When I have students in my office who are having difficulties with writing, I often ask them if they ever engaged in an art – music, pottery, painting, dance – anything but particularly something that required them to create. Because if they have experience with creating something then they understand the process of creating from scratch at least a little bit.
Sadly, most do not have experience creating original work. And I think this is a key reason why people struggle when they hit graduate school. If you do not have experience in creating original work, and suddenly you have to for your degree, I am not sure what you draw on to understand the process. I am not even really sure how to help you.
Because, you seem creating original work is a messy and frustrating process. It has its rewards, but those can sometimes be few and far between (and often the rewards are purely intrinsic). You have to be willing to push through the mess to get to the rewards, and you have to trust that the rewards are coming.
And rewards can look like anything when we are talking about writing. They can be things like:
- having a day when all the words flow freely and easily (the runner’s high of writing)
- knowing you wrote a kick-ass paragraph (or a sentence or a word)
- finally achieved clarity on a page after 9,000 drafts
If you’re not used to pushing through and playing in the mess, then writing is probably a real downer. I’m not sure how I would be able to get up in the morning and do it if I didn’t know (and enjoy) the big and little payoffs. But I credit myself to being able to swim around in this mess because when I was a teenager I decided I wanted to be a rock star. Seems reasonable, right? Normal career choice for most of us I assume. I had always enjoyed music and had always enjoyed creating music. I didn’t care what the odds were of actually becoming a rock star, I knew I could figure out a way to make it happen.
The first thing to consider was what I would do as a rock star. Singing was out. I had initially wanted to be a lead singer, but I had to accept the fact that my singing was terrible and going nowhere fast.
How bad could it be you ask?
Let me put it this way…when I was in elementary school 4th and 5th graders could be in the school choir. I tried out in 4th grade and didn’t make it so I tried out again in 5th. The audition involved singing a short song selection in front of the music teacher who played along on piano. I got to pick the song. Let me stress this for you – I got to pick the song.
I remember going to the library and getting a book full of songs. I picked my song out all on my own. By this time, I had a solid two years of piano lessons so I remember sitting down and banging it out while trying to sing along. I also rode my bike through the neighborhood practicing my song. By practicing I mean singing it very loudly for all to hear.
I was able to recall some of the lyrics still. This let me do a quick search and locate the song for you (this will probably tip you off as to how the audition went). The song was Henry My Son, and it contains this lovely little stanza:
What will you leave your sweetheart, Henry, my son
What will you leave your sweetheart, my beloved one
A rope to hang her, a rope to hang her,
Make my bed, I’ve a pain in my head
And I want to lie down.
Yes, this was the sort of thing I not only chose to sing as I rode around in my neighborhood but something I considered to be a fine choice for a school choir audition.
I didn’t get to be in the choir.
Not only did I have a poor song selection, but (more importantly) I couldn’t sign worth a damn. The music teacher told my mother that she desperately wanted to give me a spot. She knew how much it meant to me. She knew I would show up and do the work. But for the love of God, I sang so poorly that despite these other positive qualities she just could not let me in.
My own mother completely understood. How could she not? She had to live with me running around the house singing about ropes to hang people with. She had gotten a total earful of my abilities as a singer.
If I was going to be a rock star I would clearly have to play an instrument. And I landed on the guitar.
While I was completely into the idea of being a rock star, I was more interested in being a musician (being one of those doesn’t automatically make you the other BTW). In order to achieve my goal I had to obviously have good teachers, practice, learn how to write songs, and listen to a variety of musicians. And even though I did not become a rock star in the end, everything I did during that time prepared me for my career today.
How to do a Literature Review
I didn’t realize it until I was in graduate school, but my music studies had already trained me to do literature reviews. What I learned as a teenager was to first identify a guitarist that I really admired. I would then read everything I could about that person which always included learning what influenced them and how they built upon what they learned – the music they had listened to or were listening to then. If I didn’t know who the people were that had shaped the practice of the person I admired then it was off to the record store to get the album (or tape). I would next learn everything I could about this new (to me) person and trace who influenced them and so on and so on. This is how I ended up getting the complete recordings of Robert Johnson as a Christmas present when I was in high school.
How to Manage My Time
I don’t want to come off sounding like I was a time management expert as a teen. I was in the sense that I managed to practice my guitar about 15 hours a week, take lessons, write songs, and go to band rehearsals. I was not always showing up at school or doing my homework. I’m not sure that this last part is a reflection of time management so much as a decision about how I wanted to spend my time. But I was very good at defining my goals as they related to my musical development and charting out how to obtain them (sometimes I had help because I didn’t always know what needed to be done to obtain them). I created schedules for myself and then I got the work done.
As an academic, I have done the same thing. Not too much difference.
How to Write
I did a lot of songwriting as a teenager. I wrote lyrics, I co-wrote lyrics, and my band wrote our music to those lyrics. I had a notebook filled with drafts which could include song title, nearly completed songs, and lines I knew were good but hadn’t found a home. I showed these to my band mates and other random friends as well for feedback. In doing so, I learned a critical lesson about writing that I would later apply to my academic writing which is this:
It’s about the song
Whatever lyric gets written, whatever stays in the final piece, it has to serve the song. I could have a great title or stanza or whatever, but that doesn’t mean it gets to stay in. Everything in the final piece – every single word – is in service to the message of the song. If it doesn’t serve the message it has to go. Maybe it can be used in a different piece and maybe not. But it can’t stay in the original one.
Today, I apply that same concept to my academic writing. Every single word has to be in service to the argument of the piece. If not, then it has to go. This means I had to learn to not get attached, and I had to learn how to let go. It also means I am ok with rough ideas, throwing things in the trash, and not taking feedback personally. It’s always in service of the piece, and I am a servant to the piece I am creating.
What Does This Mean?
In the end, this post is mostly a reflection on how fortunate I feel to have had the experiences I had. Through the creation and destruction of music and lyrics I learned an important process that followed me over to academia. There are more lessons than what I put here (obviously) that can be learned through the arts that transcend how we live our lives.