You may think that songwriting starts with feeling inspired to write. The research shows– you’re probably wrong.
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There’s a common misconception in the arts that the creative process starts with inspiration. Once you’re inspired, the ideas start to flow, and you get busy writing. When the ideas stop, it’s called writer’s block, and there are all manner of things that songwriters do to get re-inspired. They listen to music, they go for a walk, they talk to other songwriters — and eventually, they hope, inspiration returns like a long-lost friend, ideas start to flow once more, and you get back to writing. The problem with this scenario is: the evidence shows that that’s not how it happens.
The creative process does not begin with inspiration, it begins with creation.
There’s not a lot of scientific research that’s been done on songwriter’s block. But there is a lot that deals with writer’s block as it pertains to literary authors. And the research shows that inspiration is not the normal starting point for creating something new. The normal starting point is: sit down and start working.
The typical model that most people think of in the creative arts is the following:
But does it really work like that? Dr. Robert Boice, a researcher quite well-known for his work in the area of writer’s block, did an interesting experiment back in the 1980s. This experiment was conducted with academics who were suffering from severe writer’s block, in danger of losing their university positions because they weren’t able to publish any of their research, such was the severity of their block.
The academics were given a writing schedule that meant they were required to write every day and produce a minimum of 3 pages of writing each day. The experiment took 22 weeks.
But there was something more: Twice during the 22-week experiment, for a length of about 7 weeks, negative consequences for missed work were assigned. If the academic fell short of the goal of writing 3 pages, they had to pay $15 to an association that they despised! I can imagine all the Republicans in the group being required to fork over their money to the Democratic party!
So the 22-week period was made up of several weeks of simply following a writing schedule, alternating with several weeks of negative consequences should they fail.
The results of the experiment might be an eye-opener to you. During the periods of negative consequences, the academics’ productivity rose. It did not take inspiration to get them writing — it took threats!
And in fact, the real model of how the creative process starts and then continues should be exciting to anyone who writes:
Keep in mind that this experiment was done with people whose creative output is words. But I do believe strongly that the same applies to creators of music — to songwriters.
The creative process appears to start with simply creating ideas. But how can you do that, you ask, if you aren’t inspired? Where would the ideas actually come from? The answer is quite simple: humans have an innate ability to spontaneously create things from the imagination. It’s part of being human.
So the actual model, as diagramed above, of how songwriters can and should be writing tells us three things:
- The creative process can, and usually does, start with writing: with musical ideas that get conjured up, then performed, recorded and/or written down, not with inspiration in the traditional sense of that word.
- Inspiration blossoms once the initial ideas appear and something tangible (e.g., recording them, or simply singing them over a strummed guitar) gets created.
- This process of creating ideas, then becoming inspired, is in effect a kind of “musical machine”, where the creation of new musical ideas is fueled by the very inspiration generated by the previous ideas.
It’s that “musical machine” bit that should excite you. The evidence shows that once you get working, you get inspired. Once inspiration happens, your desire is to keep working. It’s an almost perfect musical perpetual motion machine.
There are times in this process that ideas will stop, and then you simply take a break. But as Boice’s research shows, the cue that it’s time to write again is not that you feel inspired. No, the cue is that your schedule tells you it’s time to work.
To state it again, because it very much needs reinforcing, writing starts with work, not inspiration.
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*NOTE: Boice's research in this article is described in the following journal: Experimental and clinical treatments of writing blocks. Boice, Robert. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 51(2), Apr 1983, 183-191