MC Hammer, Writing Coach
The famous rapper and accomplished musician is also a diligent scholar who drops pearls of wisdom for working writers
MC Hammer has been using his social media presence on Twitter and more recently on Clubhouse to foster conversations about reading and to encourage the culture more broadly to make space for serious reading and engagement with longer texts and something more than “bite-sized” ideas.
He is also, as I learned this evening, an absolutely brilliant writing coach. Tonight, he dropped some wisdom that I will never forget.
Let me set the scene…
Several of my online and in-real-life colleagues were tuned in to Hammer’s Clubhouse chat tonight to listen in while our much-admired fellow historian Dr. Robin Mitchell talks with Hammer about her new, brilliant book, Venus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth Century France.
In a few ice-breaker minutes before the chat formally began, Hammer went around the stage and asked Dr. Mitchell’s friends to introduce themselves. One of our colleagues, Dr. Tiffany N. Florvil, began to discuss her book-in-progress. Hammer asked how long she had been working on it, and she answered “A long time,” something to which all historians can relate. Our discipline is built upon painstaking, careful research and an absolute existential struggle to wrangle the sources we have into a story that is true, and makes sense, and will help us explain this particular aspect of the past to others.
And then, riffing on Florvil’s comment about working on a book for a long time, Hammer made what struck me (and I suspect, all of us in the room) as an absolutely revelatory observation about the struggles of writing. It was an observation that only he could make.
I wasn’t taking verbatim notes, but let me summarize, as accurately as I can recall, what he said:
There’s a relationship between a first book and a first album, and a second book and a second album. First books tend to be really good, just like a first album, because a first album has everything in it, you pour everything in it that you have experienced up to that point. And that’s what you bring to a first book: all the knowledge and all the questions and all the learning you’ve been doing your whole life up to that point. And it shows in the book. So when your first book or your first album is really successful, it can be hard to follow that. Because if you have success with that first creative work, then you’re no longer living the life you were living that you poured into that work. You’re living a different life, the life of a successful artist. So in some ways your initial success can be a real challenge when you come to the work again. And this is why a lot of people expect or experience a kind of fall off between the first book or the first album and the second one.
How about them apples?
It was, as anyone might recognize, an absolutely brilliant observation. It helped me tremendously in gaining some understanding of why it feels like it is taking me forever to write my first book, even though it really isn’t. Most historians take seven to ten years from defending their dissertation to publishing their first book. I am just five years out of my dissertation defense, and I am finally firing on all cylinders with the book, cranking out a first draft at least as fast as I powered my way through my dissertation.
But I have felt so, so slow.
And MC Hammer helped me understand why: it’s because my whole life and my whole experience, my whole range of thought and my values and character, are in the hopper for this book. This very difficult job of creating a good work of prose is informed by everything I’ve done in my life up to this point — and I’m 52!
At 52, I am still learning. I am learning how Clubhouse works, how Medium works, and how writing a (hopefully) outstanding historical monograph works. But the best lesson I have learned about writing in many a long day came from a skilled and accomplished professional musician who is a natural scholar of his own medium and many others as well.
And once our colleague Robin Mitchell and the Hammer began to dialogue in depth about the research and the arguments in Prof. Mitchell’s brilliant book, we shifted gears into a whole new realm of intense, flourishing, fruitful reflection. Best scholarly conversation I have listened to in a while. If you are on Clubhouse, tune in to one of his chats any time. You will not be disappointed.
Can’t touch this!