You may not have heard of Yngwie Malmsteen; I never had before today. But when a bit of his classical/metal fusion popped up through Pandora Radio today I clicked on his bio link to read more about him, and what I learned blew me away. The opening of Malmsteen’s bio has this to say about him:
Yngwie Malmsteen is arguably the most technically accomplished hard rock guitarist to emerge during the ’80s. Combining a dazzling technique honed over years of obsessive practice with a love for such classical composers as Bach, Beethoven, and Paganini, Malmsteen’s distinctively Baroque, gothic compositional style and lightning-fast arpeggiated solos rewrote the book on heavy metal guitar.
“Sure,” you’re saying, “But what can a guitarist teach me about writing?”
To which I say, “Read on and find out.”
According to his bio Malmsteen first became intrigued with the idea of playing guitar at age seven when he saw a television special about the death of Jimi Hendrix. He became entranced with Hendix’s songs, and “spent hours practicing obsessively until his fingers bled.”
Read that last sentence again. Until his fingers bled. Are you ready to bleed for your work? The first lesson, Malmsteen has to teach us writers is this: The price of excellence is obsession. It is not enough for us to sit down whenever we feel like it and toss out a couple hundred words here and there. If we want to stop being good and start being great we are going to have to sacrifice. There is no shortcut to greatness. It is not born in us. There is no magic elixir we can drink to hasten its advance. The way to greatness is through hard work. It’s true for guitarists, and it’s true for writers. We spend our days pining away about how we’d like to be as good a writer as so-and-so, and how we wish we had that kind of talent, but the ugly truth is this: we could have that kind of talent. But it is going to take work. It is going to take sacrifice. It didn’t come to so-and-so for free, and it won’t come to us for free either. And when we strip away all the excuses we can see the truth. We are exactly as good as we want to be.
But that isn’t all Malsteem has to teach us.
Malsteem learned to play the music of both Hendrix and favorites Deep Purple. Through Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s use of diatonic minor scales over simple blues riffs, Malmsteen was led toward classical music, and his sister exposed him to composers like Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart.
No man is an island. If you want to become a master musician, you have to study the works of other master musicians. If you want to be a painter you have to study the techniques of the great painters who came before you. And if you want to be a great writer you must read. There is no way around this step. Words fall in patterns and cadences that work differently on the page than they do in speech. There are no “rules” you can learn to become a great writer. There are rules of grammar, but sometimes those need to be broken. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read over a story that was grammatically okay, but just didn’t work in terms of the way the words flowed. The book, The Traveler, is a great example of this. If you read much at all you know what I’m talking about. There’s just something about the way the sentences in that book fit together that just feels wrong, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to slog past the first few chapters. How can you avoid making the same mistake? Read, read, read. Sentence and paragraph structure need to be absorbed. You can take a class on how to write a good story, but no class is really going to teach you how to put together a good sentence. Once again you’re going to have to do the hard work.
Notice too that Malmsteen didn’t focus on a single musical genre when he was learning his craft. Instead he allowed himself to be influenced by classical sources in addition to his rock and roll heroes. We need variety just as much as Malmsteen. It’s natural enough to find ourselves gravitating toward a single type of fiction, but if we want to become strong as writers, we’ll have to leave our comfort zone and expose ourselves to as many kinds of stories as we can.
And simply reading isn’t enough. When we’re done we should ask ourselves, “What did this story do right?” and perhaps more importantly “What did it do wrong?” It has been said, “A smart man learns from his own mistakes; a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
Malmsteen’s final lesson for writers can be found here:
Critics charged him with showing little artistic progression. He was also reviled as an egotist whose emphasis on blazing technique ultimately made for boring, mechanical, masturbatory music with no room for subtlety or emotion. Malmsteen responded by insisting that since he was already playing music he loved, he had no desire to develop any further, and that his love did come through in his playing.
We’ve all heard the cliché “Write what you know,” a hundred times. But if we aspire to greatness writing what we know isn’t enough. We have to write what we love. Because the road ahead isn’t easy. There will be setbacks. There will be critics. There will be days when we look in the mirror ask ourselves, “Who do I think I’m fooling? I’ll never get where I want to be.” Writing what we know won’t get us through those days. Writing what we know won’t get us through the skepticism of our friends and family. But writing what we love…that can carry us through. Because if we write what we love, if we write because somewhere deep inside we just can’t stop writing, all the doubt and all the critics in the world won’t be able to slow us down.