Overcoming writer’s block: Composition and the Pomodoro Technique

Long dry spells are hard for any artist to deal with. For ten years I struggled to overcome writer’s block – after finishing university, I lost my sense of where I was going, then got sidelined by a ‘real job’ and the music faded away. But I finally found a cure, thanks to a perceptive physiotherapist and the Pomodoro Technique.

A decade of writer’s block

In spite of not having written anything much in five years, when I moved to the UK I still thought of myself as a composer. One day I suddenly realised just how little music I’d been writing and I began to doubt whether I could ever compose anything worthwhile again.

Over the next four years I worked to try to understand why I was blocked and why even composing a simple two-part invention felt like trying to write the Ring Cycle. I’d find a little time. I’d force myself to try to compose something. And then I’d get overwhelmed by work, or just the sheer struggle of it all and stop again. And each time that happened the frustration and feelings of inadequacy increased.

From writer’s block to regular composition

At the end of 2009, I sprained my ankle very badly. I started seeing a physiotherapist but I wasn’t making much progress and after a while – and a lot of lovely chats – she sat me down and told me that she thought the frustration I was feeling about my composition was holding back the healing process. She decided that I should compose as part of my treatment.

Even thinking about music had come to feel rather like standing at the edge of an abyss, but as I’d just started experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique at work and was seeing good results from it, I thought it might help. I started with reading – just one pomodoro a day: a chapter of Richard Vella’s Musical Environments, then some reading related to a set of songs I’d been struggling to finish for a couple of years.

After a few days, I decided that in my session for the day, I’d just listen to those songs and get to know them again. Before I knew it, I’d tweaked this and adjusted something else. I didn’t even realise I was composing until the timer rang to mark the end of the session. Without the pressure I’d been putting myself under, I saw where things needed to be and just put them there without really thinking about it.

Using this technique, I gradually finished the Three Whitman Songs and moved straight on to an arrangement I’d been having terrible trouble with. Pomodoroed that one and started composing a new piece, which ended up as Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, the most ambitious and (some have kindly said) the best thing I’d ever written.

25 minutes to make composition a habit, not a hobby

Working in short, focused blocks showed me that I didn’t need large chunks of time to do good work. It’s not hard to schedule 25 minutes a day, and it’s long enough to get some real momentum going. Even if you’re tired, 25 minutes is doable – set the timer and just do the work. Nine times out of ten, if I could make myself start one pomodoro, I’d get so involved that I’d move on to a second when the first was done.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me not only to overcome writer’s block, but to stop playing at being a composer and start working at it. That’s an overused phrase, but the difference is vast once you work out what you need to do – and then the work feels more like play than the play ever did. I don’t need my timer that much now for composition, but I know it’s there for those days when it all seems too much like hard work.

What’s your experience of writer’s block? Tell us how you overcome it in the comments!

3 Replies to “Overcoming writer’s block: Composition and the Pomodoro Technique”

  1. I almost always found that if I was 'stuck' within a piece, I needed to cut something out before I could continue. I'd make multiple copies of the work under different file names, then start chopping. I lost pages of work sometimes- work that I'd suffered over!- but it almost always gave me a second wind and unknotted the problem.

    1. Yes, cutting back can be a huge help mid-piece. Although, mind you, when I was writing Thickets I went through about 3 weeks, I think, where every day I sat down to work. Every day I wrote new stuff… after I'd deleted all the stuff I'd written the day before! That was a trifle disheartening. But at least I still had ideas coming. They just weren't the right ones. And while it's distressing to have to cut out hours' worth of work, I always put them in a file for later consideration so I don't feel I've wasted them 🙂

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