Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Good Writing Watch!

Sing it, Robin. Sing it.

Perhaps the most essential key to writing well is simply reading well. Almost all successful or excellent writers surround themselves with good writing. Thankfully, this is not a very hard task -- even for those of us too busy to thumb through a 300 page novel. Today, let's take a look at three writers who we can listen to, rather than read!


Colin Meloy of The Decemeberists
Fans of indie rock are no strangers to the Decemberists. They are quite possibly the most lyrically innovative band in the last twenty years. Led by Writing Degree holding Colin Meloy, the Decemeberists fearlessly sing about topics from the common (falling in love) to the absurd (falling into the belly of a whale with the man who killed your mother), all the while telling stories in completely unique tongues, sometimes whipping out some Shakespearian nouns and medieval verbs.

Let's take a look at one of their songs from the album Picaresque, "Of Angels and Angles:"
There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles
There's a ticking at the sill
There's a purr of a pigeon to break the still of day

As on we go drowning
Down we go away
And darling, we go a-drowning
Down we go away

There's a tough word on your crossword
There's a bed bug nipping a finger
There's a swallow, there's a calm
Here's a hand to lay on your open palm today


There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles
What the hell is Meloy singing about here? It sure seems like a typical love song until we hit the second verses. What does "There's a bed bug nipping a finger" mean?

Well, the fact that it's not obvious is a good sign. Songs that simply tell us "She move her body like a cyclone" or "I've got that boom boom pow" take us for a fools; they believe to be us too dumb to interpret a story or see through an analogy.

Meloy gives credit to his readers' intellect. He could have said: "Life is really painful and stupid on a day-to-day basis, but it's nice to have someone with which to go through the painful and stupid stuff together."

Instead, he says:
There's a swallow, there's a calm
Here's a hand to lay on your open palm today
Yeah, our parents were wrong -- for the most part -- about Eminem. He's actually a surprisingly profound writer -- though often offensive in the things he says. The content he conveys -- which ranges from profound to disgusting to stupid -- does not lessen his talent at conveying it. Let's look at the first portion of one of my favorite Eminem songs, "Stan":
Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain't callin
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got 'em
There probably was a problem at the post office or something
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot 'em
but anyways; f*** it, what's been up? Man how's your daughter?
My girlfriend's pregnant too, I'm bout to be a father
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
This is Stan
The venerable Eminem is employing some very fun writing techniques in this song. First, he's using a "speaker." Most of the audio-trash wafting through our airwaves and into our skulls is written in the first person and actually represents the singers' (often shallow) feelings. They're directly telling us their opinions via song: "I wanna buy you a drank" or "Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah... I want your love." It leaves no room for interpretation and it tells us very little. By employing a speaker, Eminem is able to convey more with less.

In addition to using a speaker, Eminem is actually using what we call an unreliable speaker -- we can't really trust Stan (especially when the song is heard: Eminem does not an excellent job of using his voice to imply frustration in Stan's voice -- even though he's kind of yelling the words in typical Eminem fashion). Our distrust of Stan grows in the second stanza:
Dear Slim, you still ain't called or wrote, I hope you have a chance
I ain't mad - I just think it's F***** UP you don't answer fans
If you didn't wanna talk to me outside your concert
you didn't have to, but you coulda signed an autograph for Matthew
That's my little brother man, he's only six years old
We waited in the blistering cold for you,
four hours and you just said, "No."
That's pretty sh***y man - you're like his f***ing idol
He wants to be just like you man, he likes you more than I do
I ain't that mad though, I just don't like being lied to
Remember when we met in Denver - you said if I'd write you
you would write back - see I'm just like you in a way
I never knew my father neither;
he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her
I can relate to what you're saying in your songs
Note here how Stan's character begins waffling back and forth between angry and in love with our dear Slim Shady. At the risk of spoiling this story's conclusion (imagine that! -- storytelling in a song!), I will go ahead tell you, dear reader, that Stan drives off a bridge with his girlfriend and unborn child -- all because of the grief of not having talked with his idol. Then, in a sort of epilogue, Eminem finally responds to our protagonist:
Dear Stan, I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy
You said your girlfriend's pregnant now, how far along is she?
I'm sorry I didn't see you at the show, I musta missed you
Don't think I did that sh** intentionally just to diss you
But what's this sh** you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that sh** just clowning dog,
c'mon - how f***ed up is you?
You got some issues Stan, I think you need some counseling
to help your a** from bouncing off the walls when you get down some
And what's this sh** about us meant to be together?
That type of sh**'ll make me not want us to meet each other
I really think you and your girlfriend need each other
or maybe you just need to treat her better
I hope you get to read this letter, I just hope it reaches you in time
before you hurt yourself, I think that you'll be doin just fine
if you relax a little, I'm glad I inspire you but Stan
why are you so mad? Try to understand, that I do want you as a fan
I just don't want you to do some crazy sh**
I seen this one sh** on the news a couple weeks ago that made me sick
Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge
and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid
and in the car they found a tape, but they didn't say who it was to
Come to think about, his name was.. it was you
Personally, I find the ending a little over-indulgent, but the story is nonetheless troubling and authentic. Even though much of the song is told from the perspective of a crazed fan, Eminem is able to give the reader of great deal of insight into his own world: the pressure of being idolized, the trouble in balancing life and work (his inability to recognize Stan at the concert, his inability to answer the letters sooner), and his frustration with being misunderstood ("I say that sh** just clowning dog") -- and all of this without looking directly at us and saying, "It is hard to have fans. Some fans are crazy."

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes, another indie-rock band like the Decemberists, but with far more yelling, really burst onto the music scene 2009 with haunting and energetic songs like "Blue Ridge Mountains" and "White Winter Hymnal." The Seattle-based Fleet Foxes sing across many topics, ranging from Moses-esque river adoptions ("Oliver James") to (possibly) a Geek-god-alluding intervention ("Mykonos"). Let's take a look at "Ragged Wood":

Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us, follow my only song
Settle down with me by the fire of my yearning
You should come back home, back on your own now

The world is alive now, in and outside our home
You run through the forest, settle before the sun
Darling, I can barely remember you beside me
You should come back home, back on your own now

In the evening light, when the woman of the woods came by
To give to you the word of the old man
In the morning tide, when the sparrow and the seagull fly
And Johnathan and Evelyn get tired

Lie to me if you will at the top of Barringer Hill
Tell me anything you want, any old lie will do
Call me back to you

Back to you
There's a very good chance this song is based, in part, on William Butler Yeats' poem of the same name, but -- honestly -- there's not enough time or space on the Internets to unpack that here.

Instead, let's look at the elements in this song that speak more simply and universally to us. Clearly there is a rift between the speaker and the person of his desire: "you have been gone too long... You should come back home, back on your own..." It is unclear whether or not this rift is physical or metaphorical -- but, unlike what Cher or Nelly or Nickelback may have us believe, unclear is okay, if not good. This song, like many Fleet Foxes songs, is open to a variety of reader/listener interpretations.

Interestingly, many of Pecknold's songs seem to revolve around the speaker's brother or general brotherly relations. With this insight, one could imply that "Ragged Wood" concerns two brothers who, under some circumstance, have parted on bad terms. Or, it could be plea from the perspective of a father who has upset his daughter. Or, the song could be about lovers who have grown apart over time (the use of the term "Darling" lends to this possibility). Interestingly, many misleading details exist ("Johnathan and Evelyn" and "Barringer Hill" -- a hill in Texas, but the band is from Seattle...), details that appear to add special meaning to the author, but not really anything consistent to the reader.

Also of interest is the fact that Fleet Foxes has never released an official set of lyrics for their albums. This results in many different versions (online) of their lyrics, many of which are debatable. Personally, I feel the third line ("Settle down with me by the fire of my yearning") does not say "yearning," but perhaps "early year." This leads me to my final point: vague interpretations.

Being told exactly what is happening is never really fun. Too many "is" and "has" makes a song/poem/story just boring. By using imagery, allusion, basic action verbs, and even hard-to-hear lyrics, Pecknold is able to convey multiple layers of knowledge and emotion without relying on just his (albeit incredible) voice or driving beats. So, in turn, his songs grow and change in meaning and value to each reader. Like impressionist paintings, Meloy and Pecknold's songs take on different lifes for each listener.

If there's something I got egregiously wrong, or perhaps there's a modern author or musician you think I examine, let me know in the comments (or in person at the Writing Center)!

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats.


  1. Thank you for posting about Eminem. He's always been a favorite of mine and people rarely recongnize that he actually does some really great writing (albeit controversial).

  2. Nice post, though I thoroughly disagree with your assessment of Eminem. His lyrics are surface level and depict very juvenile narratives. After '8 Mile' a huge surge of mainstream fans appeared out of nowhere, thinking the movie revolutionary. In fact, it portrays blacks as simple and women as sluts all with a half-assed attempt at making up for years of violently homophobic lyrics when his character stands up for one older gay man. Overall, pretty weak storytelling. Accessibility doesn't equal relatability nor does it make a work evocative or stirring. You mentioned Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' which, while non-narrative, is far more poetic in its construction especially when it's presented with one of Gaga's thought-out performances. You should listen to 'Alejandro' and 'Monster.' The narrative capacity of a piece doesn't indicate great writing but the ability to recapitulate old standards and archetypes associated with the written world. SOmething sensory and without explicit interpretation pushes the envelope much further.

    Also, please locate the labels section when posting and make certain to put your name, Roosevelt University, and Writing Center in that section. Today, I helped Carrie amend the blogging guidelines document you created to reflect these necessities.



  3. Thanks for the comments!

    @Chitownmez: I agree (in part, see below)!

    @Dustin: I certainly understand your perspective on Eminem. There are really only a handful of Eminem songs I've heard that I'd defend as good writing. Perhaps "profound" was a bad word choice on my part. More than anything, I wanted to convey the element of the unreliable narrator, which is uncommon in songwriting. However, Eminem as a whole often falls into his genre's tendency of gangsta-one-up-manship and petty self-congratulation. On the other hand, I do contend that "juvenile" does not always apply to Eminem -- "offensive" and "inane," maybe; but not juvenile.

    Concerning Lady Gaga: I really waffled over a final song to pick on in that section. I don't mean to degrade Lady Gaga as a whole (I'm not familiar with all of her work, and the majority of her work is pretty thoughtful, in my understanding), but "Bad Romance" is perhaps a case of weak piece by a good writer (though even this, as in many literary topics, is debatable).

    "SOmething sensory and without explicit interpretation pushes the envelope much further."

    I agree, and I was sort of hoping my Fleet Foxes review conveyed that (though in much less concise and affective terms). However, writing is also about expression and communication, and vague is not always the best way to express oneself. In such instances, "narrative capacity" is the only differentiating element between good work (Edmund Spenser) and less-than-good work (insert bad pop musician).

    Concerning the labels: Fixed. :)

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