flavI Almost Became A Rapper
(But I Chose Writing Instead) 

“Love what you do and do what you love.

Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it.

You do what you want, what you love.

Imagination should be the center of your life.”

Ray Bradbury

Shortly after I turned fifteen I discovered Eminem — right before he became an international superstar. He’d just released The Marshall Mathers LP, a follow-up to his successful début album The Slim Shady LP, and a classmate recommended it to me. “He’s just like you,” she said. “You’ll love it.” And she was right, I did love it. This guy spoke to me, even though I didn’t take drugs or shoot people or set women on fire. His sense of humour just seemed to match mine, and the music was unlike anything I’d heard before.

Pretty soon I began writing my own raps. Not performing them, just scrawling them down in notebooks and showing them to my friends. My first song was titled My So Called Life — a misogynistic and juvenile (but tongue-in-cheek) diatribe about women staying in the kitchen. For a while I wrote one or two a day, always starting with a title like Twisted or Disturbed or Killing Bitches. I penned anywhere up to one-hundred songs about nothing, constantly jotting down funny or murderous lyrics in the same vein as Eminem. In my mind, I was going to be the next big rapper and take over the world.

Around this time I’d been considering writing, too. The two desires overlapped, but for a brief period my lyrics took precedence. They were easy to come up with and my friends seemed to enjoy reading them. My only issue is that I didn’t have enough confidence to rap them out loud. I kept picturing everyone laughing at me. If I’d had a little more self-belief — and maybe if I didn’t have such ferocious acne problems, too — I probably would have become a rapper. Or, at least, I would have pursued a career in music. But I was scared I’d get belittled and lose my high position in the school hierarchy of popularity. My skin is thick now (and no longer plagued with acne) and I can happily accept criticism of my work, but in those days I was weak and anxious.

Within a few months of writing my raps, I turned my lyrics to specific subjects: people at my school. I’m not sure why, but I began writing diss raps about the teachers and my fellow students. They weren’t even necessarily about people I didn’t like, but I picked targets and zoned in on them. Fat girls, nerdy boys, stupid people, whatever. Looking back, it was a form of bullying and I shouldn’t have done it. But at the time I just felt pleased that everyone was connecting with my stuff. My friends (and their friends) loved it: they photocopied and passed the raps around the school. For a few days, I’d been elevated to king status and my work spread like a disease.

But then a teacher found one of my raps and everything changed.


“Leaving what feels secure behind and following the beckoning of our hearts doesn’t always end as we expect or hope. We may even fail. But here’s the payoff: it can also be amazing and wonderful and immensely satisfying.” — Steve Goodier


“If there’s a rape in the area,” my form tutor said to me one afternoon with a grave expression, “I’ll have to inform the police about your rap lyrics. Do you understand?”

Wait, hold up. Let’s just rewind a moment. What? I was fifteen years old, heavily influenced by the lyrics of Eminem, and I’d written something like I wear a Superman cape when I rape — which, aside from being terrible, was not a declaration of some inner depraved fantasies. I was merely copying what I’d heard and doing my own version. I’m not saying the lyrics weren’t misjudged or misogynistic or disturbing or whatever. I’d taken a serious subject and turned it into a farce, like many comedians have done over the years, and I’m sure if I was a little older I would have been sensitive enough not to write it. In any case, they weren’t explicit rape raps where I darkly described how I’d want to engage in such a perverse act. If anything, it was just a poorly executed pastiche of Eminem’s style written by a dumb kid. I was influenced by the rapper so much I even dyed my hair blonde at one point to mimic him (the memory alone makes me cringe). In essence, I was being punished and judged for creating art. Regardless of my content, I’d been writing song lyrics, pursuing something, and they instantly shut me down.

The school, if they’d thought it through, should have channeled that negative energy into something positive. They should have realised I had a propensity for words or music, and tried to steer me in the right direction, like maybe sign me up to a writing class or suggest I take a music course. But instead, they vilified me. They called an assembly and told the students that anybody writing dark raps such as mine could be expelled. They tried to create a link between crime in the area and Hip-Hop, as if people were out there murdering because they’d listened to Eminem.

Thankfully I found my own way through all the bullshit. 

As I was too scared to rap anyway, I focused more heavily on my stories and continued writing those instead. And then I passed them around the same way I had with my raps, and they caught a little traction. I received the love and praise and adulation I’d been seeking. I felt like I was talented at something other than football, and this was something I could pursue successfully. One or two people told me my stories were shit, but I didn’t care because fifty other people said the opposite. I’d finally found my calling.

The point is, my teachers tried to turn me against expression. They wanted to box me up and inhibit me. But my inner rebel continued on the path and I became a writer.

In short: fuck them. Fuck anyone who can’t recognise your potential. 


“You can get what you want or you can just get old.” Billy Joel


If I’d listen to the advice of my teachers and quit writing — whether it was rap or stories — I’d be a completely different person today. I’m sure they had good intentions; they thought I was wasting my time, but so what? There are critics everywhere. People will take offence to things you write; others will just think you’re trash, or they won’t understand your vision. Some will tell you to give up your day job, or to try your hand at something else. But if you know in your heart this is what you want to do, then don’t listen to them.

People are jealous vindictive creatures — even the nice ones can be cutting without realising it. Their attempts to help you may come from a genuine place, but that doesn’t make them right. There are plenty of people out there who hate music you like; or hate books you love; or hate almost anything you feel the opposite about. If you judge your actions based on what other people think, you’ll never make it past the starting line. 

You’ll be crippled by self-doubt and you’ll let their words sink into your mind. Don’t do that. Be sure in what you want and persevere. Eventually you’ll find others on your wavelength. They’ll respond to your work, your vision, and then you’ll realise how important your shit can be for other people. You just have to work hard at it and have the confidence to go for it. I didn’t have the belief to follow my rap career (and I’m thankful for that now; I much prefer writing stories), but you shouldn’t let your fears bully you in that way. 

So ask yourself if you’re a writer. If the answer’s yes, don’t let anyone stop you. Wife, husband, mother, father, whoever — don’t let someone tell you to give up.

Flip your middle finger up at them and carry on with your passion.

Because chasing your dreams is one of the most fulfilling things you can do.


“Stand up for what you believe in even if it means standing alone…”

― C.M.


On a related note: years after I quit rapping, I bumped into an old school friend of mine at a battle rap event. His brother was the co-founder of a battle league called Don’t Flop. He remembered my rap insults from school days and told me I should try it. Older, with a lot more confidence under my belt, I decided to go ahead with it. Months later I had my first battle and people seemed to like it. Which means I’m now a writer and a battle rapper.

I guess my other dream of performing lyrics to an audience never quite went away. And although I’m not musically inclined, or the best lyricist on the planet, I can still pen rap lyrics quite easily.

I wonder what my teachers would think of me now if they heard any of it.

They’d most likely call an assembly and ban battle rap from the school.

But that’s a whole different issue for a different day.


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character sitting on the top of book's heapNever Stop Learning
(You Don’t Know Everything)

“The fool doth think he is wise,

but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

William Shakespeare

A lot of writers — both professional and amateur alike — fall into the trap of thinking they know enough. They’ve read numerous books about writing, or they’ve attended multiple seminars, or they’ve written fifteen bestsellers, and so they give up searching for any more education on the subject. They think they know it all.

But, the thing is, they rarely do. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship — we will never complete it. Lawrence Block once said he learned more from teaching writing, than he ever did at his keyboard. He learned by being open to new ideas; by allowing his ego to step aside and admit to himself he might not know everything, and these students might be able to teach him something new.

Many seasoned authors think that an admission of ignorance about the craft is the same as saying they know nothing, or that they’re a hack. They feel the need to portray this image of an all-knowing omniscient writer-god to those around them. The true greats, however, know that to stay on your throne, you need to keep a constant vigil. Be aware of everything around you: never get comfortable. Never sleep on your craft.

Because someone, somewhere, is waiting for you to slip up so they can take your crown.


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” 

Mahatma Gandhi


They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which may be true: but if that dog never quits learning, never curbs his education, he’ll never have to break his bad habits. If you make sure you’re always experimenting and soaking in advice, you’ll be fixing and adapting and growing as a writer as you go along. You’ll be an ever-evolving unpredictable writing machine.

If you aim for perfection, you’ll eventually shake hands with her. You’ll never quite grasp her — perfection is slippery — but you’ll come close.


“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin


One of the arguments some writers put forth is that they don’t need to learn any more. They’ve sold a novel, their writing is widely praised, or they know they’re competent, or whatever, and they feel that taking in even more advice can only hinder their progress. It will ruin their good work, cause them to over-think and change their style. That’s a legitimate worry. There are those who take learning too far: they change their approach and end up writing something so intricate and perfect on every level that it lacks heart. Their sentences become too refined; their stories too contrived. Everything about their work is robotic and lacks passion. That’s a risk for people who take advice literally. You need to know which parts to absorb, and which to say no to. Not every snatch of writer advice will apply to you or your situation.

A perfect example of this from the rap world is Eminem. In the past, at the height of his fame and success, he wrote intricate rhymes that were somehow both simplistic and complex: rhyme patterns that twisted and turned; he constructed sentences that had rhymes spiralling within rhymes, and yet they were also accessible to the average listener. They could rap along to him and feel as if they were part of his music. Now, however, his style has advanced to such a degree of intricacy that his music has lost its flavour. It’s not easy to connect with his songs anymore. The average listener can’t understand him, let alone rhyme along with his words. He took his learning too far. He adapted and changed in order to prove he was the best rapper on the planet: by doing this, he alienated what made him so good — his ability to write rhymes fans could relate to and vibe with.

Some writers are like that: they’ll refine their craft to a point that it comes across as inauthentic. They’re trying too hard. They’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Every adverb, verb, adjective, is so thoughtfully and wonderfully placed that the words have lost all meaning. The pages feel lifeless; the characters are manicured to an extreme.

Don’t fall into this trap. You can learn without wiping what you already know. This is an insecurity thing. You need to realise and understand your strengths — with every piece of advice you read or hear, take it into consideration alongside what you already know. If it seems like it will aid your writing, or make it stronger, or more complex, then experiment and see how it goes. If, however, it seems ridiculous or goes against how you write, then discard it. Don’t ruin who you are to please someone else.

Remember: your style is what makes you unique. Don’t lose that.


“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

Albert Einstein


For those who think a writing education is a waste of time, what are your reasons? Write them down and analyse them. Do they seem reasonable? Or are you just being arrogant? Footballers practice almost every day of the week. Do you think Ronaldo or Messi don’t know how to kick a ball by now? You think Ronaldo needs a manager to tell him what angle to aim from when he shoots? Or what runs to make? Or when he should sit back? Surely the best player on the planet would know all of that by now? But even so, he practices every day — he stays behind for shooting practice. He goes to the gym. He harnesses his skill and hones it. And that’s why he’s one of the best.

Plenty of writers reach a level of competency and then arrogantly shrug off further education. Which is how many authors end up running into a brick wall during their career. Their sales flag, their books repeat old patterns, they lose their spark, and they have no idea how to get it back.

Only once they’re forced to, once they’ve crashed and burned, do they consider going back to the drawing board — but by that time, it’s too late. They’re old news.


“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti


How can you learn? What should you do?

Firstly, read a shitload of writing manuals. Some will be informative, some will be smart, and others will be brainless and harmful if you take their advice on board. Those written by established authors are the best to start with — who knows better than the pros? — but even they tend to have advice that could be counterproductive to your writing career. Just because it works for them, doesn’t mean it works for you. Make sure you remember that. You don’t want to emulate or copy their rhythms. Just learn about them. That way you can pick and choose and accumulate a list of good ideas.

Many of the writing manuals offer similar advice: write what you know, show don’t tell, etc. It’s the stuff all of us know, and for the most part you won’t learn anything new reading these sections, although I’d suggest you go over them anyway. In some manuals they’ll approach these subjects from an angle you’ve never considered before, illuminating an otherwise dark corner. Further still, they may explain it in a way that unlocks something inside your creative brain. It might make you realise a mistake in one of your novels, or a way that can help with your future writing projects. Sometimes a small line from a writing book can trigger something and you’ll think: You’re right, I forgot about the motivation of my main character, and then you can fix it. 

Don’t think because you know that stuff, that you actually know it. Check with someone who has a master’s degree in English. Ask him what he knows four or five years on. If he hasn’t been practicing, the likelihood is that he doesn’t know much. Memory is constantly changing and recording over itself. Try to think back to school: can you remember everything you learned? Probably not. School was a long time ago.

And what you know today, you may very well forget tomorrow. So keep learning, keep soaking it in, and keep it at the forefront of your brain — simmering in hot water.

How can you forget something if you’re constantly reminding yourself?


“He who learns but does not think, is lost!

He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

Confucius 


Read plenty of interviews with authors. You’ll find that in most of these interviews, they’re questioned about their writing habits and practices. Every now and then they’ll drop a gem of advice that changes the way you view your writing. Pick your favourite authors, go online, and binge on their interviews. Get inside their head, see what makes them tick. Learn how they write, what brought them to the stage they’re at. Do they write in the morning? The evening? Do they have a particular ritual? Read it and learn from it.

And read lots of novels, too. And when you’re reading them — analyse the writing. If you keep your analytical mind open, you’ll always be learning. If you close it off, your mind dulls. Even with practice, you can slip into bad habits. Picking apart another writer’s style can help to keep your mind sharp. Look at what works and question why it works. Look at what doesn’t and do the same.

The more flaws you find, the more you’ll stamp out in your own work.

And this works vice versa too: if your mind loses that sharp edge, if you begin to see all writing as flawless, you’ll view your own work in this way too, and that’s bad.

In order to write well, you must hate everything.

And then love it again.

Hate it, love it, pick it apart.

Reading’s like a puzzle: it’s no fun unless it’s smashed to pieces first.


For more on critical reading, click on this link: READING WITH A CRITICAL EYE


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