Five Lessons Lou Reed Can Teach Any Writer

Lou ReedDear Reader,

Lou Reed has physically departed, though thankfully he left his soul in his music. Because of this, we can all hear and connect with him whenever we turn on one of his CDs. Upon his passing, many people have written articles to acknowledge the many ways in which Lou Reed influenced rock music. Even if some of the artists did not publicly acknowledge him as an influence, his own influence can be felt. Reed’s ability to write about the darker, previously unacknowledged topics about life have been monumental to the music scene. He did have a “stripped down” style (his well-known quote is, “One chord is fine, two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”), but that never meant that he sacrificed truth and honesty in order to be simple. It wasn’t that he was afraid of complexity in music (just listen to his albums Berlin or Street Hassle), but that he did not need to hide behind complex music in order to make up for a lack in lyrical content. His songs had their own power, and as such he didn’t need to dress them up.

Personally, it seems that there can be lessons learned from many of the things that he said and did, including an interview. The interview below was conducted in 2003 with Charlie Rose. Though there are many notable interviews that he has made, what I like about this one is that it looks back on his career (up to that point) and Reed seems calm and fully in his element. Here are the five lessons that any writer can learn from this interview and, more importantly, his career:


1. Share Your Truth

This first one comes from Laurie Anderson, but her observation on Lou Reed’s music is accurate. She mentions the power of Reed’s music. As discussed somewhat above, Reed’s style was seen as  simplistic and blunt, but Laurie Anderson (along with many others) found the beauty in that. Though some of the issues that he wrote about were considered shocking, Reed never seemed like the type to write about darker subjects just to shock people or to promote higher album sales. Regardless, this is not what gives Reed’s lyrics the longevity that they have. That comes from the fact that Reed wrote about his own truth, as he knew it to be. When you write your own truth, you can’t be wrong.

2. To Be Great, Find the Greats

Even Lou Reed had a mentor. In this interview, he expresses his admiration for the artists Delmore Schwartz and Andy Warhol (and, later on, Laurie Anderson). Delmore especially seemed to have been an especially prominent figure in his life, as he was Reed’s teacher and mentor at Syracuse University. In this interview, he expresses how much he felt that he was influenced by the way that Delmore wrote. Warhol also seemed to be important because of the alternative ways that Warhol viewed life. This leads into the third point.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Think Differently

In school, there is a lot of emphasize on conformity in thought. This seems especially true with any discipline of interpretations. There are “right” and “wrong” ways to view something, or so the categorizations go. In some cases, this makes sense. A math equation like “2+2” does not equal 17 just because the interpreter felt that it should be, nor can flowing, liquid water (as opposed to solid ice, which is another form of water) be considered a solid just because a student liked the idea. However, when writing, the rules are more flexible and accommodating. In fact, beyond basic grammar conventions, there really aren’t that many rules for “how” one is supposed to write (though there are plenty of tips). Thinking like everyone else provides less risk of social embarrassment, but thinking differently could also lead you to heights few would have reached, especially if they were too preoccupied with pretending to be normal (and it is pretending because, really, there is no such thing as normal).

4. Expect Work

It’s not just enough to have alternative thoughts and dreams of being a writer, however. It also means actually putting pen to paper. Besides discussing Andy Warhol’s strict work ethic (Warhol was apparently appalled when Reed once told him that he had “only” written five days in a day), Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson admit in this interview that all the artists they know work a lot. Lou Reed also mentions how a composition of a song, even if it just takes five minutes to write down, usually took much longer to form and fully express itself in his head. Though the arts are known for creative pulses and impulses, it is also a field, just like any other, where constant work leads to the most success (with success in this instance being defined as the completion of the inner vision).

5. Love Your Art

If you don’t have passion for the arts, dedicating yourself to a career in it is only going to take you so far. Reed and Anderson both seem to display a palpable energy for what they are doing. Reed discusses performing and his eyes brighten and warm. Though he did not say it in this specific interview, he is known for saying, “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” When one is stuck in the work and process of creating, remember why you are doing what you are doing. It may just provide you with the fuel you need to keep on going forward (or, in some cases, the fuel to tear down everything you just wrote, and start over again). The stronger your reason, the more powerful your fuel will be.


Of course, there are many more lessons that Lou Reed can teach people. These are just five that come from a twenty-six minute interview. If you have any additional thoughts, feel free to write them down below.



Jumbled Writer

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14 Responses to Five Lessons Lou Reed Can Teach Any Writer

  1. Those five points make sense in any form of creative art. In order to be ‘different’ in an effective way, one should first master the ‘conventional’.
    One of my own definitions for all forms of art is the building of expectations, and then meeting, or unexpectedly not meeting, such expectations in a creative manner.

    • We should embrace being different, and not look at it as something that needs to be fixed (from an artistic standpoint, anyway). I agree.

  2. Of the five, only the second would I have difficulty with. I often find myself as a pathfinder, without much in the way or guidance or a mentor. It seems to be a recurring theme in my life that people eventually catch up with me and give an incredulous “you did all this?”

    • The second one may be the hardest, or the easiest, to obtain. Finding a real-life mentor is probably ideal, but anytime that you are able to study the greats before you, you are engaging with the artist and the art on a higher level than just looking/listening to it. And great artists are able to teach a lot to the students that are paying attention.

  3. I think that, for a writer, one straightforward and essential application of “find the greats” is simply to read a lot. And try to read widely, not only those writers generally recognised as great. Of course with time such a precious commodity, that can be easier said than done. I find myself reading quite a lot of short stories and shorter novels – I haven’t got time for lots of 200,000 word epics.

    Great article by the way. I don’t know much about Lou Reed but so much of this makes sense. Golden rule is that you have to love what you’re doing, even if it’s damn hard work at times.

    • Reading can be great, but so can any form of art, whether it be listening, watching, examining (as in paintings/illustrations). I believe that any aspiring (or established) artist can learn from art of any kind, no matter the field. Shorter pieces have a lot of advantages, because you can sample so many different voices. But yes, the first rule should be to love what you are doing. Don’t feel forced to become an artist.

  4. Thanks for enjoying my most recent post. I enjoyed your Reed post, great lessons to use for any creative endeavor. I saw a documentary on PBS about Reed, and this interview many years ago with Charley Rose. Once again, great story about Lou Reed’s life and ideas.

    • I am glad that you have found the value of Lou Reed and the lessons that he gave. He was a great man and artist. Thanks for coming over here.

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