Legendary Songwriter Carole King on Inspiration vs. Perspiration and How to Overcome Creative Block
“Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes.”
By Maria Popova
To call Carole King one of the most successful female songwriters of all time, while correct, would be a disservice to the fact that she is one of the most successful, innovative, creatively courageous any songwriters of all time — something her four Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can only begin to reflect. As a songwriter, she has written cultural classics like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, and the contagiously catchy “The Loco-Motion.” As a singer-songwriter, she has recorded 25 solo albums over the course of her fifty-year career, including the 1971 masterpiece Tapestry, one of the bestselling records of all time, which outsold The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and included the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend.” Together with her onetime husband and longtime collaborator Gerry Goffin, King revolutionized, then defined, the sound and sensibility of popular music.
In 2013, King became the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — and yet the sweeping popularity of her songs has been not a goal but a byproduct of her singular creative vision. As Paul Zollo writes in his fantastic interview collection Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality and Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind — “Carole has never been the type of songwriter who pays attention to trends, knowing after all these years that a great song transcends them all.”
Zollo’s wonderfully wide-ranging 1989 conversation with King reveals not only her extraordinary genius as a songwriter and a creative visionary, but also her luminous humility as a human being. Her thoughts on creative block and the interplay between inspiration and work ethic, while rooted in songwriting, apply just as powerfully to writing, art, and nearly any creative endeavor.
Reflecting on how her beloved song “You’ve Got a Friend” came to be, King counters the popular contemporary mythology that “inspiration” is nothing but the steady application of perspiration and echoes T.S. Eliot’s notion of the mystical quality of creativity, telling Zollo:
That song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself through me… It happens from time to time in part. That song is one of the examples of that process where it was almost completely written by inspiration and very little if any perspiration.
The reference, of course, is to Thomas Edison’s oft-cited aphorism, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
And yet King makes a parallel case for the value of work ethic in overcoming creative block — a lucid reminder, amidst a culture increasingly incapable of nuance, that “inspiration” and “perspiration” are osmotic counterparts:
Songwriters, both lyricists and melody writers, are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are, writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever.
If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.
Reflecting on her own process, she makes a case for the “slow churn” of creativity and for trusting that the incubation stage of the creative process will do its part:
I almost never have worried about it. Because when it seemed to be a problem, when I seemed to be … I don’t even want to say “blocked” because it seems like too strong a word. But when the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again. Whether it was an hour later, which is often the case, or a day later or a week later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it.
Paralleling Mary Gordon’s cure for writer’s block by manually writing out passages from beloved literature, King suggests a similar strategy for songwriting, in addition to just waiting it out:
Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unblocks a channel.
King returns to the inspiration-perspiration relationship and integrates the two — the intuitive and the methodical, the muse and the mastery — beautifully:
Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes. I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of [in a high, fairy-like voice] you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you. Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do it.
Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality, featuring conversations with such legendary musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with more thoughts on process and creativity from the world of writing, including meditations by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.
Published June 26, 2014