10 tips for getting out of a creative rut

No matter how creative and prolific you normally are, you will at some point sooner or later reach that dreadful, soul-sucking moment of complete writer’s block. It happens to everyone, whether you’re a writer, a poet, a painter, a film maker, a musician, or whatever. Writer’s block may be relatively brief, ranging from days to months, but there’s also cases where it lasts for years. While the latter is probably due to deeper and more complex psychological reasons and not really possible to resolve with a list of cheerful little tips, the former definitely is. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you’re in the middle of it, but there are ways out of your rut and most of them are actually quite simple. Below are ten solid tips for getting you out of that brain-lock; five general ones, dealing with subtly altering your thinking, and five more practical ones dealing with different approaches you can try when writing music.

1. Relax.

It’s not the end of the world. You haven’t lost it, it’s just a creative dry spell and it will pass.

2. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

You’re your own worst critic. It’s something of a clichĂ© but it holds a lot of truth. Striving to do better, to be better, and constantly comparing ourselves with our peers and the people we look up to and consider masters of the craft, we often end up thinking we suck worse than we actually do. By focusing on our weaknesses we become blind to the strengths we actually possess. While this isn’t something you can snap out of just like that — learning to have confidence in your own work takes time — being aware of it lets you start working on keeping these feelings in check.

Even if you have a tendency of questioning your abilities (and who doesn’t?), I’m pretty sure there’s stuff you’ve done in the past that you’re reasonably happy with. You should revisit it from time to time, to remind yourself that even if you can’t do exactly what the masters are doing — yet! — you’re not half bad at it either. An even better way of boosting your self-confidence is going back to your early work and comparing it to where you are at today. This will prove beyond any doubt that you are making progress, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

3. Take a break and do something else.

This might seem like a no-brainer but it should never be disregarded. Sometimes you get stuck on something simply because your brain is exhausted and needs a break. Or maybe you need to digest the previous part a bit longer to have a clearer idea of what should come next. The best way of dealing with this is usually stepping away and doing something that doesn’t involve any creative thinking at all. Go out for a walk, do the laundry, work in the garden, watch a movie, get some friends together and have a few beers, take a nap, and so on. Basically anything that will let your subconscious do its thing in peace. When you eventually return to what you were doing, you will hopefully feel refreshed and objective and ready to get back to work.

Taking longer breaks isn’t always possible though, especially if you’re on a deadline, and you need to be careful so that taking a break at the first sign of being stuck doesn’t become a bad habit. Sometimes you just need to persist and force yourself to write something. For more on this see tip #7.

4. Move outside of your comfort zone.

One big reason that we might find our new ideas trite and dull-sounding is that we — not just musicians but humans in general — have a strong preference for the familiar. We like sticking to what we know and if something we did worked well at one point we tend to think “hey, why not this time around as well?” Being wary of change and always looking for the path of least resistance has been a successful behavioral trait over millions of years of evolution, so there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just the way our brains are wired.

Nowadays though, when you don’t have to worry as much about food gathering, shelter or becoming a meal for predators, these thought patterns can be a hindrance rather than an asset. In a craft that involves creativity you actually need to challenge yourself regularly, or you’ll be chasing your own tail and rehashing the same handful of ideas indefinitely. Exactly what you can do to challenge yourself is beyond the scope of this article, but in general, try doing something different every once in a while, something you haven’t done before, just to mix things up and force you out of the lull of habit and familiarity.

5. Stay curious.

This one’s easier said than done, but it’s important. Questioning your knowledge and abilities is never a bad thing, within reason. It’s a healthy sign that you’re aware of your limitations and a concession to the fact that you still have things to learn. It’s when you find yourself thinking that you know it all, or even know enough, that you need to be worried.

If you’re stuck because the work you’re doing right now isn’t really capturing your interest and imagination, that’s a strong sign that you need to broaden your horizons. Always do your best to be open to new ideas, no matter where they come from. Even genres that you heartily dislike will have something to offer if you make sure to approach them non-critically and with an open mind. E.g. jazz isn’t for everyone, but the theoretical fundamentals of jazz can be used to spice up any musical idea. Also, using an element from jazz doesn’t mean that your tune automatically becomes a jazz tune. Or whatever genre, really.

A curious and inquisitive mind is the hallmark of every good artist, and new ideas can be found everywhere if you take the time to look for them.

6. Get some feedback.

Ask your friends what they think of your idea, post it on a forum or on social media with a brief explanation of what you’re trying to achieve. To avoid any preconceptions and overly critical listening (“So there’s something wrong with this? I better look for problems!”) don’t even mention being unhappy with it, or any reasons as to why you’re unhappy. Just ask people what they think and if they have any suggestions on improving it.

I guarantee you that you will be surprised how many think your idea is fine, despite all the doubts you might have about it. Very few, if any, musical ideas outright suck. The tricky part is figuring out how to present them in a way that makes them sound their best, and sometimes you need outside help with this as you’re not seeing the wood for the trees.

7. Just write something. Anything.

There’s a common misconception that in order to write music (or whatever) you need to be inspired. This isn’t the case at all. In fact, if you’re going to just sit on your butt and wait for inspiration to strike, you can consider yourself lucky if you manage to write more than one tune per year. Spontaneous inspiration is cool when it happens, but it’s fickle. Don’t rely on it.

Instead, you should learn how to just write. Don’t wait for the ideas to come to you — hunt them down and drag them out, kicking and screaming. If those ideas are only so-so, never mind that. Something is better than nothing. And while you should always try your best, thinking that every single thing needs to be a work of genius to have musical value is not a realistic expectation. Also, the better you become at forced creativity, the easier it will get and the better ideas will you come up with. Do you think professional composers working within budget constraints and tight schedules sit around waiting for eureka moments, or have some magical ability that allows them to be constantly inspired? They don’t. They just write. You can learn how to do it too.

8. Steal something!

Yes, that’s fine. Everyone does it. I know there are lots of people talking about the importance of originality and doing your own thing and having your own voice and blah, blah, blah. Screw ’em, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Music is a dialogue, not a competition. Everyone who has ever had a musical idea were influenced by someone who came before. Even those we think of as genre-defining and truly first at doing something. I’m pretty sure Robert Johnson didn’t wake up one morning in the 1920’s thinking “hey, I have this idea for a whole new style of music, I think I’m going to call it ‘blues’ and it goes something like this…” It simply doesn’t work like that.

Never be afraid to steal ideas from your favorite composers/musicians. What you’re stealing was probably stolen from someone else anyway. Originality and having your own voice will happen regardless, because you’re a different person with different tastes, different influences, and a different set of skills. That’s how music evolves, by taking idea A, making it your own and reshaping it into idea B, which will in turn be adopted by someone else and made into idea C. And so on.

Having said that, always be tasteful about it and don’t lift anything verbatim out of copyrighted works. It’s overall ideas that you’re meant to be stealing — mood, feel, pace, rhythm, progressions, instrumentation — not themes and phrases and other clearly recognizable stuff. Remember: make it your own.

9. Use a crutch.

Never underestimate the power inherent in modern software. There are plenty of ways you can use DAW’s, plugins and virtual instruments for kick-starting a new song idea or moving ahead with a piece that you’re stuck on. Some examples:

  • Use drag and drop to move parts around. Maybe they sound better in a different order?
  • Use a drone sound effect or evolving synth patch to create an atmosphere to build your tune around.
  • Use a percussion loop (or several) to provide a rhythmic backbone, then construct the music around that.
  • Load up an arpeggiator, play around with its settings, and use it to come up with phrases and ostinatos.
  • MIDI note randomizers and generative music algorithms can be useful for getting new ideas.

As you may understand some of the above methods will sound quite machine-like, so always treat them as intermediate steps rather than something to be used as is. E.g. record the output of the arpeggiator or randomizer, learn to play the bits you want, and then record them live like any other phrase.

10. Collaborate.

As mentioned in tip #6, it sometimes takes a fresh outside perspective to spark your imagination and make you see your composition from a different angle. Taking this a step further, why not invite someone you know and trust to collaborate with you on a composition? If it works out, it can be a wonderful experience where you inspire each other to create something fresh and new that neither of you would have come up with on your own.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will work out. People are different and doing creative work together requires a certain chemistry happening, otherwise the experience will be more frustrating and stressful than productive. Both parties involved will need thick skin, an open mind, and the ability to communicate candidly. If you find that it just isn’t working, it’s better to cancel the whole deal than to persist, as it will become a negative experience for both and the end result isn’t likely to be great when you’re both unhappy with the collaboration.

But in accordance with tip #4, this is something you should try at least once just for the heck of it.

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