Have you ever gone months and months without writing a song? Years? I definitely have. When I first started writing, it was like an obsession; I was constantly writing, sometimes a song a day. Then I slowed down to where I was writing a song every couple of weeks, maybe a month. There were periods of my life where I intentionally didn’t write songs and I never felt inspired to do so.
Inspiration is often romanticized. I’ve known songwriter friends who almost never wrote and absolutely swore by the Muse. It was an all-powerful force that came in every once in a while, and when it did, you had to drop everything and answer its call. The Muse is definitely real and ever evasive. To me, it’s unreliable.
When I first started to write songs, inspiration came very easily. There was so much to learn, and as I was writing songs and figuring out all the techniques, new ideas were plentiful. They came to me in dreams. I thought about songwriting ideas all day and when I finally got a chance to sit down with a notebook or an instrument, it all came out easily. Everything was exciting and everything was inspiring.
Inspiration is often romanticized.
Fact of the matter is I’ve been writing for over a decade and inspiration doesn’t just happen anymore. I don’t get struck with new ideas and if I do, I can usually pinpoint another song that already used this idea (which can be disheartening). Life can get boring at times, especially right now in quarantine, and there’s nothing in particular that I would want to write about.
I believe that the more songs I write, the better songwriter I will become. If I wait for the Muse, I will be waiting for a blue moon. Sometimes I am commissioned to write a song, so I can’t rely on my own experiences and emotions to feel inspired. I have figured out ways to get started, but I still get stuck at times, wondering if inspiration will strike.
Maybe you’re like me: you’ve been writing for a long time, you still love songwriting and you admire the craft. You have to search for ideas, sometimes scrape around for them, and it feels a lot like work. Work doesn’t feel like inspiration. Despite the struggle, I do value songwriting and I still want to write songs.
And that time in my life when I intentionally didn’t write music? I also didn’t listen to music. I was tired of hearing the same thing, over and over. I was tired of looking for music I would love or that interested me. I wasn’t taking any songwriting courses or reading any songwriting books. I took a long break and I wasn’t sure I would ever come back to writing.
Despite the struggle, I do value songwriting and I still want to write songs.
Eventually, the music found me. I worked in a coffee shop at the time and I would hear songs on the speakers every day. I found songs I never would have heard on my own. I started writing again, bit by bit. I didn’t know how exactly things had changed until I realized that my love for music had been cultivated.
When I was younger, I was hungry for music. I listened to the same albums, over and over and over until I could finally buy a new one. As I grew older, had more responsibilities and the formats of listening music changed altogether, this became more difficult. I lost the habit of listening to songs and consequently, I stopped becoming inspired.
You might feel the same way, and I know many people who don’t listen to music as much as they used to. They opt for podcasts, the news or scrolling through their phones. I’ve seen people streaming Netflix on their commutes to work. Some people feel more inspired to write after they’ve consumed other media, but for me, I stop thinking about songwriting altogether.
I lost the habit of listening to songs and consequently, I stopped becoming inspired.
It’s a cycle: I won’t be inspired. I’ll realize I haven’t been listening to music or finding new songs to listen to. I’ll see that it’s been a long time since I appreciated what a song did to twist an old idea into a new one, or the way a songwriter used an interesting technique to hook me. I’ll go back to cultivating my love for music and I’ll feel motivated to write again.
Although I fully understand this now, that doesn’t mean writing isn’t difficult sometimes. I can still be hard on myself and hate every inspired thought I have. I still have to search for ideas that might inspire me to write a song, maybe by looking through book titles, scrolling around for heartfelt quotes or playing around for a new chord progression. The Muse doesn’t become less elusive.
Another thing I had to do is take time out of each day to do a little bit of writing, whether that is working on some older songs or looking for ideas. It took discipline and it took time until I was feeling motivated to write new music. This little space out of my day gives room for inspiration to grow.
I’ll go back to cultivating my love for music and I’ll feel motivated to write again.
Inspiration could also disappear because of the inner critic that takes over when I do feel inspired. I sometimes write when I’m sleepy, but ultimately, recognizing and telling myself that I can edit my songs later really shuts down my impulse to edit as I write. When I read Steal Like an Artist and Real Artists Don’t Starve, it helped me realize that no ideas are truly original, and that was freeing.
Many songwriters also talk about co-writing, which is a brilliant way of writing when I’m not in the mood. More often than not, I start to feel inspired once I’ve started. I also like to share my own songs with others and found a songwriting group (or even a group of friends) who will appreciate my songs as I write and work on them. I’ve also found it helpful to work with a mentor who gives me constructive feedback on my songs.
All in all, I don’t think inspiration is exactly bullsh*t. It comes as a result of what I am consuming, where my thoughts circle around, how often I write songs, if I keep learning about the craft or who I’m writing with. But this also means inspiration is bullsh*t, and honestly? That might be a good thing.