You don’t need to be an expert. It’s not brain surgery. No one is going to die. Seriously. Go ahead, read a book or don’t. Either way, it’s all going to be OK. Watch a documentary on Bob Dylan, or maybe Tom Petty—or perhaps, just forget you’ve ever heard of those guys, pick up your guitar and start singing.
When it comes to writing songs, there are a thousand reasons to remain a cover artist, a thousand reasons to never emerge from the bedroom, a thousand reasons to never begin—the most popular being we don’t feel qualified. We have compared ourselves to the masters (Dylan, Petty, Springsteen) and in doing so, have found that magical reason to quit before we even start—we are just not that good.
Don’t let fake pressure squash the creative impulse. No one is expecting you to write the next double platinum album. There’s not a competition going on here. No one is going to be let down if your first batch of songs doesn’t somehow go around the world.
Comparison is a killer. It’s like having a virus—invisible and silent, you don’t know you have it till you are already weakened by its presence.
No one starts off “good.” No one. Every master started off as a shaky mess—but the key every master holds is desire. Desire that is bigger than one’s current deficiencies. Desire that is bigger than critical remarks. Desire that keeps a person digging until, at last, they find gold. The real question isn’t whether or not you are currently a good writer—the real question is, do you want to get better? Desire to get better has a way of centering an artist in a place of humble truth. It acknowledges that improvement can be made. Many a writer never grew into their potential because they were overwhelmed by their lack of skill, but many more, because they were convinced they had already arrived. Again, the real question is, do you want to get better?
There are lots of different kinds of good. There is no one standard for good writing. Sure, there are principles, but for every principle, there are three exceptions. Josh Ritter is an amazing writer. No one tells a story like he does. Few can pack multiple possible meanings into each sentence like Ritter. He’s a master. At the same time, Tom Petty is a master as well, but for totally different reasons. Petty has a way of distilling the American Man down into a few words, complex emotions into a handful of syllables.
Don’t come around here no more
Don’t come around here no more
Whatever you’re looking for
Hey! Don’t come around here no more
I point this out because, when comparing ourselves to the masters, we tend to compare ourselves to writers who exhibit the sort of brilliance that seems most elusive to us while ignoring the writers with whom we actually have a lot in common.
Stop it! Just because you don’t write songs about mummies that come to life and end up killing the person who discovered them (Josh Ritter’s “The Curse”)—which is really about searching your whole life for something, finding it and then realizing that thing is going to be the death of you—it doesn’t mean you are not a good writer. It just means you’re not Josh Ritter, and that’s totally OK.