In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

The word amateursometimes gets a bad rap. 

Besides describing one who follows a pursuit without being paid, amateur also means “inept” or “incompetent.” But there are a lot of amateur athletes, musicians, and performers who perform at the highest levels without being paid.  These amateurs exhibit the root meaning of the word. They do what they do “for the love”of doing it. 

Every songwriter starts out writing because they love it. Sure, we dream of being paid for our music, but in the beginning we write for the sheer joy of it. Of course, being the emotionally needy creative type, we crave affirmation for our efforts. We really want people to like our songs. We want people to understand us. And the clearest metric for that sort of affirmation is money. If our song sells then somebody out there must like it.

So, we pursue publishing contracts, artist recordings, and print publication. We pitch songs to anybody who will listen. Some of us chase this dream for years, spending significant time and treasure, with limited or even no financial return. And that can be disheartening. Over time, it can be emotionally crushing.

I recently exchanged emails with a person, who was near the end of his songwriting rope. He had written Gospel songs for years with no success. He had attended songwriting workshops, pitched songs to publishers and artists, and been dismissed at every turn. I got the sense he believed the whole Christian music business was a private club with a secret handshake, controlled by a few insiders, where newcomers weren’t welcome.

I had no easy answer for him. I never heard any of his songs, so I have no clue as to his ability. Besides, talent is only one of several factors that lead to success in the music business. And the music business, with all its weirdness, cannot be explained simply. So, I asked him, “Do you still love to write?”

Here’s the thing: If we still love to write, then, regardless of compensation, I believe it is a worthwhile activity. Whether it’s a song, a short story, or a three-act play, so long as we love doing it, writing is good for the soul. We can revel in the thrill of composing a melody that no person on earth has ever sung. We can create a couplet never before expressed, not even by Shakespeare himself. We can set our innermost fears to music, and, for a moment at least, unburden ourselves. Just sing them and set them free. To put it bluntly, writing is cheap therapy.

Do you still love to write?

Our email exchange came to an end without an answer. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. If he’s like a lot of us on any given day, he may not know for sure. I do know this: Every writer experiences rejection far more often than they experience acceptance. And in the dogged pursuit of professional affirmation of our work, it’s easy to lose touch with our earliest motivation: To write for the love of writing. 

Do you still love to write?

No matter where our writing takes us, in that regard may we all remain true amateurs.

Showing 16 comments
  • Wes Hannibal

    This amateur says “YES” I still love to write……….it’s the re-writing I’m not so crazy about.

  • David S. Gaines

    I still love to create! It’s part of our God-given nature. Whether it’s writing, composing, arranging, playing the piano, programming in my DAW, I love it all. (see, I just created rhyme) ?

    Some of it generates money, some of it doesn’t. God knows I have lots of ‘creations’ that will never see the light of day!

  • Ed Rush

    Hello Robert. Yes, I still love to write. However, one discouraging thing is this: when I was still on staff at my church, and directing the local community choir, I was able to use them (they seemed to be OK with being used) as my lab choir. So, at least my pieces got one reading. Now that I am retired, I no longer have those lab choirs. Our Minister of Music, a good friend, is not up to using my unpublished songs, even just for a read through, and though I understand this, it surely would be nice to still have that opportunity just to hear my song one time. Meantime, I still send them to the publishers, and once in a while they take one, so I keep writing because I still love it, and just maybe another one will be picked up.See you at the symposium in June.

  • Richard Harrison

    Yes, I do write songs for the joy of it. I have sung these songs in church and arranged a few for choirs. I have never pursued publishing although many have encouraged me to do so. What publishers are interested in new/unpublished Christian/Gospel songs?

    • Robert Sterling

      I don’t have easy answers for that question. No two publishers handle unsolicited material the same way. Some return it without ever having opened it. Others review it once a year or so. The best general advice I can offer is to find those publishers or record companies that produce music similar to your own and contact them about their practices in these matters. Also, there are songwriter workshops at which you can meet publishers and/or record execs. And organizations like NSAI have chapters all around the country. They can be helpful.

  • Russ Murfin

    In Gods ears, ALL VOICES lifting up JESUS are a treasure to HIM….?
    What is the MESSAGE in the song and does it lead you to Worship and come to a closer walk with Our Lord and Savior, Jesse Christ.
    God is not a respecter of persons in any way shape or form.

    • Robert Sterling

      All true, Russ. We who write for a living are working within than-made boundaries, designed to efficiently market music as a product. But hopefully we can retain the joy of writing even in the face of an ever-changing music business. And if we are truly fortunate, our songs will find their mark in the hearts of listeners.

  • David McKeith

    I have been writing off and on for several years. I haven’t lost the desire or enjoyment yet. I have a friend who loves to arrange with me. We love close 4part harmony, especially gospel music. We have a group we expose our arrangements to occasionally or we sing and play together. Our work together has developed its own reward.
    However, there is some timidness in sending the projects to publishers. I suppose rejection or loss of ownership is to blame.
    Yes, I still love to write.

    • Robert Sterling

      First – you are writing from a great place – with a friend whom you trust and for the joy of writing. Don’t fear rejection. It is part and parcel of being a writer. You can’t get accepted without risking rejection. But do some homework to see what publishers might be the best fit for the music you write.

  • Vince

    After 40 years in the music business, I can only say, “Amen.” Yes, it can be frustrating and even maddening at times, but if you’re called to write and sing, then write and sing. No one owes any of us a living in the creative arts. We make money when we deliver value that people for which people are willing to pay. That may or may not be the same thing as ministry. Robert’s insights are brilliant, compassionate, and practical!

    • Robert Sterling

      Thanks for the kind words, Vince. And the confirmation that comes from having been there.

  • Mark Hayes

    Robert, I’ve had similar exchanges as you have with the songwriter at the end of his rope. You are correct. There are no easy answers, especially in the music industry these days.

    Your wisdom shines through, however. “Do you still love to write?” That is the question to keep asking. It was a great reminder for me when I start internally whining about all my writing deadlines. Yes, I still love writing. I’m beyond grateful that I’ve made a living composing and arranging music that makes a difference. I count it a privilege that we were there to encourage each other when we first started years almost 50 years ago.

    • Robert Sterling

      I can say the same about our beginnings. Thanks for posting. A lot of the people that read this blog will be impressed to learn that I know Mark Hays!

  • Jenifer Cook

    Thanks for the “keep on keeping on” challenge! I do LOVE writing music….just wish I had more time to do so! 🙂 I do get burned out at times but your reminder “to write for the love of writing” is a great mindset to maintain. Thanks!

  • Patricia Mock

    Robert, what a good question and great reminder. I find such pleasure in the moments I spend writing that no rejection could ever take away … my perspective has been a process over time. Thank you for better equipping me for the journey!

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