Have that nagging feeling that you maybe aren’t a songwriter after all? Don’t let “imposter syndrome” defeat you!
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When we suffer from writer’s block, we often take heart by getting advice from other songwriters. But did you know that writer’s block is a specific “condition” that’s actually studied by psychologists and scientists? And while it’s great to get some guidance from others who are afflicted with it, it can help to see what researchers are learning about writer’s block. There’s a published scientific paper on the subject by Patricia Huston, MD, MPH, in a 1998 edition of the CME (Canadian Family Physician) that has taken a close look at what causes our creative brains to get stuck.
Dr. Huston’s research identifies three levels of writer’s block: mild (comes and goes; we all get this from time to time), moderate (writer’s block that doesn’t go away in a hurry), and recalcitrant (bad enough and long enough that you need to rethink the way you write – yikes!)
The research mainly focuses on writers of prose (journalists, novelists, and researchers), but the implication is that the same goes for anyone who writes creatively, including songwriters.
For mild writer’s block, the scientific recommendations are similar to the anecdotal advice we get from other songwriters, and similar to the kinds of suggestions I’ve given on this blog from time to time:
- Assess the appropriateness of your expectations
- Give yourself permission to be imperfect (write a draft)
- Break the work down into manageable tasks
- Sidestep what blocks you
- Give yourself positive feedback
- Optimize your conditions for writing
Huston, P. 1998. Resolving Writer’s Block. Canadian Family Physician. 44:94
For moderate writer’s block, Dr. Huston identifies an interesting condition called “imposter syndrome,” (Huston, 1998: p. 95) and I think many songwriters can identify with this – a situation where you start to question whether you’re a really a writer.
It’s a horrible thought to consider that maybe songwriting isn’t for you. Maybe you only had one or two good songs in you, and… that’s it. Don’t despair. That’s your mind doing what it loves to do: beat you when you feel down and make you feel worse. Why do we do that to ourselves?!
But the research shows that imposter syndrome has a couple of possible solutions, one of which is: “…imagine that you are someone you have always admired, and imagine how he or she would go about writing the project.” (Ibid, p.95)
That’s an interesting suggestion. Imagine that you’re Bruce Springsteen, or Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell, or whoever your favourite singer/songwriter is. The research shows that by removing yourself as the writer, and imagining that you’re someone else, you bypass your constant preoccupation with writer’s block. This often allows your mind to begin to begin thinking creatively once more.
Dr. Huston has other suggestions as well:
- Talk through your work. Talk to friends and family members about your work and your problems. The fact that they aren’t songwriters is actually a plus in this case. After all, the songs you’re writing need to appeal to everyone, not just other songwriters. It can surprise you what talking out your frustrations to a sympathetic person can do to clear your head.
- Write a pep-talk. Imagine that you’re trying to encourage a friend who is going through a tough bout of writer’s block. Write a letter to that person, encouraging him/her to keep working, keep trying. Then simply remove the salutation. Research shows that even imagined encouragement like this can really work to break us out of a bad fight with writer’s block.
- Mind mapping. This works well for lyrics, but can work for melodic ideas as well. Take a sheet of paper and start writing any words and phrases you can think of that pertain to the topic you’ve chosen. As you write, you’ll start to see connections between thoughts and words, and the creative juices will start to flow. You can do a version of this with melody writing: record short snippets of melodies that you make up on the spur of the moment. Try some melodic shapes that move upward, then downward, and listen to the recording later. You’ll start to notice patterns that are useful in amongst the “garbage”. It may be all you need to break the logjam.
Writer’s block will frustrate every songwriter from time to time, and it can be especially horrible if it progresses to imposter syndrome. When all else fails, take a breather. Step back, and try a few days without trying to write.
The conclusion of Dr. Huston’s research is that writer’s block is almost never a creative death sentence. The key to solving it always starts by reducing your own level of stress.
Click here to read the reference article, “Resolving Writer’s Block” in the Canadian Family Physician journal.
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