Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
by Alexander Slagg
Taking Writing Tips from Kanye West
I recently read the June 11 New York Times article, “Behind Kanye’s Mask,” about Kanye West. Mr. West, as he’s referred to in the article, is set to release his sixth album, Yeezus. The writer tries to frame the sound of the new album as a departure of sorts for him. But I think this recording is right in line with his growth as an artist, taking his artistic vision to its natural conclusion. What’s interesting is that Kanye’s comments about his music will likely resonate with writers and how they approach their craft.
I like Kanye West. I’m a fan of his music for a few reasons. First, I like hip hop. I think it’s a vibrant and complex art form. Mr. West is at the forefront of what’s going on in hip hop today, so I want to know what he’s up to. I’m also drawn to his music in particular because he creates interesting soundscapes and he has intriguing (even thought-provoking) things to say that (usually) go beyond the typical stereotypes of hip hop—bling, hanging in the club, gangster posing. And I like Mr. West because of his self-awareness as an artist. He’s a great source for colorful quotes, as this article highlights, but he often provides some interesting commentary on his own art, which, as a fellow artist, I appreciate.
From a writer’s perspective, I was drawn to Mr. West’s comments about how he’s approaching his art these days. He’s going in a decidedly minimalist direction, even going so far as to enlist the guidance of Rick Rubin, a music producer who’s made a career out of stripping down the music of the artists he’s worked with: Run DMC, LL Cool J, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, etc.
This is interesting because Kanye has made his career out of an orchestrated, throw-everything-in, baroque approach to his art, whether producing other artists or as an MC himself. Why this change in direction? He explains he’s continuing to grow as an artist and seeking out inspiration to find new, more refined ways to express himself. He not interested in wearing the label of “hip hop artist.” He simply wants to be an “artist.”
In a humorous moment, Kanye claims that at some point a lamp designed by the famed French architect and intellectual Le Corbusier served as his artistic inspiration for this album. A little silly, right? But why not? That’s Mr. West’s artistic sweetspot—artistic pretense as a shield to protect him from charges that he actually takes his artistic role seriously, a contradiction that suits him well.
What Kanye touches on throughout this article is the growth and development of an artist. It’s the same growth we all experience and struggle with as writers. The act of committing to sitting down and writing every day is how you improve and grow as an artist: strengthening elements and techniques that you’re drawn to, seeking out new inspiration to further expand your toolset, staying enthused about your artistic mission.
Going from this very layered, over-the-top approach to his sound to a more modernist, parred-back approach, Kanye West is exemplifying the artist’s path. And I think refinement is the key idea here. Honing your techniques, sanding off the excess. It shouldn’t be surprising that this is one of the main focal areas for editors when they edit. They may ask for more material here or there, but a big part of the job is paring back the writing to its essentials.
Whether your style is long and meandering, like William Faulkner or John Ashbery, or short and concise, like Haiku master Issa or Raymond Chandler, leave only the necessary elements of the sentence, trim the waste. This is always the direction to be headed in, chipping away at your style as a sculptor does a block of marble, revealing the essence, the beauty of your creativity. You will finish projects along the way, but there is never an end to the process. Never a destination, only the journey.
Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at aslagg@literarywritersnetwork.