The Writer as Artist

Remember the first time you realized you wanted to be a writer? Remember when you started striving to achieve publication? Remember how you doubted yourself—and when you didn’t have the guts to call yourself a “writer”—at least to other people?

Some people still have trouble calling themselves a writer. Perhaps it’s because this title seems too lofty or because we haven’t had enough work published. Maybe it’s because we don’t write daily. Or, because we have a day job and any writer worth her salt can earn a living writing full-time, right?

No matter how accomplished you are, when your writing hits the wall, you beat yourself up and stop thinking of yourself as a writer—at least, a legit writer. Yet, is a songwriter only a songwriter when he is writing hit songs? Or, is he a songwriter as long as he is writing songs?

Where am I going with this? Stay with me.

In the mid-seventies, I was a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian singer and songwriter who achieved international success in folk, country and popular rock music. You may remember him. A few of his hits included, “If You Could Read My Mind” (Number 4 in the US in 1970), “Sundown” (1974), “Carefree Highway” (1974), “Rainy Day People” (1975), (all hitting Number 1) and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976) (hitting Number 2). Then, like most musicians, he fell silent for a while—or so I thought. I didn’t hear many more hit songs so I assumed he had stopped working.

In the last year, I reconnected with him. It started by purchasing his Greatest Hits CD. I then became so interested in his work that I bought every CD I could find even though I didn’t recognize any of the songs. I figured if I like the artist, I’ll like most of his work. A funny thing happened. I found myself enjoying his later work much more than his hit songs. Why?

The more familiar I became with his style, lyrics, and acoustical arrangements, the more deeply I appreciated his artistry as both a singer and a songwriter. Now 73, Lightfoot is still writing and performing beautiful new songs and maintains an active tour schedule. He has received virtually every conceivable musical honor in his homeland and has been declared Canada’s greatest songwriter. In a recent interview (see the link above), he was asked if he thought he was a legend.

“I’m more interested in doing the work than being the legend,” he said quietly.

His answer struck me to the core. As writers, we’re artists in the same way as musicians or painters. We paint with words. Our message is our music. And we must be more concerned with “the work” than the reputation. After all, the work ultimately defines the reputation.

As I continue to buy Gordon Lightfoot CDs, I’m astounded by the vast body of his work—over 200 songs, many recorded by some of the world’s most renowned artists—Elvis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and more.

When I thought he had fallen silent, he was quietly cranking out the work—great work. Regardless of our level of success, we must remain committed to the work. Gordon Lightfoot reminded me that’s what artists do.

Publication alone doesn’t make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer.

And that’s music to my ears.


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Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 7:27 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The Writer as Artist ( […]

  2. Great post, Jim. What a wonderful analogy for us writers to latch on to. I think the same premise goes for athletes and actors.If you do the craft/sport to become famous, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. The fame will take care of itself. Thanks, Jim, for the reminder!

    • Jerry,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Regardless of our endeavors, if excellence is the goal some level of success will eventually follow.

      • One final thought… if you are reconnecting with Gordon Lightfoot and I’m finding myself listening to music from the 80s quite frequently over the past months – Sade, Simply Red, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Seal – what does that say about me? Should I be worried (about me, I mean!)?

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