This past week I listened to a thoroughly enjoyable, yet slightly sad This American Life Podcast episode about break ups titled: Break-Up. If you listened to it, it had some great stuff, especially the Puppy Boy bit at the end.
However, the first story has stayed with me all week. The one about a relationship between two people that had a shared affinity for Phil Collins, and during the break-up, she paraphrased the lines from “Against All Odds,” and recited them to her now ex-boyfriend. “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all.”
I know, I know—it’s corny, but it got me.
But then—then! Phil Collins enters during the next scene, and he’s on the phone talking to her about writing Against All Odds and giving her advice on how to write her own break-up song. What???
Maybe it’s hard to understand now, but growing up in the eighties, Phil Collins was a bonafide rock star. Sure, he may have kind of looked like one of your friend’s dad, but he was still cool. Now, all of a sudden, here he is again, back in my life, talking about song writing.
He didn’t have much air time on the show, but it seemed like from the conversation he had with the contributor that he really listened to what she had to say. She was a completely untrained writer. Couldn’t play any instruments, and had never written a song. Still, he gave great advice: simple is better.
I recommend the episode for anyone reading this hoping to get any writing advice, you have to hear it for yourself.
She went on to write a few songs, then collaborated with a couple of people to finally bring the break-up song to life. She was surprised that they picked the song that they did. It was from her “crazy pile,” and didn’t think anyone would read it.
I wonder if it was because it was so simple and straight from the heart, that it seemed easy to write, and she thought that writing had to be harder. Or was it too scary to write, so she didn’t want anyone to read it?
I think as writers, we’ve all had that moment. The moment where we almost delete something because it seems too close, too honest, too strange, too weird, too preachy … but we keep it on the page just in case.
I think sometimes those are the moments we find our voice.
Where we move past agonizing over a sentence or paragraph because it’s not good enough. We think that there should be flowery words because this writing is forever! Once it’s on the page, we can’t change it.
We freeze ourselves out and cover our real intentions.
I remember the moment where I finally got out of my own way. I was probably two years or so into trying to write songs. I’d start a verse or two, look at it, retool it—replace my vocabulary with fancier words. Read it later, think it was garbage and throw it away.
I’d complete songs here and there, some better than others, but I couldn’t find consistency.
One morning I finally told myself that it can’t all be Shakespeare. Literally those exact words, “It can’t all be Shakespeare.”
That was enough, and I was free.
I just wrote whatever came into my mind from then on and got out of my own way. Some songs were better than others, but I was writing consistently. Some songs flowed out in one piece, that I’d be happy to play, while others—not so much. But after a while, I had a catalog to draw from. I could borrow verses, choruses, and bridges from songs that didn’t work and mash them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of mid 90s angst.
It translates to writing short stories and novels too.
That first draft is going to be ugly. So is the second, and the third. Eventually, you’ll get there over time—you just have to make sure you don’t stop yourself. What’s more, it’ll be your voice. You may not sound like Shakespeare, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, or Ursula Le Guin, but that’s OK—the world already has their work.
So, there it is, a blog with a great podcast recommendation, and a piece on voice. Also, let me tell you something, Phil Collins’ stuff still holds up.
I’ve had “Against All Odds” in my head all week, and that’s a good thing.