The curse of writer’s block and when the well runs dry

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Portrait of the author as a creative musician. Photo by Andrew AB

Portrait of the author as a creative musician. Photo by Andrew AB

For an artist, the inability to create can be a cruel and torturous struggle as Getintothis’ Edward Feery writes about his own experience with writer’s block.

It manifests itself as a kind of tingling sensation somewhere in the depths of the brain; synapses and neurones firing into life, honed by a decade of practice to respond to the right stimuli with the necessary burst of creative energy.

I feel the itch in my fingertips, to grasp pen and paper, to feel inspiration flow onto the page again; but at most, even on the very best days, I might manage a line or two, perhaps a verse of doggerel, before the spark gutters and fades. Most of the time I just find myself facing a blank page and an inescapable conclusion.

I don’t know how to write songs any more.

A moment of perspective: this isn’t a disaster. It has no effect on my physical health or my ability to earn a living. Compared to the hardships and uncertainties many, even among my own friends, are facing, a bit of writer’s block is decidedly small beer.

But writing songs has been my thing – the discipline in which I have forged my own voice – for over a decade now. Suddenly having that stripped away is both jarring and terrifying.

If you’re reading this and thinking “Why should I care? I’ve never heard of you or any of your music” – you know what, fair point. I’m not going to pretend my creative misfortune is robbing the popular music canon of anything particularly notable or radical.

My music has only ever mattered to a tiny cadre of people, almost all of whom are my friends anyway. This is an entirely personal story.

Only a few years ago, my songwriting was breathtakingly prolific. An awful lot of it wasn’t particularly good, even by my lowly standards; but I found by writing in quantity, I was able on rare occasions to achieve quality – or, at least, something I was willing for other people to hear. I had a knack for writing lyrics others found meaningful or funny, and marrying them to hummable, memorable melodies.

I was also very lucky – and still am – to count among my friends a sterling and diverse set of songwriters: Felix Hagan, Ralegh Long, Harbottle & Jonas, Greta Svabo Bech, Jez Wing aka Cousin Jac, Bridie Jackson, Stealing Sheep, David Jaggs of the Ragamuffins – to name but a few.

I also found a niche on the edges of the breathtakingly creative scene around Wolstenholme Square, where my particular style might not have fitted in but I thrived on the seemingly limitless creative energy and zeal that flowed there. I spent my showers and my morning commutes dreaming of the day I could be counted as an equal to the illustrious company in which I found myself.

I would like to say I spent this time honing my craft, but that would be according myself too much credit. In truth, my talent was entirely intuitive; even as I toiled and fretted over the songs themselves, the entire process remained couched in mysticality, as though I was merely a vessel for the music to flow through. It sounds ridiculous, I know, when presented in plain prose; yet at least one of the friends I mentioned earlier has described the songwriting process in almost exactly those terms.

The upshot of this, unsurprisingly, was that when my creative process started to fail me I didn’t know how to deal with it.

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I remember very clearly my first inkling that something was wrong. It was late 2014 and I was working on a music project in Walton, using the time between rehearsals to strum around with a new chord sequence I was particularly proud of, trying to work it up into a full-blown song – only to draw a complete blank.

No melody, no lyrics; just a gaping hole where the inspiration normally came from. I’d had dry spells before – I suspect every creative person has at some point – but I’d never experienced such a fundamentally complete absence of creativity. It worried me slightly, but I just put it down to being busy and a bit tired; there had been times in the past when I feared I’d never write another song, and yet the knack had always returned to me. Why should this be any different? Just give it a few days.

Days turned into weeks, which became months, and still I remained bereft of inspiration. I could feel it sitting like a weight in my chest, as though whatever motor drove my creativity had seized up and been disconnected. It would still sputter into life occasionally, fitfully, but there was no way to convert the fleeting sparks into something tangible, meaningful, like I once had. It was maddening.

I’d never gigged prolifically, but whatever impulse I had to perform was sapped by my all-pervading writer’s block. Even the songs I’d already written began to sound trite and stale; I couldn’t rehearse them, even in total privacy, without cringing.

As milestones in an ongoing process, my songs had been objects of intense personal pride; when the process stopped, I found the pinnacles of my talent severely wanting.

And then, suddenly, after almost a year, inspiration hit and I came out with quite possibly the best song I’d ever written. It was funny and heartfelt and bursting with melody; I genuinely coasted on the good vibes for the better part of a month. Now I had my mojo back I could hardly wait to get writing again.

But there was nothing else forthcoming; my triumphant renaissance was nothing but a fluke. I didn’t understand what had caused this writer’s block in the first place, and to have it break in so spectacular a fashion only to immediately re-emerge dealt a shattering blow to my confidence.

Embittered and flailing, I grew surly, waspish and generally unpleasant to be around. My behaviour during that time cost me more than a few friendships – albeit not as many as it probably should have.

It took me far longer than it should have done to admit, if I couldn’t write music, I should at least try playing it. A few friends – those who somehow weren’t sick of my awful, shitty personality – talked me into singing in a covers band, more as a bit of fun than anything. It was exactly what I needed to get my head in order and frankly stop taking myself so seriously. It didn’t cure my writer’s block, but that might not actually be a bad thing.

Writer’s block, unexpectedly, has had some upsides. I am no longer afflicted with irrational bouts of jealousy regarding other people’s talent or success.

I don’t regard music I dislike with a sneering attitude of ‘I could do better’ any more. I am trying to rid myself, bit by bit, of the frankly breathtaking levels of self-absorption I developed over ten years of pretentious introspection.

And I’ve been lucky. My writer’s block has been torturous at times, but it hasn’t affected my income or my employment. Moreover, I’ve been able to channel my creative energy into writing prose – mainly for Getintothis, or spilling thoughts into my personal blog, but also trying my hand at short stories and the like.

I won’t pretend I’m any better at it than I was at songwriting; but, like my music, my fiction has a small cadre of fans, most of whom I consider my friends. Not everyone, I know, can be so fortunate.

But despite my good luck, there is nothing I’ve found that can come close to matching the sheer joyous immediacy of writing a good song. And the atrophied state of my abilities doesn’t stop the urge arising at the most inappropriate of times – usually while watching other people play.

Regardless of whether the gig is Brian Wilson or the Magnetic Fields or Pete Wylie or Gavin Osborn, the urge can range from a whisper at the base of the brain to an agonised, confused, inspiration-starved onslaught that feels little short of torture.

A few weeks ago, on the way back from Chester after seeing the latest show by my friend Barbara – one of the most consummate composers I know – I was driving back through Frodsham in dappled summer sunshine. The views were gorgeous – the kind of thing that once would have had couplets and melodies leaping to mind – but now all I could find was the empty clicking of a dying process.

At that moment, though, I managed to stumble on a song that encapsulated my writer’s block better than I ever could myself; The Lines Of My Earth, by Sixpence None The Richer. It’s also the kind of song I couldn’t have written, and now probably never will.

I need a drink, but my well has run dry.

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