When Keith Richards—one of the Rolling Stones bad boys—wrote his autobiography, “Life,” in 2010, I resolved to read it.
I finally got around to it last month.
Anyway, a few things surprised me: Richards was shy around women. He was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Apparently, he got addicted to heroin because he hated fame. Most surprising were his sophisticated thoughts about writing. Here are five writing takeaways from Keith Richards:
1. Learn from others.
When people ask me how to become better writers, I start by suggesting they read more and read more mindfully. At this advice, they often look at me quizzically, as if to say, “It’s that simple?” There’s nothing simple about it. Reading takes time, and reading mindfully, longer. We all learn by emulating those who went before us.
Here’s how Richards describes his relationship with his masters:
You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.
Writers can just change the above names to Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison (and many, many others).
2. Be prolific.
With all the bestselling songs falling off Richards’ fingertips, it might be easy to believe that he was just born with buckets of talent. Yet, like many famous artists, Richards was prolific, but the quantity didn’t always engender quality.
We don’t hear about the bad songs, because they didn’t hit the charts—but he did write them.
Here is how he describes his lesser work:
We were prolific. We felt that that it was impossible that we couldn’t come up with something every day or every two days. That was what we did, and even if it was the bare bones of a riff, it was something to go on, and then while they were trying to get the sound on it or we were trying to shape the riff, the song would fall into place of its own volition.
3. Make the most of even a small idea.
Writers often figure they need a cataclysmic revelation to write anything that’s meaningful or worthwhile. Instead Richards finds possibility in the smaller moments. He says, “You only really need a little sparkle of an idea and before the evening’s over it will be a beautiful thing.”
I especially like his use of “sparkle,” suggesting something brief and delightful.
4. Understand that the radar is always on.
If you are a writer, you’re always a writer, and your writing should have a presence in your head all the time. Here’s how Richards puts it from a songwriter’s point of view:
Somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be “Oh! That’s the bridge!” and there’s nothing you can do; you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s totally subconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not.
I love his expression about radar—a strong, invisible force that helps you navigate.
5. Know that great writing appears to write itself.
We all like to imagine ourselves as makers and doers, but much of success relates to simply being there. Writer Woody Allen says 80 percent of success is showing up, but I like Richards’ more detailed and thoughtful reflection:
Great songs write themselves. You’re just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: “Oh, I know how this goes,” and you can’t believe it because you think that nothing comes like that. You think, where did I steal that from? No, no, that’s original—well, about as original as I can get. And you realize that songs write themselves; you’re just the conveyer.
Interesting that the bad boy of rock ‘n’ roll sounds almost religious when he says that, isn’t it?
Does Keith Richards’ advice give you any satisfaction? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts in the comments below.
A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.