Don't be clever, be real
I’ve joined a writing group. There were eleven of us last night, all huddled in the corner of a coffee shop. It was quite dark and often a bit hard to hear. It’s one of the best things I’ve done since moving to this new city a few months ago.
Something interesting happened last night. One of the group members had a poem he described as ‘blunt’ that he was reluctant to share. With some coaxing, he read it to us. It was the best of the three he shared, moving and personal. He hadn't put it on Facebook because he was concerned the person in the poem might recognise themselves and others might speculate. It made me think about how emotionally open we choose to be with our writing and the challenge when other people are involved.
Later, another member read a story which was a ‘loose fictionalisation’ of an incident with a family member. I suggested if he was able to share that it was actually about him, rather than a fictional character, it might help other people who have gone through a similar experience. Later I wondered - would the fictionalised account help just as much?
Honest and raw pieces of writing (whether poetry, prose or lyrics) are the ones that got the most heartfelt reaction, and often enthusiastic reaction, from readers/listeners and are the ones that people often comment on and react to.
I had been planning to sing you 'The Loon' this month on my YouTube video - I jokingly refer to it as one of my ‘hits’. Reflecting on our conversations, I decided to sing ‘In Sickness’ instead. This is the most honest and raw autobiographical song I have written, and some friends have told me that it has made them cry. I wonder if they would have cried if they didn’t know me personally.
When I had finished writing the song, my husband was not well enough for me to share it with him, at that point I was walking on eggshells. But as he started to get better, I decided to play him the song. As it involved him so markedly I gave him a complete veto on it being shared further. I am grateful that he said "you should share it because it might help others who have had the same experience". We have lots of songs and books, don’t we, from those who have been through severe depression, but not many accounts of the experience from their family’s perspective. I couldn’t listen to that song, or play it live for a long time. It took me back to a place that I never wanted to be, and that I never want to go again. I know my husband had a worse time than me, of course, I hope my story can be shared without diminishing his experience, his illness and the courage it took to fight it.
Not every writer can ask the permission of the person they are writing about. Maybe it is smart to fictionalise, to obscure and/or to disguise. It certainly makes you less vulnerable. It saves other’s potential embarrassment.
I better point out - not all my songs are about me or my life. 'In Sickness', 'Kids' and 'A Simple Life' are about my life. But 'The Loon', 'She Can' and 'Youth in Bloom' are all examples which I would describe as ‘external’ to me. Most of the rest mix bits of my own life, with those of others, and with fictional characters.
I also think artists have been given a gift, and perhaps even a responsibility, to share their emotions and thoughts clearly and openly, so that others can find company in something that they had not been able to express themselves. We only know what others think and experience when they speak it or write it down, otherwise we are just guessing at what’s in their head, we can never really know. An artist can make themselves useful in this way - bringing something in their testimony that a leaflet or documentary cannot.
For me, every song starts off as a kind of free ‘therapy’ - working through something that is bothering me, or intriguing me, or frustrating me - defining the problem and then trying to solve it. How it might affect others afterwards, if at all, is out of my hands. The clearer and more honest the expression at both these points, the better.
You may have heard the WH Auden quote 'Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.’ Perhaps obfuscating skilfully actually gets in the way of the impact of our work. Maybe this is a price worth paying.
Now I’ve started thinking about my last blog (read it here) where I said a song is not an essay, and how I liked the lack of sharp edges, am I now suggesting the opposite? I am better sticking to writing songs than trying to come to conclusions in sentences and paragraphs.
But I do have one final thought: For me, I’m not going to worry about being original and clever. There is nothing new under the sun, and there is always another writer who is cleverer than me. What I can uniquely bring is my authentic experience expressed as clearly as I feel able.