I play electric guitar, a lefty Sheraton II. Picking it up has made me a better writer.
I swear. Seriously, there’s a correlation here. I might as well go ahead and thank Steve Vai, the legendary guitar virtuoso who opened my eyes. I recently read Guitar World’s interview with Steve and guitarist Tosin Abasi, and it’s changed the way I think about stringing words together. Abasi and Vai spoke a lot about musicianship, but I think their words speak volumes about growing and evolving as any kind of artist.
“…When I got hold of the guitar, the thing that really lit me up about the instrument is you try to do something and you can’t, but then you work on it and all of a sudden you can…That’s how it works. You become fascinated…It was an escape from other things in my life. And when you can’t do something but you work at it and then you can do it, you get this sense of achievement, which is something we all really thrive on, and also a sense of dignity that might have been destroyed by something else. So that in itself creates this feedback effect, this addiction. It was a beautiful thing for me.” –Steve Vai
Are writers so different? We stretch for the words just outside our reach, scribbling and typing and revising until we can grasp them. And when we find the right words to build a connection between the page and the reader, we’re euphoric, self-affirmed, if only for a moment . Yes, it’s hard to keep working to improve, writing book after book, but we crave that rush, the satisfaction of knowing these pages are better than the last ones. The struggle is its own addiction.
Vai elaborates on doing to hard work:
“…And when the Zappa gig came along and he was like, ‘Can you play this?,’ I was like, ‘Of course I can play it.’ ‘Cause all you gotta do is work on it. Slowly, slowly, note by note. It was unfathomable to me than any guitar player couldn’t do it. And I realized why. They just didn’t have the chutzpah to sit there and work on it…Greatness is an inspiration that a person has. So we can tell people how to be a virtuoso guitar player: just sit and practice really slow and perfectly and make sure you have vibrato and your intonation is perfect and then get faster and faster and just don’t do anything that you can’t play. Every week, click the notch up a bit. And then you’ll be able to play anything.”
Writer, your keyboard/palette/lens isn’t so different than six strings. Play.
Abasi echoes Vai:
“What happens is there’s this revelation that if you put in work on something you can’t do at first, eventually you can do it. And the first time that happens it is kind of like an addiction. You want it to happen again. And the more it happens, the more you’re confident that it can happen. So you start chasing your potential. You realize, Yeah, eventually I might get as good as I try to get. It feeds itself. So it’s not like you’re locked in a room practicing under obligation. You’re concerned with your own potential. You’re like, I’m full of potential and I’ve already started to unlock it. and I could spend the rest of my life doing it.”
Spend your life chasing down that next song or the next story or the next image or whatever it is you long to create. The process will nourish you as much as the end result.
“Getting better on guitar is really just a reflection of your ability to chisel out your own doubt. Criticism can be devastating. When push comes to shove, we are all very sensitive. I know I can be. Artists have this burning desire to create something that will gratify other people–when you find the right audience. No matter what anybody tells you, we want to be appreciated; we want to feel like what we’re doing has value and that we’re making a contribution. But what we have to get through our heads is it’s not for everybody, but is is for a select group. And when you follow your muse and your creative impulse sincerely, you find that audience comes. They come.” –Steve Vai
Don’t give in to the monster of self-doubt. Find your voice. Build connections, word by word. Keep writing until you can.
(Also, get yourself a subscription to Guitar World. It will feed your inner artist.)