The Secret Writing Tips I Learned from Kendrick Lamar

Before he was a Pulitzer winner, his music taught me things about writing short stories that I hadn’t learned anywhere else

The first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s song “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” was in 2012, on a Saturday spent sick inside my college dorm room. Thanks to a stranger who had decided to kiss me, I had mono. Lamar’s now-classic album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City had just been released and since I wasn’t doing anything but feeling sorry for myself, I decided to give it a listen.

When I got to that song — track 10 — my sick body perked up. The 12-minute, two-part epic’s first half is contemplative and smooth. Seven minutes long, it pulses with a tender, lingering guitar loop (a sample from jazz guitarist Grant Green’s 1971 recording “Maybe Tomorrow”) and spins dizzily with drums (a sped-up sample from Bill Withers’ 1972 song “Use Me”). Kendrick spits an intricate tale of loss, rapping in letter form from the perspective of two people whose siblings have died. It’s a somber, confrontational song about memory and legacy. Between each sullen verse, Kendrick sings the chorus in a static, almost alien voice:

When the lights shut off and it’s my turn
To settle down, my main concern
Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me.

The song gave me a random surge of energy. I suddenly felt ripe, charged with the same sense of longing Kendrick laid out so viscerally on the track. I got further into the song, nodding my head despite the painfully swollen glands along my neck. Kendrick delivered his verses circularly, hypnotically. They seemed to spin and spin around an elusive drain. For just a few minutes, I didn’t feel sick.

But then something happened. In the second verse, Kendrick took on a female persona, transforming into a prostitute who boasts about being invincible. The fury rises in his voice as he repeats: “I’ll never fade away.” The song spins, the pitch grows. Both lyrically and sonically, it was the best part of the song. Then all of a sudden, I heard the voice lose its speed. Second by second, it grew quieter until there was nothing but the beat left. Another verse soon started up. But it seemed the magic of the moment, of the song, was lost. Panicked, I checked my iPod. The volume was fine. I played the verse again, this time monitoring the volume. Again, at the zenith, the voice dipped into silence.

I played the verse again, this time monitoring the volume. Again, at the zenith, the voice dipped into silence.

I rewound the track and played it again. It wasn’t an iPod glitch. He really just ended the verse. The first verse had also been cut short, by sudden gunshots, but the deliberate fade in verse two felt like a mystery. I listened to the song over and over, my ears grasping for the trailed-off lyrics, seeking to decipher the words that were lost. Sitting on my futon, surrounded by tissues and throat nearly sealed shut, my eyes welled. I wondered how a moment of such joy could shrivel up so quickly.

Four blocks, one avenue over. That was the length of my walk “home” from the 145th Street subway station. I had moved to New York just two months prior, and the dingy, yet strangely affordable studio I’d managed to sublet for a few months before I found a “real” place to live felt more like a dorm than a home. The heat did not work, the fridge got cold only when it wanted to, and I had to wear shoes in the shower, which was down the hall. While displeased with my living situation, I refused to complain out loud. I knew that I would have to make adjustments to make it in this city.

I moved to New York from South Africa on November 2nd, 2017. I had spent the year so far working in Durban as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. My twin sister met me at JFK and we went to her place. The plan was to spend two weeks there and figure out my life. And I had a lot of figuring out to do. I had no job and no place to live. All I had was a finished manuscript, some savings, and one goal in mind: find an agent and publish my book. In fact, before I even boarded the plane for New York from South Africa, I’d already pitched my book — a short story collection — to dozens of agents. After working eight hours a day teaching high school English, my evenings would be spent maniacally typing stories and obsessively pouring over edits. My plan was to score an agent before I got to New York. But on the day I arrived at JFK, the one agent who seemed most interested in the book sent me an email: a gentle pass.

That first night at my sister’s place, my ears still clogged from the 17-hour flight, she and I went to dinner in Downtown Brooklyn. After spending 10 months in Durban — a notoriously chill seaside city — I met the chaos of New York with a blend of awe and exhaustion. It felt strange to be home, but not quite home. To move from one foreign place to another felt unstable, like setting up shop inside a house of cards. Despite feeling unmoored, at dinner I tried to sit comfortably in my chair, in my skin, in front of the plate of American foods I’d missed dearly, in front of all the unknowns that lie ahead.

All I had was a finished manuscript, some savings, and one goal in mind: find an agent and publish my book.

When I woke up the next morning, my sister was already at work. My body felt disoriented, on the other side of the ocean. Panic settled in. Doubt. Impatience. Maybe another agent had emailed me? I rolled over and checked my phone. Nothing. I took a shower, grabbed my laptop, and went out the door. I was going to find a café to sit in and apply for a few jobs. Just in case.

A couple days of aimless wandering and fruitless email-checking later, I anxiously swallowed my pride and emailed the agent who had rejected me: “Can I revise the manuscript and resend?” I told her I would revise all the stories, cut them down, and make them interlinked. She said yes. But I knew she wasn’t going to wait forever. I responded ecstatically and promised I’d get her a revised manuscript in three months.

Two months passed. In that time, I moved from Brooklyn to the temporary studio-dorm near the 145th Street station in Hamilton Heights. I spent both months hunched in front of my laptop, reading, wincing, cutting, typing. Sometimes I’d write at “home.” But when it got too cold inside, I figured I might as well be outside. So I’d drag myself out of the house and around the city, trying to get inspired. I was drained. My savings were running out, my sublet was ending, and I couldn’t get these stories to do what I wanted. Revising a short story is like being on an episode of Hoarders: you are surrounded by things that you like and would love to keep but should probably let go of for everyone’s sake. At least this is how I felt as I stared at my manuscript with the promise I’d made to the agent echoing in my head. I had nine stories to revise and make more concise. There were thousands of words to purge. Each day was spent painstakingly gritting my teeth and holding down the “delete” button. Time was running thin.

Revising a short story is like being on an episode of Hoarders.

By January, I had revised all the way up to the middle of the collection. But I was particularly stuck on one story: “Addy.” This story — about a pregnant teen who moves into a group home — was like a literary slinky winding down an eternal staircase of doubt. It had gone from short and sweet flash piece to epic meditation on teenage pregnancy in contemporary America, and now I was trying to whittle it down from its bloated 50-page form into something more digestible. In my quest to cut words, I read each line closely, alternating between extreme cringe (“I can’t believe I, a human woman, wrote this”) and irrational hubris (“Jane Austen who?”). Between each sentence lay an unbearable indictment on my worth as a writer and as a human being. “Addy” was a thorn at my side — the impossible hill I needed to climb before handing over a new manuscript to the foot-tapping agent. But I still couldn’t fix it. Despite days spent trying to gather the courage to cut out a scene or a paragraph, I just could not do it. I was holding on too strongly to something. I just didn’t know what.

January 5th, 2017. Walking “home” from 145th Street station, earbuds blasting, my legs were numb from spending the day trekking from café to café on the hunt for Wi-Fi and an outlet. My shoulder throbbed with the weight of the eight-pound MacBook in my bag. Mentally, I was drained, too. I had spent the day revising “Addy.”

As I pounded cement, each dull knock of the laptop on my hip reminded me of the story, of the way it just didn’t work. Of the way this whole “moving to New York and being a writer” thing just didn’t seem to work. I panicked. This wasn’t just about cutting sentences and adding metaphors — it was about getting the agent and the book deal that would allow me to live my dream of becoming a writer. Not just a writer: a full-time writer, with a book! I was only 23, but I convinced myself that I was running out of time.

That day my music was playing on shuffle. For some unknown reason I didn’t feel like listening to the sad rotation of five songs that I usually stick to. My phone is rarely updated, so it’s mostly music ranging from 2009 and 2013 — lots of T-Pain and Dubstep. I’m extremely impatient. If a song plays and I haven’t already choreographed a dance piece in my head by second eight, then I usually turn. But something about the war I’d had with “Addy” that day had me paying closer attention to songs I usually skipped.

I was only 23, but I convinced myself that I was running out of time.

On the corner of Broadway and 145th, that Kendrick Lamar song from 2012 came on. I had loved “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” since that first, feverish listen. Still, I tended to skip it, because it always made me cry. The even, teeming drums. The soft, wistful guitar. Kendrick’s dreary, passionate rhymes. They all stirred me, left me feeling overwhelmed. But in that moment in January, walking sullenly along Broadway, the song’s sentiment matched that of my life. I listened without pause. I found myself on that walk “home” feeling more open, more willing to take things in. Maybe by listening to songs I usually skipped, I was somehow redeeming the sentences I’d been forced to cut from my story? Maybe the wishing I’d had that someone would take their time with and value my art had made me want to take my time with someone else’s?

On 148th and Broadway, the song reached its zenith. And then the second verse, as it had once before, suddenly faded away. It should be noted that in “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst,” the fading away is ironic. The impersonated female voice is begging not to be forgotten. As “she” pleads: “I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away,” the verse goes on, intricately rambling, but the voice fades into silence. All that is left is the ticking beat. Echoes of desperation linger as the empty track becomes cavernous, suddenly gutted. My ears strained for more, eager to savor the remnants of the voice.

As the song dimly went on, I found myself blinking back tears and thinking yet again of “Addy.” I thought about the difficult chopping of words and how these sentence-level sacrifices added up to a general feeling of being stripped away. But when the song ended, I rounded the corner and reminded myself that I still loved it. Even though it didn’t go on as I had wished.

Then it hit me: Kendrick’s cutting the volume on a verse was not some ill-conceived decision. It was a bold artistic declaration: just because something is done well, does it mean it needs to be overdone. I initially wanted the verse to go on forever. But what if it did? Would I keep rewinding it just to get to the sweet spot? Or would I simply grow tired and switch the song?

It was a bold artistic declaration: just because something is done well, does it mean it needs to be overdone.

I realized that I could cut sentences, paragraphs, even whole pages out of the story and be okay. Kendrick’s leanness, his courage to cut the line short showed me that I could cut things from my writing. I could end each sentence at its highest point. I didn’t have to cling to every word. The words clogged the page, blocked all attempts at cohesion. Letting go was the only way. After all, isn’t it better to satisfy than to overwhelm? As I walked up the steps of my “home” a maze of possibilities came into view.

The following month, I took Kendrick’s unintentional advice. I found the high point in each sentence and cut them short. I ended lingering scenes sooner. I clipped dialogue, made it more true to life. Editing became a breeze. I was no longer afraid of removing the endless details and context I thought short stories needed. I no longer felt pressure to put every single thought onto the page. Each word would speak for itself. On February 1st, I re-submitted the book to the agent (bless her heart) and prayed that all my private work could become public.

A few months passed. I didn’t hear anything from the agent. My money thinned. I sucked it up and got a job. Two jobs. I sent the revised manuscript to (and was rejected by) more agents. I moved to Bushwick, then to Crown Heights, then to Flatbush. Still, in-between morning shifts at a cafe in Hell’s Kitchen and afternoons as an intern in Midtown, I would obsessively check my email, waiting for the magical “yes” that would change my life. I’d pinch my iPhone screen, scroll down and hold my breath as the spinning circle released, then stayed pitifully stagnant.

One day in June, I checked my email. It was there: the agent’s response. “I found much to admire,” she wrote. “Ultimately, however, there were aspects of the collection that overshadowed these positives.”

In the weeks after I let it sink in that I wasn’t going to be published — and that my book definitely wasn’t as good as I thought it was — my number one feeling was that I had wasted my time. Between the months spent writing in Durban, the late nights spent pitching, the back and forth with the agent, the agonizing edits, and the spiral crossing of my fingers, I clocked a year of my life devoted to one project that had seemingly gone down the drain. What had been the point?

I found myself contemplating the last two lines of “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst”:

Now am I worth it?

Did I put enough work in?

I had put a lot of work in, but it seemed I just wasn’t worth it. The whole project felt terribly futile. Yet again, I recalled the moment I didn’t want Kendrick’s second verse to end, the time I wanted so badly to know what the silenced voice went on to say. I thought about the act of listening and the act of rapping. The act of receiving art and the act of making it. And I struggled to reconcile my art with its nonexistent audience. The vocal trailing off in “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” ironically forfeits the glory attached to presenting art to an audience. This raises the question: what happens when art exists outside the realm of validation? What of an unread novel? What is art unattached to a contract or an auction? Most importantly, what should be made of every artist’s “stripped away vocals” — our stories that no one reads, our songs that go unheard, our paintings that no one buys? Does the lack of validation make them meaningless?

As weeks turned and the rejection settled in, hindsight let me admit that I had been nowhere near as good a writer as I thought I was — and at 23 I was in no way prepared to publish a book. Aside from the obvious lack of substance, it seemed my manuscript failed because it was so rooted in the desire for external validation. What began as an earnest literary pursuit in South Africa turned into a sloppily assembled plan to earn a living in New York. Instead of revising for art’s sake, I became crazed with the task of revising for the agent. I wanted to do whatever it took for my work to be seen. Little thought was given to the possibility that the recognition was not the most important part of writing.

I thought about the act of receiving art and the act of making it. And I struggled to reconcile my art with its nonexistent audience.

July came. Then August. By September I was back in my parents’ house in Milwaukee, unpacking bags yet again. Only this time I wasn’t unpacking South African souvenirs and undeclared foods; I was unpacking the experience I’d had in New York. The experience that started with grand plans to publish a book at 23, and had ended with an empty bank account, crushing rejection, and a series of failed job interviews. In Milwaukee, totally unrecognized, I found the courage to keep writing, even though I lacked an audience. And I loved it. There was no one reading, no obsessive email checking. Kendrick’s writing lessons remained useful. It was then that I realized that visibility, recognition is not essential to being a writer. The writing was the most important part of being a writer. The writing: mining through memory, through fragments of conversation, through sights, and emerging with semblances of beauty and reason. Each time we mine, we improve. We emerge with more precious material.

When I first heard Kendrick’s trailed off verse in 2012, I thought, “What a waste.” But in 2017, as I shelved a book of short stories, I realized that there is value in the things that go unheard, unseen, or unread. We writers often struggle to reconcile our need for feedback and our need for validation. The line between craving validation and desiring visibility is pitifully thin. This isn’t necessarily our fault. Too often our art is forcibly confined to ourselves; to empty rooms, solitary laptop screens and private notebooks. Then when we emerge from the literary abyss, stack of papers in hand, we naturally want to shove it right into someone’s chest. Writing is one of the only art forms that is more hidden than visible. Paintings are on walls; passing strangers see them. Music is played. Ears can’t help but hear. But writers have to work to be seen. We want our work to be seen. We want to be seen. We want our solitary efforts to be recognized. But at what point does that very valid need to not be solitarily scribbling turn into a constant or, dare I say, compulsive desire for our art to public?

Music is played. Ears can’t help but hear. But writers have to work to be seen.

To this day, I toe the line. But thanks to Kendrick, I now tend to err on the side of restraint — I no longer write epic short stories, and I no longer send world-renowned agents poorly assembled manuscripts. But I do find solace in believing that the writings unseen are not valueless. My book still hasn’t been published; I haven’t been able to send a sarcastically-signed copy to all the agents who scorned me. But I do find redemption in my new belief that my failed book had not been a waste of time. Instead, I’ve come to believe that every shelved project is not done in vain. I believe our greatest efforts can remain exactly that, ours. Our greatest stories and novels can remain inside our hard drives — either by choice or not-so-much by choice — and can still be contributing to a conversation, whether internal or external. I think these projects are sitting there, yes. And I do believe they are festering, folding in on themselves. But I also believe that they are deeply planted seeds.

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