February 20

The Localist: Developing Vision as a Writer

One way to get at the concept of vision is to think about how you would describe your music to someone if they asked you what kind of music you play. I know the question is a cliché. But suppose that the person asking you isn’t a co-worker asking the question to just be polite. Suppose the person asking the question is a music critic, trying to understand what project you have set out for them that makes you uniquely deserving of attention. To your co-worker, you might tell them that you “do guitar singer-songwriter stuff” because your co-worker really just wants a general idea of what your music sounds like. But you wouldn’t tell the music critic that. Or at least you shouldn’t tell them that.

Part of the reason is that there are literally hundreds or even thousands of people even that week who are telling that music critic that they are guitar singer-songwriters. And based on that description alone, you haven’t given them a particular reason why they should be listening to *you* as opposed to listening to any of the other hundred or thousands of people who have said the same thing. What you need to give them is a clear and true statement of what substantive and unique contribution you make to the catalog of music.

Clarity is hopefully obvious. It doesn’t help to tell them that you “write from the milk of human nostalgia”. What does that even mean? Do you just mean that you write nostalgic music? You need to communicate something that makes sense to them so that they can even understand what contribution you’re making.

The statement should be true, of course. You should avoid pretense. Going back to that “milk of human nostalgia” comment. Do you in fact write from the milk of human nostalgia? Maybe you write a few nostalgic tunes. But would you say you write “from the milk of human nostalgia”? If that sounds too bombastic a description, perhaps the description isn’t true.

The statement should make evident that you are making a unique contribution to the catalog. Again, the critic has hundreds if not thousands of other self described guitar singer songwriters that are clamoring for attention. You are asking for the special privilege of being one of the ones they listen to, and possibly even write about that week.

And of course you should make clear how your contribution is substantive. There are of course millions of ways to be unique. Maybe you’re the only band that does ironic appropriations of OKCupid profiles. Maybe you’re the only band that does babymetal showtunes. But these aren’t necessarily substantive contributions in that the description doesn’t in and of itself suggest anything intrinsically compelling, whether to you or anyone else. What is it about your music that compels them to listen to it?

This is a good exercise, because if you’re able to develop a clear and true statement of what substantive and unique contribution you make to the catalog of music, you are also providing yourself with a normative description that serves as guidance for how it is that you can make music. And having this kind of guidance just is what it is to have vision. After all, to have a vision is to have nothing more than a well-formed idea of something unique and important that you want to achieve. This is why the term “vision” is oftentimes used as a synonym for the concept “purpose”.

How do you develop vision as a writer? I would suggest thinking about what makes you passionate about writing music, and then try to come up with a clear and true statement of what that is, why it is important and why it is unique. You may fail, but failures are instructive. Maybe you have difficulty putting it into words. Maybe your statement is a pretense for something more basic. If so, you should probably spend some time getting to know yourself better. Mabye you can come up with a clear and true statement, but you realize that it’s not particularly unique or compelling. If so, then maybe it makes sense to get out and explore and find a genre that’s less densely populated that excites you. This isn’t an easy task necessarily. And even if you have what you think is a vision, the task of holding onto it is always a work in progress.


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”