Draft Like It's Going in the Vault: Taking a Lesson from Prince

It’s bittersweet to say the least, but I’ve probably quintupled my knowledge of Prince’s lesser-known music and his biography over the last two weeks, learning at the feet of some of the fans he touched most. So much of it is fascinating; I feel as lucky to be learning it now as I am sorry for the reason why. One of the things that struck me most came this weekend, when Prince’s vault was drilled open. Reportedly, it contains enough fully produced but unreleased music for his estate to release a new album every year for the next century. The idea of literally locking away such a huge percentage of creative output is stunning to me, at once incomprehensible, and inspiring. It’s hard not to jump straight to the conclusion that it shows a purity of creative spirit, despite the fact that of course I don’t know anything about Prince’s motivations and his big-picture plans for that music. But even if the vault isn’t, as I’d dearly love to read it (and might just anyway), a sign that Prince was always making music purely for music’s sake, at a much more practical level it’s a hugely inspiring icon of creative productivity. You don’t get 100 years’ worth of unreleased albums by procrastinating; in fact, I’m guessing you only get them by working on your craft every day. It doesn’t take much hypothetical time off before the math just stops adding up.

I’ve mentioned before that “write every day, no matter what” is a—maybe the—staple of process advice, especially for drafting. It’s also something that I think nearly every writer knows is easier said that done. For me, examples like Prince’s are what get me in the chair to start writing. I’ll never be that prolific, that dedicated—but I can think about that vault and let it blow my mind, even just quantitatively; I can say to myself, Jesus, if Prince could write and record an album overnight, I can draft 1000 words this afternoon.

In the years since my MFA program, as I’ve worked through trial and error towards a productive self-discipline, I’ve found these metrics of motivation incredibly effective—those that come from comparing your own process to that of someone prolific, a sort of combination of can-do uplift and tough love. Another songwriter, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, has a similar reputation for extreme productivity and explains it in basic terms that never fail to light a fire under me: “I'm a writer, so it shouldn't be surprising that I write,” he says. “It's not that I'm that productive, it's that other people are lazy.” In the same interview, he actually comments on Prince’s famed output as well: “He just is not afraid of working, of staying at work […] Prince is very productive just by comparison to people who I think are thinking too hard about the business end.” No matter your philosophy on revision, polishing, or packaging, when it comes to drafting, a writer writes, so get going.

There is no shortage of great writers to look to as examples of this philosophy in action, of course, because it’s the way to become a great writer. Lin-Manuel Miranda says of his work, “I'm not a fucking genius. I work my ass off. Hamilton could have written what I wrote in about three weeks. That's genius”; this quote is often paired with one from Alexander Hamilton himself: “Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.” My former teacher Jennine Capó Crucet kept a spreadsheet log of her daily wordcount in reverse chronological order, so she wouldn’t have the lulling experience of scrolling through past accomplishments before she got started each day. And there's Ira Glass’s viral advice on beginning as a novice storyteller without being stymied by your own good taste: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. [...] You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

It’s easy to love advice that promises success through persistence, because anyone can be persistent. There’s no gatekeeper on working, on trying hard; no internal limit based on experience or talent, no externally imposed ceiling you can hit. Part of writing, especially part of drafting, is letting go of expectation—fears, hopes, imagined readers and critics—and just writing the story.

I saw a memorial screening of Purple Rain in a movie theater last week—complete thoughts on that experience would be another post entirely—but I’m thinking here of a conversation The Kid has with Apollonia early on, about “making it” after playing the First Avenue nightclub. “Is that what turns you on?” Prince’s character asks, disappointed. “‘Making it’?” It’s undoubtedly a bad idea to read too far into the movie's screenplay. But that exchange has stuck with me, and I think there’s good advice embedded in that particular eyelash-flutter. Despite—actually, maybe because of—his ego and fame, it’s inspiring to think of Prince writing so much more music than we’ve heard; writing it for, as far as we know, himself. Writing it to write it. The lesson I’m taking as inspiration is: draft like it’s going in the vault.