Writer's Block

It’s no surprise to me that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that seven typically capricious goddesses were responsible for artistic inspiration.

The muses - responsible for withholding or bestowing divine inspiration on struggling creatives - seem an apt metaphor for the way the process can be infuriatingly mysterious and unpredictable.

John Lennon once said that songwriting is ‘like being possessed - you can try to go to sleep but the song won’t let you’. There is something undoubtedly supernatural about the whole idea.

Words, images, snatches of melody bubble away in our subconscious before occasionally tumbling out as strange amalgams of themselves requiring us to chisel and shape them into something coherent.

Sometimes a song will start as a single phrase, a lonely piece of isolated scaffold without a building to give it any context. Sometimes you find yourself whistling something that feels eerily familiar, something that seems to have crept onto your lips without you even realising it. You start desperately pawing through the songbook in your head only to recognise that it isn’t there. It’s something new.

Often, these flashes of inspiration end up dying on the vine. For whatever reason, you’re unable to nurture the ghost of the idea into something resembling flesh and bone and eventually, tired of turning around in one cul-de-sac after another, you give up.

Which isn’t to say it won’t periodically return to you, sometimes months or years later, and find new life as a part of something else. Or, more commonly in my experience, it won’t. It’ll simply return to the shadowy world from whence it came and remain forever unrealised.

Justin Hawkins of The Darkness (I think I’m remembering this right) once compared the act of songwriting to walking in the desert. You feel thick droplets of heaven-sent rain on the palm of your hand, and your job as a songwriter is to carry them carefully across the unforgiving sand before they evaporate.

It can be torturous, but remarkable. On good days, a song can suddenly exist where nothing existed half an hour before. On bad days, a chord sequence that made you jump out of bed falls helplessly into the ever-more familiar pattern you’ve been trying deliberately to avoid because you already know where it’s going to lead you. Nowhere.

Robert Schumann, the German composer, famously drove himself mad hearing the songs of angels in his sleep and waking up to find their melodies unworkable, or, even more agonising, realising that he’d been entranced by tunes he’d already written. Though he did also have neurosyphillis…

The science of songwriting is something we’re bound to come to understand with more precision. Benjamin Libet ran a famous experiment in the 1980s in which subjects were asked to make a completely free choice and raise their index finger at a moment of their choosing. They did this in front of a clock face with a revolving light moving around it and were asked simply to note the position of the light on the clock face at the moment they decided to raise their finger.

Libet’s team found that electric signals in the brain would build well in advance of the moment the subject believed they were making their decision. The decision, if we can even call it that, had already been made.

It reminds me that we are far more the witnesses of our thoughts, decisions and inspirations than ‘we’, whatever that might mean, are their true authors.

In the face of thoughts like these I’m comforted to a degree to know that there probably isn’t much point torturing myself over empty chords and predictable lines because they’re never written by the conscious, semi-rational ‘me’ in the first place.

All I can really do is wait and keep my fingers crossed, praying for some rain.

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

Get our latest news!

Sign up for weekly correspondence: thoughts, ramblings, exclusive mini-releases and more.