What Guitar Reminded Me About Writing

As some of you know, I’ve been playing guitar for a few years now. And, yes, posting my terrible, terrible songs to the Internet. You cannot stop me from posting my terrible songs to the Internet. Because I am not a guitarist, so I cannot be shamed on this point. I’ll continue to steal beats from led Zeppelin and riffs from AC/DC and posting the results here.

Learning how to play guitar has reminded me of my earlier years as a writer. As in, my adolescent years. Like just about everyone in the universe, I first started writing when I was a kid, a wee lad of about 10. So I’ve been writing for a loooong time, bubbas, and forgotten what it was like to just start out, y’know?

Learning and playing guitar has reminded me though, because there are parallels. I like to flatter myself that I have some ability as a writer, whereas the guitar is just for fun, but they’re both creative experiences and the path is similar, sometimes. Here’s a couple of things learning to play the guitar has reminded me about writing:

1. When everything is brand new, it’s easy. Every time I learn a riff or technique on the guitar, it’s an exciting moment that unlocks a lot of immediate ideas. BAM, I’m working on a song using those ideas. That’s how it was in the beginning when I wrote: Everything was new, so writing new things was easy. Thirty short stories a year? No problem. Every story I read, every class I took gave me new things to use. The work I was doing wasn’t very original, but it felt original to me, because it was all new stuff. I read Ulysses and spent the next six months writing stream of consciousness like I’d invented it.

2. Stealing Is How You Do It. The meager skills I have on the guitar are the result of a few things — some lessons, practice, and most importantly learning other songs. Every time I learned a riff or a solo from an old song, I immediately began plotting to steal it. The earliest of my songs reflects this pretty baldly, as you can literally hear badly-played riffs from classic rock songs brazenly arranged in my own fumbling style (which is charming, right? RIGHT?). These days I’m better at taking a riff as inspiration, playing with it, adjusting it, putting it into a new context and running with it.

That’s the same way to write. read good books and stories. Burn with jealousy against them. Drink yourself into a stupor because you’ll never manage anything nearly as good. Wake up in a ditch. Get washed up, eat something, take a nap. Then trudge to the word processor and steal the idea/technique. Keep stealing it. Steal it until it’s just part of your repertoire, until it’s natural to you. Then it starts slipping into stories without being showy, just another tool you use to tell a story. byt the time you sell something that utilizes the stolen element, it’s no longer stolen, it’s learned, and its yours.

3. Do it for fun. No one cares if I play guitar or how well I play, so there’s no pressure. I play because I enjoy it, I make my ridiculous songs because I enjoy them, and I post those songs because that’s what we needy, attention-whoring creative types do. The same goes for writing: Do it for fun. The writing, that is. The publishing should be for money, or some form of compensation, but the writing itself has to start off as pure enjoyment. Whenever I’ve spoken with a writer who writes from an income point of view, it’s always pretty depressing.

The ultimate point is, try new things. Learn new things. You will always enter that period of pure discovery and fun (suddenly I can hear Willy Wonka singing Pure Imagination in my head), once you get past that dreary initial period of frustration and Fail. Or am I the only one who had periods of frustration and Fail? Smug bastards. You’re all lying.


  1. Elisabeth Black

    This post is timely to me, as I’ve just been thinking about maintaining your voice and how that balances with learning new stuff. For me, they tend to take turns, with the emphasis now stronger here, now there.

    On the other hand, I think you draw your voice not only from things you read but also from everything in your life: from your thoughts on God, to the people you live with, to the way you choose to drink your whiskey.

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  3. fred ceely

    Your ideas about stealing are most sensible. I’ve noticed that mostly great artists say that the stealing is no big deal, we all do it, Duke Ellington for one. (No instant value judgment implied.) I’d say that almost all music is essentially stolen, unless you’re ‘Trane, or Bird, or maybe Jimi. So good for you, with the guitar and all.

    I just re-discovered this blog, and I totally forget how I came to it in the first place. Are you from Ohio or something? I used to have an Ohio connection. Did you know Norman or something?

    Nice to be back; thanks for your efforts.

  4. Dan Blind

    I listened to some of your tracks and believe me they aren’t that bad! In regards your comment about ‘stealing’ this is of course how the majority of songs these days are incepted. You cannot copyright everything therefore ‘borrowing’ a specific rift from a well known artist is part and parcel of the trade. You can look down the ages and see many, many examples of music which are blantant rip offs of other songs but in most cases this is acceptable within reason….

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