Songwriting is Hard: The 4 Roles of Creativity

I’ve been working on a song for next month’s Kaleidoscope project called “Decidedly Blue”. The basic bones of the song were created in 2015, but I really liked the vibe and wordplay of it so I am resolving to press on and finish it.

Resolve? Press on? When the hell did songwriting become such a difficult process for me? To get a better idea of what’s going on, I like to think of a framework that Roger von Oech came up with called The 4 Roles of Creativity. It’s a progression of different mindsets that allow the creative process to flourish. The roles (in order) are:

1. The Explorer

The Explorer takes in experiences from her daily life. Connections and conversations with friends, random input from media (mass and otherwise), and whatever falls in between. Curiosity is key for the Explorer. All of this experience is eventually channeled and filtered by…

2. The Artist

…who takes this raw material and converts it into ideas. The Artist is fully at play, turning ideas upside down and inside out, assembling and reassembling until themes emerge. There are no rules for the artist. To quote Gene Wilder, “it’s a world of pure imagination”. There are no wrong or right methods for the Artist. She doesn’t care what people expect of her.

3. The Judge

It’s up to the Judge what ideas and in which form the ideas manifest on the page or in the earbuds. She’s the ballbuster. According to Roger von Oech, “The Judge gets a bad reputation — but only because people usually invoke him too early.” and that is exactly why songwriting has become hard for me. I seem to skip the Artist step altogether and start judging. It’s difficult to get any lyrics down because I refuse to see the work as ‘play’, and am more concerned about the finished product, being ‘productive’, or worse, how I’m going to present my project on social media. von Oech goes on to say “Killing an idea before the Artist can play with it is a pity; killing it later is oftentimes a necessity.”

I remember when I was younger I approached songwriting much like I would a crossword puzzle: moving words and chords around for hours- just for fun!- until they made wonderful patterns. I need to work on getting back to spending more time in the Artist phase. Become that kid again. Sometimes to assist, the Artist will use marijuana to relax and get the Judge off her back. I’m not saying that I do this occasionally (I’m not saying that I don’t.) The Judge lives firmly in reality though, and never indulges. The Artist is Freud’s ‘id’, and Judge is the ‘superego’.

4. The Warrior

It’s the Warrior’s job to bring the artwork into the world, fighting demons internal and external to realize the finished product. Overcoming distractions and harnessing productivity are the key qualities of the Warrior. It can also be the job of the Warrior to ‘sell’ her ideas to the creative group if one exists. I could use a little work in this department as well. To be honest, once I can get myself to sit down and make music, it goes fine. It’s just a matter of making myself do it. Once in the zone, I can work all day long to bring an idea from the ether and into reality.


In the interest of ‘Showing My Work‘ the Artist who was writing lyrics for Decidedly Blue took time out to snap a picture of my workspace (as seen above). I also hit a baby writer’s block while sitting here, so I decided to come here to the website and write this post about my process and the four roles.

I should note that the four roles don’t necessarily have to apply to music. They can just as easily apply to a business plan for opening a corn silo in Topeka. Leave a comment and let me know how the four roles apply in your adventure! What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Have you ever been to Topeka?