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2024

by Jeff Wragg

There’s No Such Thing As Writer’s Block

by Jeff Wragg

There’s No Such Thing As Writer’s Block

Any creative person will at some point come up against that challenge commonly known as writer’s block. People typically suggest that the best thing to do in that situation is to take a break, go for a walk, hang out with a friend, or listen to music to inspire you. If these things work for you, that’s great. For others, though, this can simply be a kind of procrastination that inevitably leads back to the same situation a few hours later.

I’ve often been asked by students what to do in those situations when the well of ideas seems to have run dry. My answer is always the same… there’s no such thing as writer’s block. It doesn’t exist.

There are undoubtedly challenges around the creative process, but an inability to create is not the problem. Human beings are inherently creative creatures, and the act of creating music is actually pretty simple. Throw a few sounds together that occur through time and there you have it. So, if writing music is so easy, what’s really going on? We’ve all been in that situation of sitting blankly at our instrument or staring at an empty DAW session, feeling like we’re faced with creative paralysis. If it’s not simply writer’s block, what is it? The answer is fear, and if we want to overcome it, we must first be aware of it.

Fear can present itself at the very start of the creative process, in fact it can begin before we even sit down to write. It’s that voice in the back of your head asking, ‘What if I don’t come up with anything? What if it just turns out to be a waste of time? What if I can’t do this?’

Whenever we are in a state of unknowingness about what the final outcome will be, fear can, and usually does, make itself known. If we move past this and start to play with ideas it raises its head again when we ask ourselves, ‘Will this idea be any good? Will it live up to my own expectations? Is this what best represents me as an artist?’ The idea that the answer to these questions could be a resounding ‘no’ can be quite terrifying. So instead of confronting these kinds of questions, afraid of what the answer could be, we might stand up, walk away from our instrument, and put it down to ‘writer’s block’.

If we can move past this fear and learn to be comfortable, even curious, in a state of unknowingness, we begin to draw out ideas and develop them as they start to take on a life of their own. But fear still does not retreat into the shadows. We may have a solid idea with a clear sense of identity, and yet be fearful that we will somehow screw it up in the endgame, afraid that what we thought was going to be a brilliant work of art will fall short of our expectations. I think this is the reason why many people have a lot of unfinished works in their catalogue, for as long as something remains unfinished it is always a work in progress, and therefore cannot yet disappoint us in its outcome.

Once the work is finished and the next step is to release it out into the world, that’s when fear can really kick in. Fear of being vulnerable, criticised, or rejected. Fear of failing and being told that our best isn’t good enough. Through every step of the creative process, fear can be the constant companion quietly whispering into your ear those things that you do not wish to hear.

So how do we overcome the burden of this unwanted passenger? In my own experience I’ve found four things to be very helpful, and I’m writing this column in the hope they’ll be helpful to some readers too.

First, rather than trying to shed your fear, make space for it. Instead of trying to fight it, acknowledge its presence and welcome it as a companion. For fear is not your enemy, but your ally. We feel fear when we are afraid things won’t turn out the way we’d hoped, which simply tells us that we are passionate about what we are doing, that the outcome matters to us. Those things that we treasure most deeply, and are fully invested in, are the things that we become afraid of losing, or of failing to attain in the first place. If we can learn to recognise writer’s block, or procrastination, for what it really is then it becomes a helpful beacon, reminding us of the direction in which we should be focusing our energies.

I once had a student come to me for advice on a dilemma they were wrestling with. They had a chance to pursue a potentially high-profile music opportunity but it would mean abandoning their studies, with no guarantee that this opportunity was going to pay off. My advice was, do the thing that scares you the most. Yes, fear can feel unpleasant, but it can also remind us that we are heading towards the thing that most excites us.

Second, and this one is often much more difficult, is to drop your fear of other people’s opinions of your art. The only person whose opinion truly matters is your own. Your own taste should be what ultimately drives your creative decisions rather than the expectations of someone else. (I’m talking about standalone music here. Writing music for film, TV, commercials etc is an entirely different ballgame.)

Make music for you, music that fulfills your creative desires, the kind of music you want to hear. If you have done that and truly feel proud of your creation, then you might want to take the next step and share it with the world. There’s an audience for everything and whatever you do, some people will love it and some people will hate it. There’s no escaping that, so make the kind of art that excites you and focus your energies on finding the audience that will also be excited by it. They’re out there.

Third, focus on the process rather than the outcome. I wrote about this at length in the previous NZM issue so I won’t rehash old ground here. In short, fear is rooted in outcomes, particularly those outcomes we don’t want. But there is meaning in the process also (in fact I’d argue there’s more), so rather than being afraid that the final outcome isn’t going to meet our expectations, focus on the creative process and remember there is value and fulfilment there.

Finally, on a much more pragmatic level, the best way out of ‘writer’s block’ is to write your way out. Write anything, without judgement. Don’t stop to assess the quality of each idea as it comes, just write, write, write. Stopping to gauge an idea as worthy or not only interrupts the creative flow, so just keep putting ideas down until you are spent. Then go back and edit those ideas with all the judgement you like, pick one that you think has potential, and go from there.

Jeff Wragg composes popular and classical music, and also composes for film, television, and theatre. He is also an educator and has held teaching positions at MAINZ, SIT and Victoria University. He can be contacted at www.jeffwragg.com.

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