Life Lessons from Keith Richards: Writers Take Note

Keith Richards

Ever since I spent a joyous summer reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life (2010), I have wanted to write about the way he views creativity.

Anything penned by a man (teamed with writer James Fox) who spends his money on a fabulous library, and actually reads books and expressed a secret desire to be a librarian has to be worth reading. Life doesn’t disappoint.

Okay, so there is a certain glee in trawling through the salacious bits, but I am not here to wax lyrical about the Rolling Stone’s musing on Jagger’s todger, Altamont, Marianne Faithfull or his long intimacy with hard drugs. Read his book for that.

What I, as a writer, found fascinating was the way Keith describes the creative process, and how he makes music and writes songs. Alas, like Stephen Fry, who reveals his great frustration about his inability to sing in his autobiographies, I also have no musical ability whatsoever.

Not everyone can be a rock star. But Keith’s sheer delight in making music, and his obsessive quest to do so – making sure he never did so many drugs that it would harm his talent or output (that’s discipline and respect for one’s talent) – is something that can be applied to creative writing.

So often I hear in academia the following moan – writing is so hard, it is so laborious, and anyway I don’t have time to write, where do you find the time to write? Let alone read – who has time to read anymore? I have administration to do, marking to do, and so much teaching, then there are the papers for academic journals…and so on.

In response, here are some inspirational highlights from Keith Richard’s weighty tome Life, applied to the writing life (hence, the sub headings are my own):

Keith on: creative passion

“I was basically a musical sponge. And I was just fascinated by watching people play music. If they were in the street I’d gravitate towards it, a piano player in the pub, whatever it was. My ears were picking it up note for note. Didn’t matter if it was out of tune, there were notes happening, there were rhythms and harmonies, and they would start zooming in my ears. It was very like a drug. In fact a bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn’t kick music.” (p. 57)

I know many writers who feel the same. For us, writing is a drug and we can’t kick it. Reading is the same. I have so many books on the go – I keep them in different places all over the house, and my bag has to be big enough for a book. There is always the fear of being caught short without anything to read. Writing is the same, my friends see me take out a small notebook and jot down ideas. It’s something of a joke. “Oh – here comes the notebook!” I am a writer and no one is safe. “That’s very interesting, I’ll just write that down,” and  I grab a quote, a funny story, a word. Writers are magpies, swooping in on the brightly colored bits of life that float around.

Keith on: putting in the hours

“Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how those blues were made. You collapsed on the floor with a guitar in your hands. That was it. You never stop learning an instrument, but at that time it was still very much searching about.” (p.103)

I immediately recall Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He reveals that in order to master anything, you need to put in the time, and you must keep putting in the time.  A friend of mine is a violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was telling me about playing a new work; “well you know how it is when you put the violin under your chin and raise your arms and the fingers just start, the muscle memory kicks in, because you have done this for so many hours, over years and years”. Ah – no. But I do know about training your eye to observe and draw, and about training the ear to listen to the way people speak and then spending years using those rhythms and dialogue in fiction. Learning academic language is similar – it’s endless observation, building that vocabulary. As Keith says “searching about, finding out how it is made.”

Keith on: “write what you know”

“There’s nothing bad about monotony; everyone’s got to live with it.” (105)

Well, I chose this phrase because I like it. But Keith wasn’t referring to suburban life, actually. He was talking about a Jimmy Reed song title – Take Out Some Insurance. Finding titles anywhere, inspiration everywhere, even in the mundane. A writer can make anything interesting – it’s just what you do with the material. You’ve heard it before, write what you know. But I am writing from the perspective of a human-animal in my novel Almost Human….so, I take something I know, and spin it into the unknown.

As an Australian of Greek and German parentage, I know what it is like to be surrounded by people – family – and not know how to speak the same language. I never had a meaningful conversation with my grandmother as we couldn’t communicate. I take that experience of being a hybrid and an outsider with me into my writing. Write what you know doesn’t mean only writing what you know. Stretch it, play around with it. Find the emotion in the experience. As Keith says, who’d think of Take Out Some Insurance as a song title?

Keith on: overcoming writer’s block

“Once you’ve got that idea, the rest of it will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you go and water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me. The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had busted up with a girlfriend. If you can find the trigger that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where that comes from, God knows.” (143)

As Pablo Picasso observed, “when inspiration comes, I want it to find me working.” You don’t hang around waiting for the muse, you just start, and it flows from there. Even if you hate what you start with, you can at least have something to play with. The worst thing is the critical brain and the blank screen. The critical brain edits – let the unconscious brain create. Just do it.

Keith on: making the time

“Songwriting had to be fitted in. After a show was sometimes the only time.” (143) 

Even rockers have to find time. It’s not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. You have to have some discipline. Take note. “After a show” is the rocker’s “after work.” So find the time. Do the writing after work.

Keith on: inspiration

“The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been fucked over, you can find consolation in writing about it, and pour it out. Everything has something to do with something: nothing is divorced.” (187)

As Nora Ephron says, everything is copy. You have to feel if you are going to write from the heart. Every emotion can be used, every experience. Embrace life, open yourself up to people, to pain and to love. You can do this from the corner of your world, but not in the isolation of your garret.

Keith on: fluency

“And because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this cord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.” (183)

Musicians play, writers write. Just get in the habit of doing it every day. It’s like any exercise, if you skip a day, everything hurts when you start again.

Keith on: experimentation

“When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it’s not a matter of sheer force; it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around.” (236)

Where is the joy in doing the same thing over and over when it comes to your writing? Experiment with voice, with style. Have fun. The great liberation about a lot of writing is that it makes very little money. Support yourself doing something else and take risks in your art.

Keith on: Writing from the heart

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of the bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab in the heart. Sometimes I think that song writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”(277-279)

This is beautiful. I think that for anyone doing a PhD in creative writing, as I am, it is easy to get caught up in dry, academic writing.  Where is the passion, the lilt, the zing, the spark, the thread that runs through all of us? The best bit of advice I was given when writing my MA exegesis was by one of my teachers, the writer Antoni Jach. He said “you are a writer, make the exegesis sing, make it beautiful.” I know I have to keep this in mind with the PhD exegesis. And in my novel, I must remember the heart.

It goes back to everything that Keith has said, really – you have to have a love of the work you are doing, a passion, and go back to the well so often you dream about the music or the words, and you are in the flow, the moment, and everything makes a connection.

Keith on: why bother? (from the Keith Richards Life website)

“People say who don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

That’s it really, isn’t it? Don’t ask for permission, don’t ask for money, don’t plead lack of time. Whatever your creative passion, do it for yourself.