[Editors Note: This blog was written by Patrick McGuire. Patrick is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.]
I used to admire how some of my favorite artists could seamlessly convert the most difficult challenges of their lives into incredible songs. But I found it nearly impossible to do just about anything, let alone write music, in November 2016 after my right elbow was shattered in a hit-and-run biking accident. Realizing that the process of pulling potent lyrics and memorable melodies out of my sudden intense pain and turmoil was going to be anything but easy and straightforward, I’d stare at my computer screen for a few minutes and retreat back to bed after using my good arm to set up my small MIDI keyboard that I planned on writing melodies and bass lines with.
Yes, making and experiencing music can be a powerful agent of therapy and comfort in all things – not just life’s unexpected traumas and setbacks – but it can be hugely difficult or downright impossible to keep writing songs after experiencing death or loss, or any other significant trouble. After undergoing the first of two surgeries I’d eventually need to bring full functionality back to my arm, I soon defiantly returned to songwriting in a percocet-induced haze, but the ideas I managed to eek out seemed uninspired and forced to me.
‘I’ve got plenty to write about,’ I thought. Why isn’t this working?
After a major setback, we’re often eager to make something good come out of a horrible experience, but that’s not always the way it works. For me, I couldn’t make meaningful music again until I was able to fully process and cope with what had happened to me. Yes, I needed and still need a consistent songwriting practice to feel happy and fulfilled, but I was woefully preoccupied at the time with more pressing matters like simply staying afloat as a human being.
Depending on your situation, you simply might not be able to find the time, energy and resources to make music after the trauma you’ve experienced, and that’s okay. That’s not a failing on your part or representative of you as a person. This can be a really difficult thing to accept if you’re a person who uses music-making in your life as a means to stay sane and creatively productive; but like with most things, the passing of time is the only thing that can get you back to doing the things you love.
It took me months before I was able to start making music again at full capacity. The most obvious challenge in writing and producing music after my accident was the temporary loss of my right and dominant arm –– I play guitar and keys –– but depending on your unique trauma, you’ll face an entirely different set of hurdles that need to be cleared.
If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, the act of creating music might be something that loses its meaning for a while.
For someone experiencing financial trouble like the loss of a job or an unforeseen medical expense, you might be forced to choose between finding time to make ends meet and making music.
But like with everything after experiencing a huge setback, it’s paramount to keep trying to get back to a sense of normalcy. Maybe you’ll be able to make some incredible music after your trauma about what you’ve experienced, but a more realistic goal is to return to your usual songwriting process whenever you’re able to. This way you won’t have to deal with your problems while facing pressure to create a masterpiece out of them at the same time.
Some musicians are able to completely immerse themselves in their work as a means for coping with life’s struggles, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re someone without the means and inspiration to do the same thing.
Stories of how artists make music inspired by death, breakups and other traumas are good for dramatic bios and press releases, but they don’t reflect the often tedious difficult work of songwriting. If the music you make after a life struggle isn’t emotionally raw or moving, that’s okay. It might take a long time for you to make compelling music again, but you should do everything you can to be kind to yourself and to celebrate your songwriting efforts after experiencing hardship no matter what sort of music you manage to create.
It’s coming up on the 12-month anniversary of my accident, and my songwriting isn’t the same if I’m being honest. But how could it be? I’m a little better after what happened to me in some ways and noticeably worse in others. That’s life for you, right? All I can do is move forward the best way I can and be grateful that I still have the desire and means to still be making music.