Sting: How Do You Get Over Writer's Block? After a nasty bout of writer's block that stretched on for nearly a decade, Sting found inspiration by channeling the stories of the shipyard workers he knew from his childhood.
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How Do You Get Over Writer's Block?

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How Do You Get Over Writer's Block?

How Do You Get Over Writer's Block?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and today on the show the source of creativity, ideas about where it comes, why we all have it and how to find it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, hello. Now, I just want to make sure that you can hear me.

RAZ: I can hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And can you hear Guy?

STING: I can hear Guy.

RAZ: Hello.

STING: Hi, it's Sting. How are you?

RAZ: Yep, Sting. Hello, welcome.

STING: Thank you.

RAZ: Thanks for coming in.

STING: It's a pleasure.

RAZ: So I was in Vancouver and saw your talk.

So Sting's TED Talk was about finding inspiration by going back home, and how he turned the stories of his childhood into an album and then a show on Broadway. And the stories are all based on the people he grew up around in northern England, in a town called Wallsend.

STING: The town was basically dedicated to shipbuilding. At the end of my street was a shipyard. They built the biggest ships in the world right at the end of my street. The other end of town was a coal mine. So it wasn't exactly like living next to the Met (laughter).There were never any operas in our town or even any shows. But I had a need for that kind of life. And so I kind of invented it in my head.

RAZ: Now, the story of how he made the record about Wallsend and how he was able to mount this huge production is really a story about creativity. And in Sting's case, how he lost it. But we'll get there.

When you think of the word creativity, like, how would you define it?

STING: (Laughter) How would I define creativity? For me, it's the ability to take a risk. To actually put yourself on the line and risk ridicule, being pilloried, criticized, whatever. But you have an idea that you think you want to put out there. And you must take that risk.

RAZ: Did you think of yourself as a creative person when you were younger?

STING: I was actually allowed to dream a lot as a child. I worked with my father every morning as a milkman. And he would get me up at five in the morning when all of my school friends are in bed. And we'd drive around the streets and deliver milk. And he wouldn't say very much to me, apart from, you know, two pints here and 3 pints there. We didn't talk. And so I was allowed - in this very creative time in the day, you know, as light was coming up - to dream. And I dreamt and dreamt and dreamt about futures I might possibly have, fantasized I suppose. So I was in that creative mode from the very beginning, just by being left alone.

RAZ: And Sting's career? Pretty well known, kind of hit after hit from the moment he left Wallsend. The creativity just poured out of him. 1978...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROXANNE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Roxanne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON THE MOON")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Giant steps are what you take.

RAZ: A second album in '79.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON THE MOON")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Walking on the moon.

RAZ: Another hit in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME")

THE POLICE: Don't stand so close to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: Every breath you take.

RAZ: '81 and '83.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: Every move you make.

RAZ: His first solo record in '85 and then in '87.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M AN ALIEN)

STING: (Singing) Whoa, I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I EVER LOSE MY FAITH IN YOU")

STING: (Singing) If I ever lose my faith in you.

RAZ: There were three more albums - '91, '93, '96.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESERT ROSE")

STING: Dream of rain.

RAZ: All the way up in 1999 into 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESERT ROSE")

STING: I dream of gardens in the desert sand.

RAZ: It was nonstop. Sting was like a creativity machine. And then one day, it ended.

STING: I would look at a page every day and think, you know, what am I going to write about? And day followed day and then weeks turned to months. Pretty soon you have a couple of years where you haven't actually put pen to paper. And you have to ask yourself why? What is it?

RAZ: How long did this go on?

STING: I think it was maybe an eight-year period when the flow of songs stopped. And I wasn't idle. I'd certainly play. I would practice and hopefully refine whatever artistry I had. But the desire to write something down was not there. It simply wasn't there.

RAZ: That creative drive that pushed him to write so many songs for 20 years had just disappeared. And day after day, staring at an empty page, Sting started to ask himself some pretty big questions - questions he raised on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STING: What have I done to offend the gods that they would abandon me so? Is the gift of songwriting taken away as easily as it seems to have been bestowed? Or perhaps, there's a more, deeper psychological reason. It was always a Faustian pact anyway. You're rewarded for revealing your innermost thoughts - your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others - for the analysis, the scrutiny of others. And perhaps, you've given enough of your privacy away.

RAZ: I mean, so what did you do? I mean, how did you break out of it?

STING: I thought well, you know, maybe my best work wasn't about me (laughter). Maybe my best work was when I started to brighten the voices of other people or put myself in someone else's shoes or saw the world through their eyes. And that kind of empathy is eventually what broke this - writer's block we'll call it. Just by sort of stopping thinking about me, my ego, and who I am, and actually saying let's give my voice to someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STING: Well, they say write what you know. If you can't write about yourself anymore then who do you write about? So it's ironic that the landscape I'd worked so hard to escape from - and the community that I had more or less abandoned and exiled myself from - should be the very landscape, the very community I would have to return to to find my missing muse. And as soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story, the songs started to come thick and fast. I've described it as a kind of projectile vomiting - a torrent of ideas, of characters, of voices, verses, couplets. Entire songs, almost formed whole, materialized in front of me, as if they'd been bottled up inside of me for many, many years. One of the first things I wrote was just a list of names of people I'd known. And they become characters in a kind of three- dimensional drama, where they explain who they are, what they do, their hopes and their fears for the future. This is Jackie White, he's the foreman of the shipyard.

(As Jackie White) My name is Jackie White, and I'm foreman of the yard, and you don't mess with Jackie on this quayside. I'm as hard as iron plate, woe betide you if you're late when we have to push a boat out on the spring tide. Now, you can die and hope for heaven but you need to work your shift. And I'd expect you all to back us to the hilt, for if St. Peter at his gate were to ask you why you're late, why, you tell him that you had to get a ship built. We build battleships and cruisers for Her Majesty the Queen, super tankers for Onassis and all the classes in between. We built the greatest ship in tonnage (singing) what the world has ever seen. And the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard. Steel the stockyard, iron in the soul, would conjure up a ship with there used to be a hull. And we don't know what we'll do if this yard sold for the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: How did you know how to do that? Like, how did you know how to go back to where you came from in order to, like, reclaim your creativity?

STING: Well, I think songwriting can be considered a kind of therapy and maybe a kind of regression therapy, you know, to go back to the beginning. Why are you like you are? Why do you think the way you do? Why do you behave the way you do? And most of the answers are in your childhood. So I spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood. It wasn't a particularly happy childhood. It was a little confusing my childhood. And so I forced myself to go back there and in going back there I wondered whether I shouldn't try and honor the people I was brought up with.

RAZ: It was almost like you had to get out of your own way. Like, you realized that it didn't have to be about you, that it's not about you.

STING: It's not, and the creative process often takes place outside of your ego. You channel something but you can't take credit for a lot of it. You just tap into it. You tap into that thing and it's a wonderful honor to be that channel.

RAZ: I mean, how did you get out of your own way?

STING: Just by saying get out of your own way (laughter). You're in the way. Sting is in the way. I'm sick of Sting so let's sing about somebody else's thing, you know. And I realized very quickly I was writing in dialect, a dialect that I was brought up in but that I haven't used and I don't use. In fact, I only use it unconsciously when I get angry. But I was writing in dialect and the rhythms and the cadences of that dialect were helping me create the story. It wrote itself.

RAZ: There's something in your talk where you seem to imply that creativity is, like, a gift, like, that can be taken away. I mean, is that how you see it?

STING: Well, it's very ephemeral and can disappear. You know, what is it? It's rhyming couplets and some melody. It's not like you're building a ship (laughter). It's not like a piece of metal that you can, you know, just keep. The whole thing can just disappear into the air.

RAZ: Do you feel pressure to be creative all the time?

STING: I think you're always under, you know, a little bit of pressure, you know. You're from vanity maybe, you know? You want to be, you know, still relevant after all of these years and then you look at your peers and they're doing well. And you compare yourself with them so there is a bit of that. But, you know, I try and go into a deeper place inside me that is much calmer and it's irrelevant whether I'm successful or celebrated or not. Where my true happiness lies has got nothing whatever to do with any of that. It's basically just comfort in being who I am. And it's deeper. It's at a deeper level.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST SHIP")

STING: (Singing) It's all there in the gospels. The Magdalene girl comes to pay her respects.

RAZ: A song from Sting's new show on Broadway. It's called "The Last Ship." You can see his full talk at ted.npr.org, more ideas about creativity in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST SHIP")

STING: (Singing) Why else would the good Lord himself resurrect me? For nothing will stop me. I have to prevail through the teeth of this tempest, in the mouth of a gale. May the angels protect me if all else should fail, when the last ship sails.

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