(Song)Writer’s Block: A Good Thing?
I spent a good part of last weekend writing this phrase on exams: “Africa is NOT a country”. Variations on this included “Paris is not a country” and “Sub-Saharan Africa is a region, not a country”.
I’m not at all concerned about the future.
I’m experiencing various forms of writer’s block, but this morning a friend’s post brought a few of my streams of thought together to inspire this entry.
It was a version of my note to students (something like “For fuck’s sake, Africa is not a country”), and other friends and I have compared other common test errors this week:
-Martin Luther is not the same person as Martin Luther King Jr.
-Martin Luther King Jr. did not free the slaves
-The Civil War did not happen in the 1920s, or the 1940s, or the 1960s
-Hank Williams did not save Catholic music after the Council of Trent convened in 1545 (though I’d kinda like to think he did)
Anyway, said friend posted this video to accompany her rant:
Which made me briefly consider whether Toto was a one-hit wonder; a band that experienced writer’s block?
So I went to their VEVO channel and discovered I knew three of the seventeen songs posted. “Africa” and “Rosanna” linger in my mind from when I heard them on repeat in our house as a child; since that time, I haven’t really investigated their catalogue. I like these songs, and some of the others that they’re known for, but can’t say Toto is at the top of my list when I’m wondering what to listen to.
Here’s the thing: I think Toto did experience writer’s block sometimes, because they seem to like the girl’s-name-as-song-title as a fallback trick. “Melanie”, “Rosanna”, “Holyanna”, etc.
Writer’s block is a weird thing. For me, it’s not really a block, in that I’m always writing something. In the absence of posts here for the last few weeks, I started another blog; I have minor submissions due to various outlets that don’t let me take long breaks; I tinker with bigger projects, even if that’s only letting ideas drift through my head.
That method of working, though, when you have large projects looming in front of you, feels ineffective. It terrifies me, because no work of substance is getting done. I can blame that partially on a lack of inspiration – I don’t post up here unless I have an idea (stack of waiting CD reviews notwithstanding), but mostly on everyone in my life driving me crazy and demanding a piece of my time.
I swore this semester that I’d keep a strict schedule in order to get the bulk of my book written. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that Fridays were supposed to be the day dedicated to writing. So far, Fridays consist of being called in to work for idiotic reasons, long skype meetings, doubly long phone calls, catching up on other work I didn’t finish through the week, answering emails, the usual suspects that take writers away from their good intentions. In other words, I haven’t yet spent one Friday writing, like I intended (I hope my editor isn’t reading this).
So my writer’s block is a function of circumstance rather than absence of inspiration. I plan on the subway, think up ideas while I’m marking, but have yet to get them down.
Writers love to write about writing; the New York Times Draft Series in Opinionator is evidence of their obsession with process. I’ve posted entries from there on this site here before; I return to one of my favourites because this is a dream I never feel I can realize, an approach that’s valuable to anyone embarking on a creative project (and very much the way we need to live): Tim Kreider’s piece on letting busyness be the excuse not to create.
Returning to Toto, I got to thinking about musical writer’s block. Many songwriters admit to experiencing it. Probably the biggest concern is that in an industry that still highly values originality and personal expression, if your bank of ideas is about to be overdrawn, then your career is over. Maybe. Some artists manage to thrive on the one big hit of their career and milk it for nostalgic retrospective tours (Rick Springfield, anyone?).
Whereas others seem to have a wealth of material that never dries up. Think Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ian Tyson. Some people might not understand this. To those people, songwriting is so often an expression of 20-something angst, that when life settles down and maturity is achieved, no longer serves a dampened creative impulse. But the above songwriters, now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, aren’t sitting down to whine about relationships and existential crises (not to say they don’t still experience these things); more often they’re trying to sort out life’s bigger mysteries, imbalances; creating narratives that have a thread of universal experience underpinning them.
Of course, much of what they write is crap. Yes? Probably most of us on ND could cite a period, or album, or song, of the above list (Tyson excepted) that shouldn’t have come about. Perhaps there’s something to brevity, or at least knowing when to pull back and not write for the sake of writing. Or at least not release simply because you wrote it.
I guess, then, I turn it over to you all and ask: which songwriters should have accepted a period of writer’s block and saved us from their attempts to break through? Conversely, is there a songwriter that broke through and turned out something unexpectedly great? The Blue Rodeo album Five Days in July often gets named as the casual experiment that turned their career around. That kind of thing.
Here’s hoping next Friday is my breakthrough.