Walking Past Writer’s Block

When my bandmate and I were working on our very first project together, we got a horrific case of writer’s block.  We were composing a song for a charity album to raise money for the American Cancer Society.  We wanted the lyrics to be meaningful—particularly because of the target audience—but we were stumped.

Conventional wisdom told us that the solution to our problem was “ass in chair:” if we wanted to get through our block, the only thing to do was write more.  We had to keep working, keep banging our head against the wall until we had made something worthwhile.  

We tried this advice for weeks.  We would meet almost every night in front of my piano and work for hours, brainstorming lyric ideas and trying out snippets of melody lines.  All we got for our effort was increasingly frustrated.  Out of desperation, my bandmate recommended one afternoon that we should take a walk.

My bandmate had been using walks to clarify his thoughts since college, so he thought the change of scenery might help us as well.  But we soon realized that our walk was much more than a change of scenery: it had turned into an adventure.

As soon as we got out of the studio, we started rediscovering the world around us.  We found a neighborhood horse and several cats to befriend.  We went hunting for the strangest color mushrooms and fungus we could find after it rained, and found honeycombs scattered across the ground from an old hive shattered by the storm.

All of these small details reminded us about what we noticed when we were kids, and soon we were rediscovering our childhood as well.  We explored old abandoned buildings and planned pranks.  He taught me how to skip rocks for the first time in the rain-swollen river. 

The more that we explored and discovered, the more we realized that we were also discovering and exploring the theme to our song.  The lyrics that had previously kept us stuck became about remembering as an adult what we missed about being a kid.  We wrote about lost innocence rediscovered and the feelings of home.  We finally had something to talk about.

*     *     *

There’s a well-known quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.”  I had always liked the quote, but I had never thought to apply it to writer’s block until my we literally walked our way into the same solution.  

Now when I get stuck on a creative project, I have two options.  First, I can put my butt in a chair and hope that I create something worthwhile through my hard work and dedication.  Sometimes working through a block really is the best option—just not always.  I find it only works when I’m struggling with implementation, but I already know what I want to do.  

Second, instead of trying to power through, I can inspire myself with new ideas.  I can go on an adventure.  Whether it’s just a walk or some other type of experience entirely, I can go do something worth writing about.

 

 

Making a Living Working for Yourself: Passion Alone Isn't Enough

Most people know me professionally as an art nude model: it’s been my full-time occupation for the last five years.  But what most of these people don’t know is that modeling is not the first business that I started.  It’s actually the fourth.

Before modeling, I tried working as a freelance editor and as a chain mail jewelry designer.  But where I spent most of my time and energy was working as a musician.  

I taught piano lessons, accompanied choirs, performed hymns every Sunday morning at a local church, and even played keyboard in a very short-lived classic rock cover band.  I was a pretty good musician; I had over fifteen years of classical piano training.  More importantly, I loved playing the piano.  So I did what I thought I was supposed to do as an adult: I followed my passion by trying to make a career out of it.    

I supported myself as a musician for two years, although “supporting” might be a generous term for it.  It certainly wasn’t the positive experience that I had assumed my self-employed dream job would be.  Including practice time, I regularly worked sixty to eighty hour weeks and made the same amount of money as a friend that worked part-time at Starbucks.  

Worse, I started dreading music.  It wasn’t a source of joy and creativity for me anymore; it was a source of unending stress. 

When I discovered modeling, it quickly became another outlet for the creativity that music had previously provided me.  Switching professions became an easy decision.  Within six months I was no longer collapsing from stress.  I was making more than I ever had as a musician, and I loved every moment of it. 

Although I’ve never regretted my decision, I’ve always been curious why one type of self-employed art was successful, while the other was not.  What was the difference between music and modeling?  Why was one passion a viable career option, and the other ultimately a failed venture?

*          *          *

The answer I came across originates from a common pitfall in artistic endeavors.  Because so many people want the prestige of being a professional musician, they will undersell themselves and work for almost nothing, just so they can say that they were paid for their music.  

The problem is, these artists are making their art about them, and not about their audience.  I certainly made the same mistake with my music: I was so convinced that I was supposed to be following my passion that I never gave a thought as to whether other people would enjoy it too.

If you’re only concerned with following your own interests, then it’s very easy to lose sight of the value you’re supposed to be creating for others.  Whether you’re self-employed or working at a “traditional” job, your work isn’t about you: it’s about what your customers want. Work is about what other people love.

How do you know if your passion is something that is valuable to other people?

Yes, you can create art for art’s sake.  And yes, you can create it for your own enjoyment.  But marketable, salable art is about what your audience enjoys enough to pay you for.  Whether you enjoy it too isn’t relevant to what makes it work.  

But how do you know if your passion is something that is valuable to other people?  How could I have known that art nude modeling would work out as a passion and a job, while music was just a passion?

The reason that I was successful at modeling is that nudity is a rarer commodity.  As much as I personally disagree with the idea that there is anything wrong with being naked, society still puts a stigma on it.  Because of that, nudity is scarce: most models don’t want to pose nude in front of other people, let alone in front of a camera that creates a permanent record.  Since most models avoid nudity, it becomes a marketable commodity—something that is both desirable and rare.  And unfortunately, art only intersects with money when it’s a commodity. 

I couldn’t make a living as a clothed model at my age and weight (youth and unbelievable skinniness are rare commodities too).  I probably couldn’t even work full-time as a nude model in a more liberal area, because a larger number of attractive young women are comfortable posing nude, driving the overall price down.  And I certainly can’t support myself as a pianist.  There are too many incredibly talented and skilled musicians that want to do the same thing. 

This has nothing to do with the quality of my art, but rather the rarity.  Yes, quality has an impact as well--I certainly wouldn’t be able to build a career as a model if I wasn’t skilled at modeling in the first place.  But those are supporting skills: just like knowing how to run a business, they can be learned during the process.  If you try to start working for yourself without a marketable commodity, you will always fail.  It is not something that you can pick up along the way.  

If you want to successfully work for yourself, you need to answer one question: what value can you supply to other people that they cannot easily acquire elsewhere?  If you want to enjoy the process, you need to find something valuable that most people dislike, avoid, or can’t do for one reason or another, and that you can and want to provide.