Stop Writing to Impress

I’ve been a musician and songwriter since I was a wee, bed-wetting lad of 15. In that time I have written hundreds of songs–some of which are actually listenable. In the year or so since I started clicking away at the keyboard with the aim of writing a novel, I’ve noticed key differences between that particular creative pursuit and my songwriting process.

When I sit down to write a song, my thoughts inevitably wander to visions of a stage on which I am the performer, stagelights blinding me, playing the song for hundreds or thousands of people, no heart in the crowd left unswelled, no face left dry, no ear left behind. This takes my attention away from the important part. I stop focusing on the song itself and instead think about the potential reaction it will garner. This is an inadvertent action–I don’t mean to do it, but my brain wanders as I’m plucking away at a repetitive riff and trying to conjure up a vocal melody.

This wandering brain, along with its companion, The Desire to Impress, is something I’ve really had to fight. And I think it’s one of the many reasons I have failed as a musician.

I was writing to impress. And now that I am being honest with myself, I think impressing people is the core motivator behind why I became a songwriter/musician in the first place. I wanted the acknowledgement, the praises, the acclaim; to be seen as a rock god, or at least a highly respected individual within the music industry.

But that never happened. And here’s one reason why.

Not only did I neglect to put in the daily practice required to be an exceptional musician, I also never trained myself to maintain my focus on the song itself during the times I sat down to actually write it. I’d sit down, belt out a few notes and instantly lose myself on an imaginary stage in front of that eager crowd of ears. Before I knew it, hours had passed and I had accomplished next to nothing.

Those impromptu sessions can certainly be useful when trying to get first ideas down, but that was also the only way I wrote songs. Even worse, instead of practicing daily like I should have, I only wrote songs when I felt inspired. At my peak, those times amounted to maybe a few times a week. At my lowest point, months would pass by without me writing any songs at all.

Now, how do I bring this all back to writing? Well, the same principles apply.

In recent months, I have all but put down my guitar for good in favor of the keyboard. And now, instead of a physical stage in front of a crowd of eager ears, there is a methaphorical world stage on which to present my words to a crowd of hopefully eager eyes (and minds and hearts).

When I first started writing my novel about a year ago, I knew that in order to do it well, I would have to work at it every single day. I assumed that published authors had been writing since they were children, so in order to catch up to their level I’d have to dedicate a much greater amount of energy over a smaller period of time.

And so, I participated in NaNoWriMo last year and developed a daily writing habit. I have maintained it ever since. I am now working on the second draft of my novel and getting ready to outline another.

My novel is nowhere near finished, and I will probably be working on this story for years to come. But, I’ve noticed marked progress in the quality of my writing and the speed with which I can come up with more attuned “wordsmithing” from when I first started. I hope that is a sign of better things to come.

The major difference I’ve noticed between my two creative hobbies is that when I write my novel, I am not thinking about the world stage of eyes. I am thinking about my story, my characters, my world. Getting lost in them. I’m getting lost in the creation itself, rather than the potential results of that creation.

An unintentional result of this shift in my creative priorities is that I don’t really write songs anymore. I recently quit my band because I don’t feel like I’m at a point in my life where I can actively contribute to any sort of musical venture. My focus is on my writing, learning more about story structure, developing an author platform. That all takes a lot of time and energy. The difference is that now, my creative pursuits are not based on pure emotion alone. I am habitual, logical and disciplined about my writing. As a result, I feel like I am building a solid foundation for my craft. Something I like to do is compare my novel writing habit to my life.

I certainly find myself thinking about the end result. The thought of being a best-selling author has certainly crossed my mind once or twice or a hundred times. But I’m conscious of those thoughts when they pop in for a spot of brain tea, so I don’t allow them to stick around for long. After all, I’ve got a book to write, damnit!

The point I’m trying to make is, first off, write because you love doing it, not because you want to sell millions of books. The real reason I write is because getting my thoughts on the page, whether that page is a blog or a portion of a novel, helps me to learn more about myself. And at this point in my life I am on a journey of self-discovery. Everything else, the book included, is a bonus.

The second point is that, if you want to make writing a career, don’t be like me with my music. Don’t just do it when you feel inspired. I won’t tell you to not be hard on yourself. In fact, quite the opposite. It might very well be hard at first, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Once you make it a daily routine it becomes second nature.

The third point is that it’s OK to be wrong. We think something like 35 to 48 thoughts a minute (that’s 50,000-70,000 thoughts a day). Some of them are bound to be wrong. Not all writing thoughts will make it into the final draft. Not everything I am saying applies to every person. Everyone is different. I am only sharing what works for me because that is the only experience I am familiar with. In honesty, when I say “you”, I mainly mean me. These blog posts serve as pep talks to myself, I think. But if you–and by “you” I mean the reader–can apply the stories in these posts to your own life, wonderful. It’s a bonus.

I think I might write a post about reading and how it’s important to write in order to show yourself what you have learned from whatever it is you read.

Nothing I’m saying here is new. These are just thoughts I’m regurgitating from other things I’ve read. Overall, it’s just important to write, whether you want to make it a career or you just want to do it for fun. At the end of the day, do whatever works for you.