Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Block & Write

Now that the cheap jokes are over with ...

Writer's Block is probably the most common subject for any writer's column in any form (print, web, APA, random whinge outside the filksing), bar none. See, when the writer in question fails to come up with an idea, he/she/it falls back on Writer's Block. It's something everyone can relate to.

Rest assured that I ain't doing that here, mate. After all, I knew last week that I would have Writer's Block ... er ... as a topic ... this week.

Seriously, Writer's Block (and I will continue to capitalize it simply out of respect for its karmic implications) is a very scary thing the first, second, third, fifth, or umpteenth time you run into it. It isn't hard to recognize, but why does it happen?

Brenda Sutton says that a person who first finds filk bursts forth with all the ideas and songs that have been bottled up for a lifetime. I absolutely agree. When this avenue of expression first opens itself up to you, everything seems like an inspiration and the songs flow from the woodwork of their own accord.

Then comes the Sudden Stop.

For some reason, the songs aren't coming. Maybe the ideas seem to have dried up. Maybe the ideas are there but the songs don't seem to be getting finished. Maybe the songs are getting finished ... sort of ... but they are immediately flushed down the nearest facility as 'not good enough'.

Whatever the cause, no new songs arrive.

There's a good reason for me to write this particular column. I've been there many, many, many times. In fact, I managed to break a Writer's Block of nearly two years with some new songs premiered at FilKONtario this month.

That means we can be honest with one another.

There is no external force stopping you from writing. Sorry. You need to take total responsibility for it. Nobody can fix it but you.

"Ahem," I hear you say. "And just how do I do that, then? Huh?"

One of the first things to do, in my opinion, is some looking at your life and circumstances. Has something changed or just built up to a point where it is affecting you more than it ever used to?

Maybe you're physically tired or mentally fatigued. Stress can often cause you to spend all your mental energy on other things, leaving only a little for writing words and music.

Despite the romantic concept of the lonely writer in the lonely garrett writing lonely verses on a lonely page, true depression can suck the creative juices right out of you. Don't discount this, especially if your life has turned upside-down recently.

I should acknowledge that many writers write to get away from stress, fatigue, or depression. Excellent therapy. It's when these things grow to a level beyond any control that they might begin to affect you negatively rather than positively. Please, don't take this negative effect as some sign that your life is useless or that your talent is gone. Get some help and advice.

Some more life changes to look at?

Have you changed habits? Ahhh, here's an interesting one. Did you know that many habits (including physical addictions like alcohol or tobacco) can actually block the centers of the brain that produce a pleasurable response to the act of creation? In other words, the reward for writing that new verse becomes the drink or the smoke, not the verse itself. So, when you kick whatever habit it is you have, you feel unfulfilled when you complete your work. Did you know something else? You can beat this.

It should go without saying that an increase in the use of mood-affecting substances like alcohol, tobacco, chocolate, and hugs can have the same effect on you. Anything that changes the way your mind perceives pleasure changes the way you deal with the creative process. Watch out.

So. you've checked things out, and in general you're feeling pretty good. Life isn't really any more hectic than it used to be, you're still eating healthy amounts of chocolate, and the job hasn't changed all that much. You're just not crankin' 'em out like you used to. Now what?

Well, there are a few other things to think about.

After eliminating life changes, usually the blockee (I almost said "blockhead," but that would be editorially incorrect) is either "Out Of Ideas" or "Can't Finish A Song." I categorize both of these in much the same way that Brenda does - signs that you've gone through that first blast of waiting material. You'll have to work a little harder from now on.

What are some of the things that work for me?

Keep a notebook or file folder of all the ideas you have for a song, no matter how trivial you might think they are. Ideas that seem like junk may look like gold after some time out of sight.

When reviewing your own personal slush pile (and you should do it on a fairly regular basis), and try combining some of the ideas. Subjects that may be simplistic and rather banal on their own can gain texture and depth when tangled up in unusual ways. "Water bed" and "beer" were a combination that I pulled out of the air as an example some years ago. I was then told there was no way I could write a song using those ideas.


Now, you've got ideas coming out your kazoo, but you can't manage to get any songs finished. You have various verses lying around but nothing in any kind of presentable condition.

I've pushed my way through this one by simply taking what seemed to be the most promising piece and actually finishing an outline of the song. I don't mean just the lyrics, either - I plot out the chords and parts of the melody line for the verses and/or the chorus. Any place where the lyrics aren't coming I write out in a paragraph what I want the verse to say. In some cases, this is enough to drive me to the finish of the song. Usually, it just means I have more to start from the next time.

This might be a good place to mention some advice I found in Barry B. Longyear's book Science Fiction Writer's Workshop - I: being completely bogged down may mean you began in the wrong place. You may want to make the second verse the first verse or start a new verse before the first verse. Reverse the viewpoint. Turn the storyline upside-down. Do whatever it takes to make it fresh, then see if it flows better from there.

Something I heard about recently (and I wish I could remember where; I think it was on an NPR writer's interview show) was a tendency for authors with major successes to fear writing something else because it might not be as good.

I've got bad news and good news. The bad news is that the next thing you write might not be the best thing you've ever written. The good news is that it doesn't have to be. It just has to be. Decide whether it's good, better, or best after you've finished it.

Finally, I've often gotten stuck in an attempt to try a different style. It's very hard to change your writing style, though it's something every writer should try to do so as not to get stale. What tends to happen to me is that the smoothness of the process in the style I'm used to gives way to a certain amount of stuttering in the new style. If it's giving you sufficient fits, you may want to take a bit of a break by putting a song together in your most familiar style, just to get something down.

And that pretty much boils down the best weapon against Writer's Block - write something, anything, every day. Even if it's just a quick one-verse knockoff of a popular song you've heard too many times, even if it's drivel you wouldn't show to your parakeet's worst enemy ... write something.

Suddenly, there are songs where only white paper shone before.

Next week - Listening.

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.