Creativity flourishes under arduous conditions
It's no secret that some of the most amazing ideas come out at the most stressful or restrictive times and places. History is full of amazing art and writings that came from the most desperate and depressing times.
Even the most procrastinistic (is that even a word?) amongst us has probably found inspiration when having to do a dull or dreary task. "I can't carry on washing these dishes - I have a great melody for a song in my head!"
Lets face it, some of the greatest innovations have come from simple beginnings as a solution to a specific problem, whether it be in war, survival or even space travel.
One of the key concepts to all this is in the amount of parameters that surround a given problem. Tighter, fewer and more defined parameters make it easier to zoom in and locate a solution. This all sounds a bit left-brain, but it works almost exactly the same in the more right-brain creative environment as well.
There are two similar and overlapping concepts in action here - the first is that an environment not apparently conducive to creativity somehow seems to generate ideas. The second is that there needs to be a restriction in options to enable a better flow or focus of ideas.
In regards to creativity, the environment issue might be simply that we desire to do anything other than what we are currently doing. The more distressing or boring the task, the more our minds try to find an escape or some form of internal freedom, especially if our bodies are trapped somewhere. (eg in a meeting at work, on a production line, or even just stuck on a bus or train)
1) Capture the ideas when they flow
One of the key things we can take from this is that we need to have a handy system for capturing those ideas for later use. Some people carry notebooks, some carry voice recorders, some, like me, use their cellphone. Having voicemail on your own phone number can be a handy thing! The cellphone is useful in that nobody can tell who you're talking to - even if it's to yourself ;o)
2) Store ideas for later use and retrieval
This is kind of obvious, really. No point in having all those good ideas if you can't retrieve them later on. This part is a little left-brain again - sorting, storing and keeping an index of some sort. There are apps out there for the computer that can help in this regard. For songwriting I recommend Masterwriter, but there are numerous apps and techniques out there that may suit your own style.
3) Work to a fixed idea.
One example of this is when I was having trouble finding new ideas for writing songs when I was writing a song every week - I canvassed my friends for ideas. One idea I was given was "what if Winter was a woman?" This is a great way to focus your writing, and there's no rules about changing direction once you're going. Use "what if" as much as possible, and remember people love stories.
4) Keep the equipment basic
There are so many people out there who feel that they need to have the latest gear or equipment to get the best sounds or compositions happening. The advent of the internet downloading culture has turned people into software collectors rather than music makers. Some of the most prolific and successful producers of music are not even using the latest technology - they're using vintage equipment that they know intimately and are able to overcome its limitations. Don't keep postponing your real writing until you get the right technology. It's YOU that creates, NOT the technology. (Although occasionally a new sound can trigger off an idea, of course)
5) Limit your creative options to find direction
There are some big traps for composers on modern computer systems - the main one being way too many options. It's hard to find direction when you have the entire compass at your disposal.
When writing a song, it's easy to get bogged down on paltry things like hunting for the perfect patch on a synthesizer, or just the right reverb chamber - and sometimes there are thousands.
It's better to make a call beforehand about the creative palette that you will use - choose the instrumentation or style in advance so you can stay focused.
There you go - this is just a simplistic set of ideas that may help you get past your writer's block. These are not hard and fast rules - in fact there are no rules, apart from rule-of-thumb, and there's exceptions to everything.
I was just now wondering whether it's the reduction in hardship that impacts on bands and artists who have trouble with their later efforts in music - the first album is born of struggle and turmoil, but later efforts have more funding, more time, better studios etc - maximising their quality but reducing their creativity. Just thinking out loud really.