“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”: A Conversation with Wale About Writing

“People run out of stories. You don’t run out of reality.”
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“Manuscripts don’t burn”—Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

When you’re a writer, the work never ceases. Whether a piece takes you six hours or six months, the process of writing is a life process. When you’re reading, you are practicing being a writer. People watching is practice. Listening to music is practice. Going to the art museum and flipping through a magazine, all the motions of ordinary life and the extraordinary feats that come with it are practice.

When Bulgakov wrote “Manuscripts don’t burn,” he was speaking autobiographically—having burned his work because of the political climate in the Soviet Union—but what he may not have realized, was that his quote would go on to inspire a generation of writers to pursue their passions in the face of adversity. It’s true; you cannot kill an idea so easily. Manuscripts truly do not catch fire, and the fire of an artist cannot simply be put out.

“I think that comes with time,” the venerable Wale tells me over the phone. We’re talking about good ideas and bad ideas, about knowing when to walk away and knowing when to keep working. We’re talking about manuscripts. “I’ve been around long enough, knowing that you gotta live with [the music] when you put it out. Might as well make something that’s right, because it’s gon’ be out there, for everybody, forever. If you’re not ready for that, walk away. Keep making music.”

For Wale, 34, having been in the game since 2006, manuscripts indeed do not burn. The man is a writer’s writer, wearing his heart on his sleeve and delivering verses that opt for plain-stated and relatable as opposed to the shrouded and needlessly complicated. Across his career, Wale has never encountered a moment where a song has stumped him to the point of considering giving up on it, but he does admit that he wrote the verses for “Lotus Flower Bomb” years apart. If only because he left the song on a hard drive, his ability to come back to the track and turn it into a cohesive jam is commendable.

In speaking to Wale about his writing process, I quickly realize we have something in common as writers: we are creatures of immense habit. Wale only writes at his studio, I only write at my desk. Wale doesn’t pen verses on his phone or keep them in his head. I don’t—read as: can’t—write on my phone, and if an idea doesn’t make it from my head to my desk, it’s gone forever. Wale, too, loses interest quickly, moving from song to song with expediency to keep himself engaged. Wale is a true auteur. What is an artist without their idiosyncrasies?

“Sometimes, I feel like my brain doesn’t activate unless I’m in the studio,” Wale tells me. “All my ideas, and my thoughts, and songs, and stuff I’ve written for other people, I can’t access that unless it’s right there, you know what I’m saying?”

“I don’t just keep raps in my head or my phone. I write it on the spot,” he continues. “I kinda get bored, and I got ADHD real bad. My attention span is bad. I’ll stop, do a verse, then come back to it. Or I’ll move on to another song. Sometimes I’ll stop because man ‘Can we even clear this sample? Am I saying what I feel like saying right now?’”

On the topic of saying what he feels, Wale takes pride in his honesty. 

“Some days you wake up on the right side of the bed, some days you wake up on the wrong side of the bed,” he admits. “Whatever that feeling is, I try to write with that in mind. Whether I’m happy, sad, worried, whatever, it’ll come out… I’m not out here trying to pretend. I’m out here trying to be as honest as possible. Everything ain’t always gon’ be sweet.”

Wale is most comfortable moving in an honest space. He has enough problems, he tells me, and has no interest in dealing with lying on top of that. The best art, we can both agree, comes from that place of truth. Within that truth, then, is the notion that Wale does not front. When I ask him how he’s kept his confidence across his career, he turns the question back on me: “Who’s to say I don’t [lose confidence]? I’m human.”

“That’s what makes us human,” he adds as if to say that he is proud of his bouts of uncertainty, which makes sense since Wale’s music is nothing if not human. His cult classic The Album About Nothing is riddled with confessions of anguish (“The Success”), hopelessness (“The Pessimist”), and in the same turn, celebration (“The God Smile”). In 2015, Wale crafted and delivered a body of work that siphoned the highs and lows of life, and his anxieties, out of the ether and made them tangible on wax. There’s life music, and then there’s man-of-the-people music. Wale is in the latter category.

As his honesty is the trademark of his writing, I ask Wale if he had to train himself to be vulnerable. He assures me that he’s only comfortable speaking his truth, because “people run out of stories. You don’t run out of reality.” There’s always the next chapter when you’re actively living your life, and basking in who you are. In that breath, thankfully, Wale may never run out of material. 

I ask him about manuscripts not burning, and he agrees with me: they cannot be destroyed. “Nine times out of ten, there’s gonna be somebody else that relates to it, so whether you like it or not, art’s timeless.”

Listen to Wale's new single “On Chill” on Audiomack.

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