Note: Yesterday I sat at a table on my back deck with Jason Gray, Pete Peterson and Jonathan Rogers and declared that I never wanted the Rabbit Room to be one of those blogs that always lists things, (i.e., “Four Ways to Make Your Life Awesomer”). Then I had to go and find this on my hard drive. I don’t remember what publication I wrote it for, but I offer it here in case it’s helpful to any of you.
1. Write—This is the most basic, and most important. There’s quite a market out there for books on writing. I know this, because I supported it for a while by purchasing the ones with the coolest covers. Those books aren’t necessarily bad, but I don’t think they teach you as much as you’d learn by just writing. If you’re going to read one of these books, look for the one’s that are more about the why than the how. (Four good ones: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor, Walking on Water, by Madeline L’Engle, and The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield.)
2. Read—I don’t mean reading books on writing. I mean reading books that feature good old fashioned excellence. Fill your brain with beautiful language. It’s okay to read a popular novel for fun (I do it all the time), but try temper it with reading a classic now and then. C.S. Lewis said you should read an old book after every new one. He was pretty smart. (If you’re a songwriter, listen to good music–and you should dig into music you may not prefer. I decided several years ago to find out why Bob Dylan was such a big deal, and MAN I’m glad I did.)
3. Write—This may seem like I’m trying to be funny. (“Oh, so he’s repeating the first one for emphasis. That old gag.”) That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. After you’ve read an old, stirring work of art (see #2, above), I bet you a Barnes & Noble gift card you’ll be in the mood to write. When that mood arises, latch on and don’t let go, because the mood will be gone before you can say “Facebook status”.
4. Community—You need people around whom (a) you respect, (b) who respect you, and (c) who will tell you the truth in love. Art begets community, and community nurtures art. It may take a long time, but if you’re working in earnest at your craft, you’ll encounter others who are doing the same. Meet with them once in a while and talk about story and song. Talk about what you’re reading and listening to. Muster the courage to let them read your work and then (gasp!) make them critique it. You may be a good writer, but you aren’t a great one. You should aspire to be a great one, and the only way to do that is to discover your blind spots by listening to instruction. And by remembering point five:
5. Write—Look! I repeated numbers one and three for even greater emphasis! I’m hilarious! But seriously. After you’ve stopped laughing, wiped the tears from your cheeks, and taken a deep breath, lean in close and hearken unto me: Whether you’re a songwriter or an author, a basketball player or a preacher, there’s no way to improve your craft except by practicing. After you’ve stopped reading how-to books and begun to write, after you’ve read great books and listened to great songs, after you’ve written some more, after you’ve gathered a community of songwriters or writers around you and raised the artistic bar, you keep working. Write terrible first drafts (thank you for that advice, Anne Lamott), ask the Creator to help you create, and get to work. Shed light.