Gaining skill and artistry as a writer demands – most of all – that you know yourself. You have to know how you work best and which conditions allow you to be both creative and efficient so that you can exercise both your art and craft. It’s essential to have a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, know what you need to study, and avoid writing only within your comfort zone. This means you need to undergo – at least at some point as you develop as a writer – a substantial period of self-observation.
A writing log is an excellent way to track your work. In this log, keep track of exactly what you do at every point in the process: length of time spent sketching; length of time spent scoring; etc. Note how you feel about your work: which aspects give you doubts, which aspects you’re sure of. Keep the log through to the end of the process. At that point, you can make observations about what worked well, what didn’t, what came out as expected, and what was surprising.
I kept a detailed writing log for about two years during my first full-time staff writing job. It was immensely useful. When writing professionally, there often isn’t time to adequately reflect on your work, especially when you’re working to very tight deadlines and beginning one project while finishing the another. The log helped me keep track of what I was doing and come to conclusions about my work’s strengths and weaknesses. On a number of projects, the things I wasn’t sure about turned out fine, but other things that hadn’t worried me didn’t come out that well. I wouldn’t have made the connection between intent and result without the log. Just the act of keeping the log forces you to reflect at least somewhat on your work, and I’ve found tremendous value in thinking deeply and critically about every piece I write.
The log also allowed me to track the time spent on various projects. In professional writing, it’s very important to be able to predict how long a particular project will take so that you can prepare a realistic budget and ensure that the project will be financially worthwhile, and that you can finish it according to the project deadline. A low-budget project can be relatively lucrative if it can be done quickly. If you’re paid $100 to write a piece and that takes 30 minutes, you’re making $200 an hour. If you get paid $5,000 for a large work that takes 200 hours, you’re working at a much lower rate.
As a way of getting to know yourself as a writer, below you’ll find a list of questions to consider. Obviously, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They are meant to stimulate your thoughts about writing. Some may be useful, others may not. You may find it helpful to write the answers down or discuss them with a friend. There are probably other questions to ask yourself in addition to these, but this is a good start.
- Where do the musical ideas come from? What is the source of your inspiration? Does the knowing the source of your ideas matter or is it unnecessary for you to identify it?
- How have you gained your knowledge about writing? Have you studied with a teacher or in a class? What has been the most useful thing you’ve done to learn about writing? How do you learn best?
- How much have your reflected on your own musical lineage and the great traditions that feed into it? How deeply have you explored the great universe of music?
- How long does it take to write a piece of music? Is writing hard or easy for you? What percentage of your daily life do you spend writing?
- What are your strengths as a writer? What aspects do you write really well? What are your weaknesses? What things continually challenge you?
- How do you get the musical ideas to start flowing? Does your creative process begin at will or does it seem to happen accidentally? What are your best working conditions?
- What’s the most fun you have ever had writing? What’s the best piece of music you’ve written? Is there any relationship between the amount of time you spend writing a piece and its quality? Or between the amount of fun you had writing and the quality? What would be the ideal writing project?
- What’s your process? How do you work? Do you approach every piece the same way, or is your process different depending on the circumstances? Do you work efficiently or waste a lot of time? What does it mean to waste time when you’re writing?
- What parts of the process interest you the most? Are certain parts boring or draining?
- What music has had the greatest impact on your own writing? Do you know anything about the writer and how he or she worked? Would it be interesting to know their process?
- Do you agree with the idea that writing music is comprised of artistry and craft? Which is easiest for you? Is either artistry or craft difficult for you?
- Why do you write music? What purpose does your music serve?
- What other questions would be helpful to consider?
know your lineage
What have been your most powerful musical experiences? What music forever changed how your heard and thought about music? What is the music that you can listen to again and again and never tire of? Most of us can answer these questions without a great deal of thought: this is the music that forms the architecture of our inner musical world, where we are comfortable and at ease and where we know our way around.
Let’s take this a step further. When you listen to one of your favorite pieces of music can you hear the influences that shape it? Can you identify the elements of its vocabulary and style, and its quality of energy? Can you hear the various streams of music that flow together to produce what is so attractive to you? How much do you know about its background and context, and about the musical lives of those involved in its creation?
The answers to these questions can provide insight into your musical lineage and how deeply you are aware of it. I wrote about my own lineage in the introduction and it’s something I’m always aware of. I think it’s important for every musician, both writers and performers, to know their own lineage. Just how deeply into that lineage – how far into those great streams of music informing your music – you want to delve is something you should think about.
For example, if you love writing for string quartet, what do you know about the great string quartets of the 20th century, of the Romantic and Classical periods? Have you listened to Hayden’s quartets? To the string quartets Mozart wrote and dedicated to Haydn? If you love rap, have you followed the traces back to Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word recordings of the 70s? If you’re a film score composer, do you know the work of Bernard Hermann? What do you know about Bollywood film scores?
The world of music is too big for us to know it in its entirety, but we can fully and deeply explore those corners of the world where our own music lives. There is no downside to this kind of research and it can open up new areas and possibilities to explore. I also think we have a responsibility to our art as writers to give our time and attention to the work of our colleagues, those that have proceeded us and those who now work alongside us.
studying the writing process
The many books about various aspects of writing can be extremely helpful as you study and hone your craft. Some are excellent reference sources while others provide step-by-step guides to writing in particular styles or for specific ensembles. While I have an extensive library of books about writing, I learned much more from my teachers than from any book.
There are a lot of great writers out there, and the things they’re learned over the course of their own development can be immensely useful to other writers. Ultimately, you learn by doing, but learning from other writers can save you time and energy. A teacher can be a wonderful resource, especially in dealing with aspects of craft, but it has to be the right teacher – someone who will encourage without patronizing, give critical feedback without being negative, and help you grow.
The best way to find a teacher is in a school. While this may seem obvious, there are a number of reasons why this is useful. First, you can ask around to find out who is generally well-liked and has a good reputation. Check out the work of their students. If they all have distinctive voices, don’t all write the same way, and display both artistry and craft, that’s a pretty good indication that there’s good teaching going on.
You can also go to a specific teacher to study a particular aspect of your craft that you feel needs work. If you’re in or around a school, there will likely be a community of writers working in a variety of styles and formats. A good teacher will not mind if you study with other teachers. Beware of teachers with a lot of ego: you need room for your own personality as a writer to develop, and a teacher with a big ego can take up a lot of space, leaving little room for you.
Luckily, there are quite a few good schools, so it’s not hard to find good teachers. You might consider studying in a writing program as a full-time student. It takes a fair amount of time and energy to develop your skill and artistry, and school provides a huge, dedicated window to work and study.
researching the great writers’ craft
Learn what the great writers have to say about the art and craft. There are quite a few books (and more and more resources online) by composers in which they discuss their lives and art. Some of these are listed later on this book.
It is fascinating to talk to other writers about how they work. It doesn’t matter what kind of music they write, who they write for, where they’re from, or where they studied. You can always learn something interesting from other writers. Their perspectives – and the perspective you gain about your own work as you discuss and explain it – provide valuable insight into your own work. Similarly, learning about artists working in fields other than music can also provide be valuable. The more you learn about art and craft – in any field – the more informed you will be about your own work.
evaluating your work
Chapter 5 discusses how our critical/analytical processes can interfere with the creative process. The internal dialog that supplies a running criticism of our work can literally silence the music within. We do need to make critical judgments during the creative process: they’re a necessary part of working the piece and refining your materials. The trick is to make those judgments without stopping the creative process.
Evaluating work in its finished form is a completely different process from exercising your critical faculties as you write, and the goal is different. Here, we are concerned with whether our work had the desired effect, whether it worked as piece in the way we expected, and how closely the performance matched what we heard inside as we were writing.
It’s important to make this evaluation as objectively as possible. There are a few things we can do to make evaluation useful and informative. First, we should work from a recording rather than from our memory of a live performance. So many variables affect our perception and understanding of what we recall from a live performance that it’s difficult to judge how a piece is working. In addition, we shouldn’t rely on our memory of a single performance. Even if our recording is poor from a technical standpoint (lots of noise, balance problems, distortion, etc.), it is still useful for reviewing work.
Second, try to distance yourself somewhat from the piece – don’t think about the piece for a few days before digging back into it and trying to come to some conclusions. We are often so obsessed with the piece as we work with it that it’s difficult to separate our internal version from its form in the “real” world. It is often extremely useful to review a piece months or even years later. Once we lose our emotional, or ego, investment in the piece we hear it much more accurately. Often, this investment fades over time, allowing us a clear picture of the effectiveness of our work at that particular time and in that specific situation.
Finally, the writing log can be extremely useful when evaluating finished work. The log should have kept track of the desired effect of our work. It can include general observations about the energy or shape of a piece or very specific ideas about what we were attempting in a particular passage or section. When I was keeping a log regularly, I found it extremely useful to review my observations about my writing, both positive and negative. I often felt very differently about things after a certain amount of time had passed. I also realized that I’d forgotten many of things that seemed so important as I wrote, particularly over a long period of time. This is no doubt a measure of how I grew and changed with the passage of time, and the log allowed me to see exactly how far I’d come.
A final observation about evaluating your work: it’s good to critically acknowledge the weaknesses and flaws in our work, and then use those observations to inform and improve our craft. However, it’s important not to be overly negative and hard on ourselves. Examine the work, see it objectively, acknowledge its imperfections, and try to understand how the piece fell short of expectations. But we must also value its strengths. It’s okay to like our own music, to feel it succeeded on some levels, that it’s a worthwhile piece, and that it’s something we can be proud of. We learn from our successes as well as our failures. A truly objective view of our music sees both its strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately, we learn how to write by writing. There is simply no substitute for actually making music. With each piece we can learn something new, explore new territory, deal with new challenges, and solve new problems. Many times, a new piece is a chance to solve old problems we’ve confronted before and exercise improved skills.
Some writers have a regular schedule, writing every morning or afternoon. Some writers work obsessively on a new piece, writing around the clock until it’s done. Many writers work whenever they can find the time and energy in their busy schedules. I know many writers (myself included) that work best with a goal in mind, a performance to work toward. I find it very difficult to write a piece unless I know it will be performed. My most successful writing experiences have been when working under specific requirements, such as when I’m writing for a definite deadline and a particular ensemble or performance. Many times, I create these deadlines and requirements for myself as a way to force the writing process to begin.
Each new piece is also a confirmation that we still have music inside us that needs expression. After almost 40 years writing music, I’m still relieved when a new piece emerges. Finishing a piece of music has such a quality of finality about for me that I always wonder if it’s the last piece I’ll ever write. So, it’s important to write not only to improve our craft and to bring new music into the world, but to continually affirm our identity as writers. Perhaps this sounds pretentious, but I believe writers have a responsibility to the art and craft of writing. For whatever reason, and however we understand the nature of what we do (whether it’s a gift from the gods, the voice of a muse, some freakish accident of nature, a meaningless activity in the face of an indifferent universe, a mathematical game of number and proportion, or whatever we personally believe), we have developed the ability to write music, and it would be a waste not to use that gift to bring beauty into the world.