Sometimes, the blank page simply mocks you. You can hear it laugh at you as you wrack your head to find the words to speak a slew of abstract thoughts and ideas. When we cannot get them out, the effect is nothing short of maddening.
We can imagine the horror, then, when hip-hop artists are hit with writer’s block. Hip-hop is the wordy genre, after all. But writer’s block is not immovable, and it is not an instant kiss of death. Speaking with Nolan The Ninja, LATASHÁ, Phonte, and Jamila Woods, I learned that writer’s block is both universal and deeply personal. For some, writer’s block is a matter of timing, and for others, the block is a sign that further creative action—reading, engaging creatively with the world—must be taken.
For all of these artists, though, writer’s block is not finalistic. And in that, there is hope.
“I think writer’s block is like a little monster in our minds, preventing us from believing in our work,” says LATASHÁ, a multi-disciplined artist and rapper from New York. “[It's] telling us that what we wanna say is not good enough.” Her sentiments are echoed by 21-year veteran emcee Phonte, who believes writer’s block is not a moment of not writing, rather a moment in which you hate everything you’re producing.
“I think it’s fatigue,” Phonte says. “Just like any other muscle, you can just get tired. For me, when I struggle with it, fatigue plays a big part. Sometimes, you may sit down to write a song you’re just not ready to write. ‘Sweet You’ on [No News Is Good News] was like that. ‘Sweet You’ was a record that Tall Black Guy sent me years ago, I loved it, but I just didn’t have anything for it. One day, when I was working on my album, I pulled it back up again and my life was in a new space. My whole life was different. I had something to write about! That has been true for me: sometimes you just have to wait until you’re ready to write that song. Give it some time.”
No stranger to giving things time, Jamila Woods, a singer-songwriter and poet from Chicago, seconded Phonte’s statement in revealing how her latest single, “BALDWIN,” took her years to write. The song was simply not coming together and communicating in a way that worked. Yet, instead of succumbing to frustration, Woods turned to her peers for perspective and eventually the song came to life as we hear it today.
“I think it comes back to wanting things that I make to feel authentic,” Woods says, explaining how she was able to avoid becoming discouraged. “On my project, I had more people that I would have loved to name songs after, but if the idea wasn’t coming, I didn’t want to force it… That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna write that song, it just means I’m still writing it. It’s just gonna take longer than some of the other ones.”
Woods’ patient approach follows her ethos of simply not believing in writer’s block.
“I was always taught that writer’s block doesn’t exist, so I don’t really think about it in those terms,” Woods adds. “If I’m having trouble writing, it’s usually I’m not reading enough. Or, I’m not taking in enough material, whether it’s reading or following whatever I’m interested in at the moment. Or, it’s I have a too strict idea and I’m striving for perfection, and not giving myself room to fail, or play, or experiment.”
Room to fail, for Woods’, culminates in giving herself the space to create with low stakes. Whether that is doing her morning pages, a la The Artist’s Way, or simplifying the writer’s task to making lists as opposed to constructing full poems, the way to beat a block is by reassessing the ways in which we can be creative.
“If you are a perfectionist, you really are just focusing on the quality of something and that can really inhibit the quantity that you produce. So I try to make room for myself to just create more times, because the more you do something, you’re bound to improve. I try to create more opportunities for myself to create in low stakes ways, so that I’m not always so consumed with trying to make something that’s perfect.” —Jamila Woods
In a similar vein, Detroit rapper Nolan The Ninja attempts to beat writer’s block by simply living and stepping away from the pen. He avoids the perfectionist trap by taking breaks and creates his low stakes by re-engaging with the material world in meaningful ways.
“I just live life, you know what I mean?” Nolan tells me. “Even with writer’s block, I just do new things. Get new experiences, and that inspires me to pen about it. Just live life. I put the pen down and stopped pressing myself.”
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Nolan’s methods are not unique to him. Though practical, LATASHÁ, too, views living life and being human as key to overcoming writer’s block. For her, communing with the self is the only way she can get back to the flow of her work. There’s something to be unlocked when an artist spends time with, engages, and grows comfortable with themselves.
“It’s really about self-doubt and confidence,” LATASHÁ tells me. “Writer’s block is just me really needing to align with myself. A lot of times, writer’s block comes from people not letting themselves be in the moment, and letting themselves feel. Write what you feel, even if it’s shit [laughs], get it out and then later you can refine and all that good stuff.”
“I take time from [a work], and then I go write something else and it’s like ‘Oh, I could combine this with what I was thinking there.’ The project is everlasting, you know? It’s a forever thing. As a writer, you’re always in process. Nothing is garbage, to me. Everything is a process.” —LATASHÁ
Phonte, too, advocates for breaks whenever possible, telling me that time away is essential. “It used to be hard for me to step away when I was younger,” he admits. “It’s that obsession and it’s also a little bit of insecurity because you’re like: ‘Oh, man, if I stop, will I be able to finish?’ Now, it’s like, I got the confidence in myself. ‘Fuck this! I’m going to watch Netflix.’ I still know how to write, it’s just right now, it’s just not the day. That’s just something that comes with experience. You have to remind yourself: ‘I’m the shit, I’m just having a bad day at the office. That’s just one day.’”
Also essential? Working with his hands. According to Phonte, it’s imperative that a creative find a tactile hobby to channel their energy into more productive avenues. This prevents burnout and just plain feels good. “I always will try to do something physical,” he explains. “Whether that’s go for a walk, or I’ll go dancing. I’ll just go sit outside and get some sunshine. I’m a big believer that motion creates emotion.”
While in the thick of it, though, creatives must see writer’s block as a lesson; Nolan, LATASHÁ, and Phonte all stress that writer’s block is a great time to learn patience and to grow to be comfortable with the self.
“You have to learn patience and I’m a big believer in just letting songs come,” Phonte says. “In the creative climate we live in where everyone is pushing to get stuff out and there’s 11 albums that drop on Friday, it’s easy to kinda get lost in that and lose your own voice and your own pace. Writer’s block definitely teaches you patience and it allows you space to leave for God.”
For LATASHÁ, beyond patience, she learns resilience from her bouts of writer’s block. “When I’m having writer’s block, it’s time for me to keep writing. If my break lasts too long, that means I need to just write, no matter what. A lot of times we say ‘Rest!’ but how long are you gonna do that for? Eventually, you have to get to the pen and paper. Something’s gonna come out.”
In tandem, Woods sees the lesson of writer’s block as a lesson in force and realignment. “Sometimes it’s been a good moment to learn that I might be forcing something, for whatever reason,” she tells me. “I might be trying to go through a door that’s locked and that maybe I need to find a different way in. That definitely happened a few times on my album, and what was helpful was not just sitting in a room by myself. I’m not only with myself as a resource, [but] I also have a community that I can run things by and get out of the way that I thought I had to go about it.”
Though only mentioned by Woods, community is an oft-overlooked aspect of the creative process. Sometimes, sharing an incomplete piece with someone gives you either permission or the key to proceed through the proverbial door. And once you are on the other side, few things feel as sweet.
“You’re not even tripping off of the writer’s block you were just experiencing,” Nolan beams. “It’s out of your head. It’s just like, ‘Yo, just be patient. Because next week, you could be on the total opposite side. Just enjoy life.’”
“It feels freeing, but deeper than that, it feels like you should know writer’s block is something you made up in your mind,” LATASHÁ adds. “You have to make that realization that ‘Yo, this is just me being scared of what I have to say.’ When you take that moment to realize, you watch writer’s block become shorter and shorter when you have it. You just have to let it be, you know?”
“Once you’re on the other side, it’s like hitting gold or striking oil. Things just kinda start flowing, and to me it’s very much a religious experience; it’s very much exhilarating.” —Phonte