What Happens When You’re a Songwriter Who Can’t Write Songs
This is how it happens: I have an idea for a song, I start working on it, and then it starts to get difficult. I have a good lyric, but I can’t find anything to rhyme with it. I have four verses but no chorus, no idea what ties it all together. Or maybe I realize that the reason I’m feeling so good about this song is that I’ve accidentally stolen both the melody and the chord progression from Townes Van Zandt. This is when the gremlins in my brain take over. They say, “You’re bad at this. You really thought that idea was good?! It was bad. Actually, you’re bad, generally. It would be much better to stop trying, because you’ll never write anything worth hearing. How about you just cry for several minutes and then go watch three episodes of Game of Thrones.” And the gremlins keep saying these things, over and over again, until I can’t hear my own ideas anymore and I decide the gremlins are probably right.
This is not an article containing a neatly numbered list of tips or advice (although Raina Rose, my predecessor in this column, wrote an excellent one). This is not a “how I overcame this thing” article. This is simply me trying to convince myself that you don’t have to enjoy the process of writing songs to be a songwriter. My hope is that maybe someone will read this and feel that maybe they, too, could write songs. It’s not all fits of divine inspiration. In fact, it’s almost never that.
I’ve read interviews with many of my favorite songwriters about how they write, and I’ve discussed the process endlessly with my songwriter friends. That process can look radically different for everyone. Many treat writing like a 9-to-5 job, with dedicated hours and a stubborn, pragmatic disdain for the concept of “the muse.” Others take a more impressionistic approach, believing that forcing oneself to write is counterproductive or even sacrilegious. The part of me that loves structure is attracted to the 9-to-5 approach, but other times that feels like brutal, Puritanical self-punishment. One thing I’m sure of is that I’ll never write anything if I just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s difficult to find a balance between honing one’s craft in a disciplined way and letting genuine expression and creativity drive the process. I’m relentlessly self-critical, and I know – although it’s easier said than done – that shutting off those self-critical brain gremlins is a crucial step toward writing the songs that I want to write. (Shutting off the self-critical brain gremlins is a crucial step toward any kind of mental health, but that’s another article altogether.)
To be frank, I’ve spent the last year in a serious writing drought. The timing of this drought was hilariously bad, since my band was supposed to spend the first half of 2017 writing our second album. I was also asked to teach a six-week songwriting course at a local music school, and the email read “we were thinking you could call the class Overcoming Writer’s Block.” I laughed at the irony, but hoped that teaching the class would give me the creative boost I craved. Instead, I spent six weeks regurgitating the exercises and advice that wiser songwriters had given me, and though the students seemed to enjoy the class, I was unable to shake the feeling that I was a complete fraud.
In the following months, the pressure of the album loomed over me every hour of every day. My two bandmates and I went on a couple of songwriting retreats, which I started referring to as “crying retreats.” I scribbled in notebooks and sang melodic fragments into my iPhone, trying to shape something out of a half-formed idea that had come to me on the bus or in the shower. But the gremlins did their thing, and more often than not, I listened.
Interestingly, the only song I wrote during that time that has seen the light of day was kind of an accident. My bandmate sent some lyrics she’d come up with, saying that she was having trouble setting them to music. I offered to take a crack at it. I came up with a funky minor-key melody on my housemate’s banjo, and she said, “I don’t think that’s the song I wanted to write, but you have to use that melody for something.” So I took this melody that wasn’t even supposed to be mine, and I wrote new lyrics based on some feverish free writing I’d done after the violence at last summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The result is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and I think it’s no accident that it was originally intended for someone else. The song’s genesis was detached from my ego and insecurities, so I was less critical of it.
Once we finished the album (containing two of my songs, plus a few others that I co-wrote), I knew it was time to take a break from writing. For three months, I tried not to think about songwriting at all. I focused on other aspects of my musicianship. I knew I’d spent too much time beating myself up and stressing myself out, and I needed to heal.
It came back to me in a hotel bathroom in Lutherstadt, Germany, while I was on the tour I wrote about a few weeks ago. I was in the shower, thinking about a particularly good late-night conversation from a few nights prior, and suddenly I found myself singing. A shock bolted through me like lightning. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a rare wild animal. I had to move carefully, or I’d scare the song away. I quickly finished my shower, took out my guitar, scribbled down some words in my notebook, and made a voice memo on my iPhone. I missed breakfast, but I didn’t care.
At the depths of my worst writer’s block, I’ve wondered whether maybe I don’t actually want to write songs. Ultimately, though, I don’t think I’d be this angsty about it if I didn’t deeply want it. So, yes, I want to write songs. I now know this about myself. I’ve come up with a few good songs before. I suspect, in my better moments, that I have the capability to write some great ones. I can feel these songs lurking somewhere behind my chest. It feels like that moment between 4 and 5 in the morning when you’ve been up all night, and the black sky turns just a little bit blue, and you realize it’s starting to get light. You can’t see the sun, but you know it’s there. I think maybe I can dig a song out of those last few sentences.