Make the Music You Make


I’m addressing the kids today, and if you’re not one, but know someone who is, won’t you please pass this along? (If you find it worthy, I mean.) I’m hoping to help your young peers understand what to expect as they walk the writer’s road.

I was a pack rat of words long before computers came along. I filled journal after journal with tiny, tense, Bic-penned attempts to master the mere act of putting words on the page. What I wrote was so stupid! So self-absorbed and questiony. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I have to do to get laid? I hated almost everything I wrote almost as soon as I wrote it. I didn’t know the first thing about story, and that’s what galled me most of all. My writing went nowhere, and I knew it. But I didn’t stop for the same reason you don’t stop; for the same reason junkies don’t stop. We’ve chosen our art, or it’s chosen us, and now we have to deal.

So I kept filling the pages of the horrible journals (filling, primarily, unlined black hardbound books that, because I am a pack rat of words, rest in the eaves of my very garage even as we speak). I discovered my first rule of writing: Write what you can write, or, more broadly, make the art you can make. And don’t lament the art that lies presently beyond your grasp. Presently that will change.

I had to write the horrible journals to write myself out of the horrible journals.

I had to start somewhere.

Kids, you have to start somewhere. What can you do right now that will make you feel artistically fulfilled? Do that. If it is within your capacity to make a creative choice, and within your desire to do so, then do so. Make whatever choice you can make; you will feel so good when you do, simply for having made the attempt. And don’t worry about the results. The thing you want to think about is serving your apprenticeship. No one expects an apprentice to be that skilled; it’s an apprentice’s job to acquire skill. As an apprentice, you can fail all over the place and nobody cares. As an apprentice, failure is part of your brief.

Write what you can write. Make the music you make; everything else flows from that.

Write what you can write. Make the music you make; everything else flows from that.

The whole story of my career is a story of writing what I could write. I wrote ads when I wrote ads because copywriting was the best of my ability. I graduated to songs, and for a long time that’s all I could manage: a song’s worth of words. I tackled sitcom next, then hour dramas, screenplays, non-fiction, and novels, in an escalating set of challenges. At each stage I did my best to work at, and extend, the limit of my skill. At a certain point I was a novice no more. I became a journeyman, a professional writer. I could walk into a place and say, “Yeah, I can do that job.” It’s amazing what builds up, just over time, and that’s both your skill set and your body of work.

So let’s imagine that there’s something in your art that’s larger than a throwaway exercise yet smaller than a magnum opus. What I’m thinking of is something you’d feel comfortable devoting a morning or afternoon to, and expect to achieve some tangible result (about a morning or afternoon’s worth). It will help if you don’t  heap all sorts of life-changing expectations on yourself.  I don’t paint, but I’d feel good about myself as a painter of landscapes, say, if I knew I could set up my easel at some vista and capture on canvas a reasonable facsimile of what I saw. It wouldn’t have to be great art to satisfy me, just the application of tools to craft. I would feel good about that.

What can you do in an afternoon? Write a song or a sonnet or a killer haiku?

How about a skin or two?

In my vocabulary, a skin is a document of no more than two or three pages that tells a story as fully and completely as can be told in only two or three pages. The beauty of the skin is how it lets you cheat the specifics. When you know you only have two pages to work with, you don’t get bogged down in detail. You write what you can write: an idea for a story developed to a certain constrained length. A skin builds strong writers two ways: It’s a platform for further story development, and it grows your ability to tell stories. As a creative exercise it’s a good afternoon’s work, and after you’ve done it, you’ll feel a little more like you know what you’re doing out here.

If you’re not into skins, do something else, anything else. It really doesn’t matter what. Your every creative act builds both your skill set and your body of work. The one thing to avoid is not writing badly, but rather not writing at all. That’s the difference between artists and flakes, folks; artists bother to do it. They don’t worry about outcomes, they just produce, and in producing, they serve their apprenticeship well.

If you find this idea of apprenticeship wearying, I can make it sound more worrying still: In a sense your apprenticeship never ends. You’ll probably go to your grave trying to write something that lies just beyond your skill set. I know I will. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Evidently you wouldn’t either, or you wouldn’t be reading these words.

Hey, you more experienced writers: What do you tell your protégés to advance their understanding of what it means to live the writer’s life?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    I love your approach, John. It’s liberating and challenging at the same time. You’re saying, put in your ‘thousand strokes a day’ as it is essential and will produce increasingly polished results. Just DO IT! I wish I had had your wise counsel earlier.

  2. says

    I love the idea of writing ‘skins’. I do something similar.

    I search for writing prompts and then limit myself to approx 500 words.

    From this I craft a story; all the way from the killer first line, through to the strong twist in the tale at the end – in under 1 hour.

    Its a great way to flex your creative writing muscles.

  3. says

    Thank you for your helpful post, John. We all have to start somewhere. I knew my first book wasn’t going to be my best book. As I wrote more, my writing became better. Isn’t that what most of us hope for? Wise advice.

  4. says

    This is a very inspiring post. You make so many wonderful points and give many great ideas, like the ‘skins’ one. Thank you, thank you, thank you for that.

    I find it peculiar for a writer, though, to imply that just because someone is young, they are obviously only apprentices, only proteges. I am part of a large Facebook group of writers that are all under eighteen, and a good ninety percent of the writers on there are already writing at a publishable level. This fact in turn gives a large amount of thanks to a blog called Go Teen Writers which exclusively aims at showing us teens the basics of storytelling. The serious ones of us go on from there to websites like these, like Writer Unboxed, once we ‘outgrow’ the advice given there. I found Writer Unboxed a year ago and have been learning more ever since, devouring craft books and doing Web search after Web search for craft articles.

    However, I applaud you for this post–it is the first of its kind I have seen here and you carried it out wonderfully. I do think that this post is not aimed at the young, but simply the beginners.

    • says


      Of course, youth doesn’t preclude talent, but what I get more strongly from John’s posting is that whatever talent we have is enriched, deepened through constant application. A veteran graphic artist (who was famous as a young woman) told me that her strokes only got better over the years.

      Another famous fellow (musician) counseled me in my early songwriting days that the worst thing that can happen to a young artist is success too early. [That didn’t turn out to be a problem I had to deal with. :-)]

      Do carry on an continually amaze yourself and your readers with greater work.

  5. says

    Thanks for this post. I love the idea of skins because, as
    you say, you have to cease heaping all sorts of life-changing
    expectations on yourself. Just write where you are. I think, no
    matter the level of mastery, we’re all perpetual apprentices. We
    never stop learning & growing creatively, lest we calcify.
    As the Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki says: In the beginner’s mind there
    are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

  6. says

    I’ve never heard of shorts as being called skins. I do this a lot … and my very first writing teacher told me I was a novelist hiding behind the short story.

    I am going to print this out for my kids! And it’s good stuff to remember for us grown-ups too, given that the apprenticeship never really ends. Thanks for a wonderful article.

  7. Tina Goodman says

    I like the idea of writing “skins” as a way to outline yet free-flow a novel.

  8. says

    Great post to inexperienced, younger, and basically all of us. Writing, a lot of writing, is the only way to write. Yup, sounds like a tautology but it’s true. Like living is the way to live. I am very drawn to the idea of having to write through the layers of writing that is not what we want to be writing. Natalie Goldberg has made similar comments. The very act of putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), and committing ourselves to doing it, has transformative power. Thanks for the reminder!

    • says

      And, of course, Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

      This gives me great permission to carry on.

  9. Hilary says

    Can I add a word of praise for the picture?
    I have a copy of it, cut from an old calendar, on my living-room wall, so it kind of jumped off the screen at me. I think it’s a great painting! And it is just right for your message.
    Now I’ll remember what you say when I look up at my living room wall – thank you!

  10. says

    I’m neither young nor inexperienced, but I’m most definitely still an apprentice. This post really spoke to me, so thank you, John. I love the title and theme. Such a simple directive.

    Start where you are, do what you do. This resonates with me at 41 with a lot of experience writing in many of the same genres you have because I’m just now getting back into writing again after years away.

    Let me tell you, it’s slow going. The fingers grind over the keyboard like a wheel rolling on a flat tire, but every time I sit to write, I’m putting more air in and soon enough I’ll be cruisin’ on some sweet fat rubber. As long as I use fix-a-flat. ;)

    Great post. Inspired me, so thank you.