Help me let the muse in!
December 27, 2007 6:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a huge mental block when it comes to writing songs that is the direct result of being ridiculed or sometimes even punished by my father when I was little. It's so bad that even when I try, a little voice in my head screams, "no, no, no!" and I just shut down. Freewriting is great, but I need to be able to ignore that voice even when I'm writing thoughtfully and paying attention to conventions like rhyme, rhythm and melody. I have plenty of ideas, but I need help learning how to get them out onto paper. Any ideas?

And yes, I've seen some improvement by going to therapy, but you know, there's a time when you have to do stuff that's painful and hard even before you've morphed into a better, more confident version of yourself.
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Incorporate that screaming negative voice into your song. Perhaps it is the chorus or perhaps you are engaging in a dialogue with that berating voice.
posted by orthogonality at 6:43 PM on December 27, 2007

I was going to say the same thing as orthogonality. Maybe a song about your experience with him might break the barrier.

You don't have to share it if you don't want to, of course.
posted by Pants! at 6:50 PM on December 27, 2007

Keep doing the freewriting.

One thing that helps me with the "inner critic" is the statement that I have heard somewhere that says one has to write one hundred bad songs before one writes a good one. You have to give yourself permission to write crap.

And paradoxically, when you do, you may be very amazed at what comes out.
posted by konolia at 6:50 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

You most likely won't write any worthwhile music anyway, so maybe just give up now since you're lame and also quite stupid.

You're going to encounter the above attitude often (cuz of how messed up people is, even if you were clearly the 2nd coming of Mozart/2pac) and worse yet you've already internalized it, so you'd better learn not to care what assholes think, because it doesn't matter, all that matters is you have fun. That's what music is for anyway, not proving you're good enough to your father or some jerk on the street/net.
posted by oblio_one at 6:52 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Strangely enough, I don't worry about what other people think. When other people say mean things about me, I usually just laugh it off. I write music for myself and for people who might like to listen to it, so the people who *wouldn't* like to listen to it are largely irrelevant.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:03 PM on December 27, 2007

Have you tried writing badly on purpose? Nonsense verse, limericks, singsong doggerel... you can pay attention to rhyme and meter while still writing verse that is terrible (or at least terribly silly). It might help you to get used to writing terrible songs and realizing it's not the end of the world.
posted by Jeanne at 7:07 PM on December 27, 2007

I have the same mental block when it comes to singing, due to a few derisive comments made by my mother ("you couldn't carry a tune in a bucket!" - btw, I'm hearing impaired, so DUH). Anyway, I've never gotten over my fear of singing in public but I do now realize that my mother is human and fallible and sometimes says spectacularly stupid things that I don't have to internalize as THE WORD OF GOD.
posted by desjardins at 7:18 PM on December 27, 2007

Best answer: Seconding Konolia's statement that you have to just keep at it until something good comes along; and that process can be frustrating.

I would try to focus more on the process than the product. Think about just writing components of songs. For example:

I will only play chords right now. Don't deal with the lyrics.

Or if you are focusing on lyrics: I will only use single syllable words. Or only words found in today's headlines. Or make a deck of flashcards with words on them and write by shuffling and pulling cards.

I find that by putting parameters around the creative process (or randomizing it), the voices in my head shut up because they are now focused on a different criteria of "success."

I don't find journaling or sketchbooks useful, but you might. They help since you are just jotting down ideas--you are not committing to finishing them. You might try to look at books or tools about creative exercises (Drawing from The Right Side of The Brain, The Creative Whack Pack) regardless of whether they're tailored to music or not. I don't think the process is that much different.

There is a specific book I wish I could remember that prescribes daily exercises many of which might help you get beyond any self-criticism. Hopefully somebody else will remember this, as I think it's a fairly well-known book.

I'm a songwriter too, and for every day of beating my head against a wall, once in a while there is that beautiful spark where I wind up shouting "Yes" and working all hours of the night to get it all out. Good luck to you--it's hard, but so worth it.
posted by txsebastien at 8:03 PM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Write crap. Allow yourself to write really really bad sloppy songs. As a first draft. Then use your revising and editing skills to polish it into something great (don't stop till it's note perfect).

The doubts that afflict your muse, which is a fleeting thing not entirely in your control, will be less effective in derailing your editing, which is a more workaday thing.

As a writer, especially when I'm feeling touchy and full of self-doubt, I just spill my stream of thoughts onto paper, then use the miracle of word processing to whip it into shape. I do not interrupt my flow to think of words (I just insert a bullet and think of the word later), or pause get stuff just right or polished, or to consider whether what I'm doing is worthy. I just let it out...vomit on paper. I don't stop until the flow stops. I don't think. I don't do anything but take mindless dictation for my inner muse.

And then I work with that raw material, doing post-production for myself, if you will. Not touchy, just hard-working at that point. And if flow suddenly strikes again, I drop that and take dictation again.

This works. Try it.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:17 PM on December 27, 2007

Best answer: Incorporate that screaming negative voice into your song.

I once knew a guy in Nine Inch Nails. I guess it was a very rotating cast of characters, but I asked him if Trent Reznor was really as messed up as the lyrics suggested and he said that he used to be but got over it and kept writing those songs anyway.

The bulk of my good stuff comes from that place which you are describing. It is trying to get out of you via music. But you are scared of that feeling. My suggestion is to become friends with that feeling. There's tons of stuff in there which you can use for years. You'll feel better too.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:39 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, this sounds like any sort of creative process. As a writer, I find myself frustrated that I often cannot complete one article from start to finish. Some days I write down lots of ideas. Some days I write a dozen first drafts. Other days I go back and find all this stuff I started and then polish it into shape.

Though it's related specifically to writing, you may like The Fieldstone Method. I found it comforting to know that other people work like this, too.
posted by jdroth at 8:58 PM on December 27, 2007

Best answer: When I was working on my first book, and confronting anew my ever-present fraud complex, sure that whatever I wrote would be such crap my editor would consider it more a cry for help than an actual book and that my publisher would demand that I return the advance, etc., I had a very compelling deadline. The book was due to my publisher the same day I was due to have my second child. So there was no getting around it: I HAD to write the book, whether or not it turned out to be a pile of crap.

At first I tried powering through the "who are you kidding? you think anyone would want to read this? the only reason you got this book deal is because they didn't realize how badly you suck!" soundtrack in my head. But it didn't work. I kept getting seduced by the sabotaging yet comforting critical voice, and I kept stopping and getting mired in it, and then realizing I couldn't stop and get mired in it because the baby was kicking and oh crap I have to finish this before it's born, and what if it comes early, and on and on and on. A pretty effective way to shut down the creative process.

So after fighting the negative voice for a while, I stopped. Instead I thought about all of the creative endeavors I'd attempted in my life -- from performing piano recitals to writing -- and realized that battling that negative voice, that "no no no!" in my head, was, for me, actually a crucial part of my creative process. It had been there at every point along the way. I asked myself: what's the payoff? The self-sabotaging voice never actually succeeded in completely sabotaging me, and yet it's still here. Maybe I needed it a little bit to get anything done? Maybe I still need it somehow, but just in non-toxic amounts?

So instead of fighting with it, I decided to let the voice in and just kind of listen to it instead of responding to it. I had three hours a day in which to write, and I decided to give myself five minutes at the start of each writing session -- 10 minutes if I was extra needy -- to completely freak out. I mean, let the voice have free reign, follow every horrible scenario to its embarrassing conclusion, just wallow in it. I set a timer and let the freak-out begin -- freaking out like crazy for the full 5 or 10 minutes I allowed myself -- and then when time was up, I'd say, "Okay! Thank you for your thoughts! Now it's time to get to work. See you tomorrow!"

As cheesy as it sounds, it really helped me. Fighting the negative voice in my head only gave it more power; listening to it, letting it rant and whine like the scared, small, mean thing it was, enabled me to see it was only as powerful as I let it be. It felt almost compassionate, in a way, letting myself realize how scared I was, and indulging that scared part of me that worried for the vulnerability that creativity demands.

(Epilogue: I finished the book, edits and all, on Oct. 1, 2002; my son was born Oct. 2. And according to some people, it didn't suck!)
posted by mothershock at 10:09 PM on December 27, 2007 [8 favorites]

My short experience: my whole life, my father went for the negative. Most noteworthy for me as a child were moments involving music; when I would sing, he'd accuse me of faking an accent and such until I was too embarrassed to continue, and when I wrote a parody version of a song for a magazine, he told me not to send it in because I'd be disappointed when I lost (I actually came in first runner up, which for my age was great, but he made me feel like crap about it anyway.)

Long story short: as an adult in my 30s, I finally decided to stop watching other people make music and start making my own. I began recording and submitting songs that I thought were crap, and playing them for friends without any excuses -- and getting, at worst, no feedback. Sometimes it actually went over well, and I learned that people who are genuinely your friends will support you just for putting in the effort. Then I started submitting songs under a pseudonym to SongFight (and so could let it all hang out, as it were) and if you listen to them all in order you'll hear a guy go from simple songs with vocal treatments to "hide" my (presumably crappy) voice to someone who'll wail ridiculous crap way outside of his range just for the sheer joy of knowing some other people are going to hear it and laugh.

So just hunker down and do it, even if it hurts, even if you know it's garbage, and send it out into the world anyway.
posted by davejay at 11:52 PM on December 27, 2007

oh, and now I sing for my kids -- they have a small assortment of my originals that they ask for at night, and complain if they don't get -- and when they sing it makes my heart explode, and I can't imagine why a parent wouldn't love and support every second of it. But hey, that's why I'm not my dad.
posted by davejay at 11:53 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

(Aw, davejay, what an awesome dad you are.)
posted by mothershock at 7:54 AM on December 28, 2007

txsebastien, are you refering The Artist's Way?

Awesome book. Most definitely recommended.
posted by Arthur Dent at 9:01 AM on December 28, 2007

In addition to what's already been said, you might be able to apply Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies as an alternative 'little voice'. Good luck!
posted by kimota at 9:55 AM on December 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

Arthur Dent: you are correct--I knew someone would remember!
posted by txsebastien at 10:41 AM on December 28, 2007

I like Art and Fear , too... good read for any artist.

Freshwater Pr0n, I hope you can forgive your dad the sin of mortally wounding your spirit.

Jesus H. Christ, why isn't there a permit for reproducing? If dad is still alive, I'd reward the SOB with Exlax in his coffee. What a creep.

Whatever you have to say, I hope you can figure out how to say it. The important thing is to do it.

Listen to Bob Dylan when you think you are not a decent singer/songwriter. He manages, as he says, with only "three chords and the truth".... and an absolute minimum (if not entire absence!) of singing ability.

Best songwriter I ever met was in a songwriter's group I was in in Asheville, years ago. She wrote absolutely wonderful songs within about a month of buying her first guitar. Banged out painfully simple rythyms, wonderful lyrics, on common topics. Her lack of training and polish did not diminish her drive and she bulldozed ahead in spite of her limitations, always striving to improve them. Absolutely wonderful, it was.

Knock 'em dead! Write, perform, and relish whatever you have. (And don't invite dad to the concerts!)
posted by FauxScot at 5:33 PM on December 28, 2007
posted by Furious Fitness at 3:49 AM on December 29, 2007

Response by poster: FauxScot, my dad is no longer with us, and was a little too mentally unstable to understand that his actions had consequences. We all come away from our families slightly damaged; if we're lucky, we're able to identify and work on our weak spots.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 11:24 AM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

« Older Credentials are a must!   |   Coachella Mystery Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.