don't make as much sense as they did when they first came to me. I'll still usually finish the song and then think it's not anything special when I listen to it later, and try to forget about it.

But this song, in the early stages of writing it, seemed perfect. It was a beautiful chord progression that just begged for a folk-y/old country take on a favorite jazz technique of mine, voice-leading (emphasizing individual notes within a chord that transition into other chords, naturally creating a melody).

It was going well until I stumbled in writing the lyrics. The music was just so good, I didn't want to mess it up. So I backed myself into a case of writer's block.

When I was regularly playing and writing music, I had a simple fix for writer's block: Walk away from the instrument. Watch a movie. Go spend some time with my friends. Do something else, anything else. It always seemed to help.

And in this situation, it seemed that it would work out fine, since I was soon uprooting and moving to another part of the state, with all of the life adjustments that go along with that. The fact that I would be surrounded by the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, as opposed to the mostly flat, mostly boring area of Middle Tennessee that I was moving from, should have only made things easier.

Except for the part where I never finished the song, even several months later.

Most songwriters I've met have also faced songs like this, songs that they want so badly to be something special, and it is that care in working on the song ends up derailing the entire writing process. Every time I picked up my guitar in the first few months after moving here, I would start with those chords, hum a little bit, and put it down because I ended up frustrating myself.

So I eventually moved on. I wrote other songs, I played songs I had written years ago, I played songs that my band used to play. And every time I had the temptation to move into the chords of this one troublesome song, I backed away.

Last weekend, I decided I was going to finish the song. I locked myself in my room with my acoustic guitar and a notebook — no television, no Internet, no phone, no distractions — and told myself that I wasn't leaving that room until I had a finished product. Then it wouldn't mess with my mind every time I picked up the instrument I love.

I came up with some lyrics, and even a secondary guitar part. It only took about 30 minutes. But then I looked at the lyrics a bit more critically, and they just were not up to snuff. So I tore the paper up, and tried again.

After repeating this process several times, I eventually came to lyrics that were at least passable in my eyes. Until I tried to come back to the song a few days later and realized they were kind of corny. How did I think these were good lyrics just days earlier?

As one of my favorite guitar players, Jimi Hendrix, once said: "I listen to some of the things I've written and think, 'damn.' I wonder where my head was at when I wrote that."

And here I am, still facing this song. Until I suddenly put together a group of words that fit my unreasonably high standards, or I manage to actually lower the expectations I set for myself, I've trapped myself in this endless, frustrating cycle.

Walking away and letting the inspiration come naturally did not fix the problem, and neither did locking myself up in my room and trying to force the song to completion. Perhaps I'm just not quite good enough yet to deliver the entire package.

If I ever figure it out, however, it's going to be a great song.