Writers Talk About Writing
Five Writing Lessons From Keith Richards
I'm old enough to have been a seven-year-old when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. ("Those boys have hair like girls," chided an elderly friend of my mother's who was over for dinner that night.) But I'm young enough to have been mostly oblivious to Woodstock, Altamont and the death of Jimi Hendrix, all of which occurred before I hit high school.
Still, when Keith Richards — one of the rebellious bad boys of the Rolling Stones — wrote his autobiography, Life, I resolved to read it — even though it took me a few years to get around to it.
Here are some of the things that surprised me. Richards was shy around women. He was a choir boy. And a boy scout. And he became a heroin addict because he hated fame.
But what surprised me the most were his sophisticated thoughts about writing. Here are five writing lessons you, too, can learn from Keith Richards.
1. Learn from others. When people ask me how to become better writers, I always start by suggesting that they read more and read more mindfully. At this advice, they often look at me quizzically, as if to say, "it's that simple?" There's nothing simple about it. Reading takes time, reading mindfully, longer. We all learn by imitating those who went before us.
Here's how Richards describes his relationship with his masters: "You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin." Writers can just change the names: Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison (and many, many others).
2. Be prolific. With all of the bestselling songs falling off of Richards' fingertips, it might be easy to believe that he was just born with buckets of talent. But, like many famous artists, Richards was prolific. We don't hear about the bad songs because they didn't hit the charts. But he wrote them. Just like Jonathan Mann, who has had a life of more modest success, some 10 percent of Richards' work is awesome. Here is how Richards describes it:
"We were prolific. We felt that that it was impossible that we couldn't come up with something every day or every two days. That was what we did, and even if it was the bare bones of a riff, it was something to go on, and then while they were trying to get the sound on it or we were trying to shape the riff, the song would fall into place of its own volition."
3. Make the most of even a small idea. Writers often figure they need a cataclysmic revelation to write anything that's meaningful or worthwhile. Instead, I like the way that Richards finds possibility in the smaller moments. As he says, "you only really need a little sparkle of an idea and before the evening's over it will be a beautiful thing." I especially like his use of the word "sparkle," suggesting something that is both brief and delightful.
4. Understand that the radar is always on. If you are a writer, you're always a writer, and your writing should have a place at the back of your mind, all the time. Here's how Richards puts it from a songwriter's point of view: "Somewhere in the back of the mind, you're thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell's going on. You might be getting shot at, and you'll still be "Oh! That's the bridge!" and there's nothing you can do; you don't realize it's happening. It's totally subconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not." I love his expression about radar — a strong, invisible force that guides our way.
5. Know that great writing appears to write itself. We all like to imagine ourselves as makers and doers, but much of success relates to simply being there. Writer Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up, but I like Richards' more detailed and thoughtful reflection. Here's what he says: "Great songs write themselves. You're just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: "Oh, I know how this goes," and you can't believe it because you think that nothing comes like that. You think, where did I steal with from? No, no, that's original — well, about as original as I can get. And you realize that songs write themselves; you're just the conveyer."
Interesting how the bad boy of rock 'n' roll sounds almost religious when he says that, isn't it?