When I first started writing, I didn’t compose blogs or novels or non-fiction books; I wrote songs. The poetry of all those beautiful words sung like pearls on a string of melody inspired me to try my own hand at songwriting. Soon songwriting led to other kinds of writing, and now, here we are.
Songs inspire me more than anything.
Which is why I’m listening to them today. Yesterday, we spent seven hours shooting a short film I wrote. It left me exhausted and as dry as a desert. I don’t have any energy to create. I barely can write this blog.
So I turned to music to lift me out of creative sloth.
Playing With Control/Chaos
Yesterday, I discovered the song “I Was Broken” by Robert Pattinson. It’s a dingy recording from a live show in some dirty English pub, by the sound of it, but if you’ve ever looked at the cover of a gossip rag in the past few years, you’ve heard of Robert Pattinson. Mr. Pattinson plays Edward in Twilight.
Yes, I know for many of you that exempts him forever from your attention. However, you need to listen to this song. Apparently, Pattinson is an incredible musician and singer: a mix of Jeff Buckley and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
What I love most about this song is its unrestraint. “I was broken for a long time, but it’s over now,” he sings late into the song, pushing his voice to the breaking point. You know from his vehemence it’s far from over.
Bright Eyes did something similar with “At the Bottom of Everything,” when he sings (at about 3:50), “And then we’ll see it and we’ll see it and we’ll see it.”
I like to write like this, pushing words so hard they step right up to the edge of breaking. Unbridled, raw emotion. Below you’ll find out two secrets about how to write like this.
All these songwriters use repetition to intensify the emotion.
“But it’s over now. But it’s over now. But it’s over now,” and “And then we’ll see it and we’ll see it and we’ll see it.”
Repetition allows the meaning to change and deepen each time it’s said. It might change the meaning to its opposite. By repeating, “But it’s over now,” he is invoking the cliché, “thou dost protest too much.”
Same with Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time.” Check out the third stanza:
Most of the time
My head is on straight
Most of the time
I’m strong enough not to hate
I don’t build up illusion ’til it makes me sick
I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time
Obviously, you see the repetition, but he is using the repetition to plead his sanity. The interesting part is, we don’t know why anyone would doubt his sanity until halfway through the song, “Don’t remember what her lips felt like on mine. Most of the time.” He’s not sane, he’s not okay, he’s pretty screwed up. Some of the time.
If you want to write with unbridled emotion, the most important part is to hedge the unrestrained emotion with even greater restraint. People can only handle so much raw emotion. It makes the song/poem/novel chaotic and dull, like a junior high girl’s journal.
But if you’re able to suck everything up and control your prose/verse, it can be powerful, hinting always at something deeper going on beneath.
This is something I love about Cormac McCarthy, how he slips in and out of control. Hemingway does it too. For ninety-nine percent of The Sun Also Rises, Jake is in complete control of himself. However, maybe three or four times in the whole book he shows how tortured he is underneath. Emotion changes everything.
And it’s simple to imitate, too.
Write about a man walking down a street in the city where you live. A few weeks ago the love of his life died. Combine unbridled emotion (using repetition) with restraint. Write for fifteen minutes, and post your practice in the comments.