by Jenny Hansen
Over the last few years, I've shared "Top 10" lists from several amazing people on the topics of writing and success but I haven't branched out into musicians. In my humble opinion, there's no one better to talk about creative success than Prince. (Yes, that Prince. aka Prince Rogers Nelson.)
This massively talented genius, who died in 2016 at age 57, left behind millions of devastated fans. He also left behind a locked vault reputed to hold 1,000+ unpublished or unfinished works. The contents of the vault are unknown as no one can get into it.
Prince wrote scores of hits under his own name, and others you might not have known were his songs, like:
Rather than examine boring things like his estate plan (which was so non-existent, they're still duking things out in court almost five years later), I'd like to focus on Prince's own inspiring words about how he built his phenomenal success.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Prince on what success looks like for creatives:
Prince believed music should be inspirational. To him this meant: "Music that falls from the heart..[by] people who really feel what they're doing." He thought our creative gifts should be guided by something something beyond ourselves.
This brings to mind writing teachers like Julia Cameron or Elizabeth Gilbert who encourage writers to "show up and let the words move through you."
To me, this sort of trust is an act of faith. To show up to the page and bang out our words, good or bad, trusting that the words will come if we just show up to receive them. I said in my last post that this simple decision can move mountains (and get books finished) if you do it often enough.
He said in an interview: "I don't know how any of us grow if we just tread water."
Challenge yourself. Grow. Don't do the same thing you always did. Surprise yourself. Showing up is always the first step. If you're showing up and challenging yourself to try new things, I am proud of you.
"I don't look at myself through other people's eyes," said Prince. He believed "if you're a true artist, you're using a gift you were given from God..to criticize your gift is to criticize God."
Whether you share that belief in the divine or not, I hope you can be kind to yourself and your beautiful gift. You have the power to lift up others through story, which is nothing to sneeze at.
And yet...most writers speak to themselves in a way they would never speak to a friend or fellow writer. Why do we do that?
Part of why we started WITS was so we could keep learning from all the smart writers, editors and teachers who post here. We are enlightened every month by the contributors here are Writers in the Storm.
Prince loved to watch band leaders like Bruce Springsteen and James Brown. Like them, he would switch things up once he got on the stage. He was known to have a 300 song playlist whereas other musicians I've spoken to might have thirty. Talk about a very fluid performer!
His life and career was focused around faith. Larry King asked him what he did when bad things happen. He answered, "I learn from it, and I don't wallow in it.. I let myself move on."
Prince's original label (Warner Bros) had the rights to his music tied up for years in what was widely considered to be an unfair contract. He says he was able to let go of the anger, see their side of things and move on. He wrote a letter filled with love to them, while they still owned the rights.
Personally, I think what he did next was genius - he completely rebranded himself until the contract expired, and the rights reverted to him. The symbol was all about, these songs are mine and I own them.
Like every great romance writer I've ever met, Prince believed his work should uplift. He believed in happily ever after. "There's enough things to bring you down, we don't need to jack our music up that way too. There's still a way to get anger and even hate across in [your work] but you still have to resolve [these emotions]."
Since he died, stories of how much good Prince did in the world have come out. He was a secret philanthropist. Whether if the secrecy was because he was a Jehovah's Witness, or because he was very private, but he gave millions to charities, particularly those that benefitted children.
Prince didn't want to be like everyone else. For example, he stopped cursing in his songs once everyone else started. "Sexiness was in the mind, it was in your imagination. When you lose that, then it's just old skin."
Stevie Wonder was a major role model for him. He is why Prince learned to play all the instruments. He looked up to Stevie for "the way he crafted music and his connection to the spirit."
Basically, Stevie Wonder inspired Prince to dig deep and learn his craft. Once he did that, opportunities began to come to him, rather than him having to chase them down. While some of that was luck, a lot of it was just him expanding the boundaries of his talent and abilities.
Prince felt that "the record industry tends to promote things that are more salacious and hit-driven..It's a reality show." Many authors feel this way about the publishing industry, that the publishing professionals aren't taking chances on anyone new or anything different.
My opinion: we will never feel like we've "arrived" as authors if we don't push ourselves to write the stories that only we can write.
Sure, sometimes we'll write things purely for the money, but as Neil Gaiman recommended, "Don’t chase money. Just do your ideas when they come. If you do work that you’re proud of, even if you don’t get the money, you still have the work." There's a lot of satisfaction in doing work that you're proud of.
One of my blogging friends, Natalie Hartford, had the best motto: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." I love that! Dr. Seuss said it a different way: "There is no one alive who is Youer than You."
Being himself certainly worked for Prince. Rolling Stone ranked him #27 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. At every stage of his career, there was no one else like him. And we liked it like that.
Did you see as many parallels as I did between the music and publishing industries? Which of his Top 10 tips was your favorite? What Top 10 tip of your own do wish you'd learned earlier? Please share it down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.
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So miss him and his music. Didn't know he wrote those other songs - my thing to learn for today. Thanks, Jenny!
I miss him too! I've always been bummed out that I didn't get in on his month of performances in LA before he died. They were so special. And I had no idea he wrote Manic Monday - that song is brilliant.
Great message, Jenny. Thought-provoking. Enlightening. Love #10, especially "There is no one alive who is Youer than You." True words, man. True words. Let's all stop today for a moment and hug our "you-ness." I just did!
I'm a mad fan of "you-ness" too! I like your advice here, Chris. 🙂
When I get discouraged, my role models are women like Flannery O'Connor - writing with lupus, and against time; Colleen McCullough - who was a scientist like me for many years before she started writing, and had to battle enormous prejudice against women in the sciences; and Frida Kahlo - who worked in pain most of her life.
You just keep plugging ahead, and it happens. The only thing that doesn't work is quitting.
"The only thing that doesn't work is quitting." <-- This is golden advice, Alicia! And I had no idea Flannery O'Connor had lupus. What a daily battle that is. She was an incredible writer.
She died at 39 of complications of lupus. Her mother was her caretaker. I've read she went to Mass every day, and then went home to write.
I love that story. Thank you for sharing it.
I come from a different age group. All I knew was Bing, Frank and Tony, I have a new respect for this man who called himself Prince. I'll have Google play some of his songs reminding myself who the man is (was). I'm watching Hemmingway on PBS. I think Ernest would agree with most of these 10 tips. Thanks, Jenny..
Prince was amazing, and it's funny that was his actual name.
I was just watching an interview with Quincy Jones where he shared about what life was like early in his career in Vegas, that it was an incredibly racist town. He said that performers like him, Lena Horne, Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr. were paid less and would have to eat in the kitchen and then go out the back door and walk around to the black hotels. They weren't allowed to walk through the casino.
Quincy said that Frank Sinatra "called his goombahs to town" and assigned bodyguards to each of the black performers and demanded changes. Within a very short period of time, he got them - the black performers were then treated more equally in Vegas.
Here's the video. His stories are incredible.
This is terrific, Jenny--spot-on advice for writing life and craft...and a wonderful evocation of a great artist. Thanks! I'm sharing.
Thanks so much, Tiffany! I appreciate it so much. 🙂
Prince never made it to my playlist (in the time before playlists were invented), but I'm intrigued by the man and his philosophy of life. I can't choose a favorite- I love all his top ten tips. Thanks for sharing Jenny!
You are welcome! His songwriting was absolutely brilliant. I'd say Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, and Let's Go Crazy are probably three of his most popular.
Great post! The timing of it was perfect for me 🙂
Excellent, Alanna! I love to hear that.
I did know he wrote those songs. He wrote a lot of Sheena Easton's songs, too.
Huge Prince fan! 80s girl, through and through.
While he seemed eccentric on the surface, when listening to him in interviews, you could see how much business sense he really had. I know he had problems, and I'm not putting him on a pedestal, but he was brilliant as a singer and songwriter.
I remember one interview when he talked about how he took control over his career.
I'd say "Learn from the best" is my favorite one to choose.
I think his handling of a terrible contract was excellent, at least from an artist's standpoint. He had zero ownership in his own music and wasn't going to be able to write songs as "Prince" anytime soon.
I was lucky enough to meet him in person and watch him perform up close. He was amazing and a true genius. My husband worked with him in the studio during his symbol days. I wrote an piece back in 2016 that looks back on those days if you are interested: https://pattibuff.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/rest-in-peace-prince/
Peace and may you always be laughing in the purple rain.
Love this post, Jenny! Great tips. And because Prince was such a persona, many don't realize how incredible a guitar player he was. He was truly talented but worked hard at his craft too. There's a great lesson in that as well!