Whatever You Do, Don't Look Down
By Carley Baer - 10/23/2008 - 02:03 AM EDT
For those of you that noticed, I did not write a column last month. A lot of things were going on: I was moving, various members of my family were coming out to visit, my computer's hard drive crashed and I had to replace it. All of those things were stressful, to be sure, but none of them were the crowning obstacle of my last eight weeks, even if you put them all together. What could be worse than all of that combined?
I had the worst case of writer's block that I've ever experienced in my life. My creative output screeched to a halt. Nothing I wrote was satisfying-- really, most of it was total crap, so after a few weeks I stopped trying. And because I wasn't writing, I wasn't playing. I had been gigging pretty consistently over summer, which had taken my focus away from writing in the first place; consequently, I played a lot of the same songs and got really tired of them by the time fall came around. Now with the writer's block, I couldn't write new songs to rotate in with the old ones. At this point, I felt pretty much defeated. I tried all the usual brain-jostling exercises, but a certain feeling of futility began creeping into the corners of my mind. I mean, what was I trying to say that hadn't already been said a hundred times over?
There's a very traditional type of song that's usually reserved for girls with guitars (and boys with emo bands). I usually run like hell from these songs-- they're the unrequited, introspective laments of someone who takes life just a little too seriously. When I first started writing songs, every single one that came out was a variation on that theme, and once I realized it, I dedicated myself to steering away from that most predictable of formulas. Now, here's the most frustrating part of this story: after stumbling into writer's block, THIS WAS THE ONLY TYPE OF SONG THAT I COULD MANAGE TO WRITE.
It was a very particular kind of hell. One day I woke up and couldn't do something that I had been, until that point, literally banking on being able to do until the end of time-- and whenever I tried to do it, I wrote the worst songs I could imagine. All of my dreams of achieving professional musicianship were suddenly in flux. I started considering a secondary career in waitressing. It was awful.
Then I saw a friend of mine. She's not a friend in the typical sense; we speak maybe a few times a year, and see each other even less than that-- and yet, she always manages to appear whenever I'm having a creative crisis. She was instrumental (no pun intended) in my decision to pursue music in the first place, being a professional independent musician herself, and so whenever our paths cross I'm always watching to see what it is that the universe wants me to learn from her this time. This time, it was clear as day.
She came into town to play a show that we were sharing. It was the first stop on a hop-scotch trip down the West Coast, and as usual she had a full merchandise table, glossy handbills, and a first-rate mailing list. (I'm always in awe of just how professionally she presents herself, and that alone shows me how far I need to go beyond burn-as-you-go CDs and inserts from Kinko's.) This time, she seemed a little road-weary-- understandable when you consider that she plays 200 shows a year, but sort of out-of-character for her normally cheerful demeanor. I observed that she seemed to be on the fringe of the same burnout that I had felt: playing the same songs over and over, with no down time with which to expand the repertoire. It's creative suicide, and here was someone that I look up to tremendously, suffering from the very same affliction.
And yet, she was still doing it. She didn't take time off to wallow in her suffering, as I had done. She didn't throw her hands in the air and walk away from her work. She had brief moments of wishing she wasn't on the road, and then she took a deep breath and soldiered on, knowing that at some point she would feel better. Besides, I think she kept in mind (as I so often do) that no matter how bad your day is, you could always be working in an office somewhere and not playing music for a living.
This was the lesson that she had come to teach me, although I doubt she suspected she was teaching me anything. Curling up to lick your own wounds when you can't get around writer's block is sometimes necessary for a day or two, but if you're really going to be a musician, you can't let it get to you. By enveloping yourself in your creative sadness, you are exacerbating the problem, which means more time spent feeling like a dried prune. The hard days will come, and they may come often, and if you're going to succeed, there's nothing you can do about it except endure.
So here is my little nugget of wisdom for you, two months in the making: You are a tight-rope walker. You are dressed to the nines, and smiling incessantly. Everyone is watching you up there, the picture of confidence that you are. Below you is a pool full of alligators, jumping and snapping and telling you to get a real job. Before you step out on to that rope, trying to balance yourself perfectly and make it to the other side, keep this in mind:
Whatever you do, don't look down.
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