Write What You’re Vaguely Aware of

February 1st, 2020

Write what you know, they say.

By “know”, they (whoever “they” are) don’t mean the way some people “know” that Marie Antoinette was a member of the Trilateral Commission. What they mean is that you should write about things that you have personally experienced, the better to imbue your writing with meaning and vivid precision. But If I wrote what I know, what you’d hear about is laundry. So I need to borrow stuff from other people.

Borrowing, of course, can get dicey sometimes. The literature world is riddled with the career corpses of authors who decided that they could write about the genuine Elbonian immigrant experience without, actually, being Elbonian, or an immigrant, or, perhaps, having any experience, with anything, whatsoever. But there are ways to do it right, I hope (because of the laundry).

You may recall, many moons ago, that I wrote a song called “Broken”, about an unhappy relationship which was unhappy in a way that I was not, personally, familiar with, but I wanted to write a song about an unhappy relationship, so I borrowed the unhappy relationship from a friend of mine. I still love this song, and I’m relieved to report that, many years later, when I told this friend that it was about her unhappy (ex-)marriage, she told me that I’d nailed it.

Yes! Swish. Nothing but net.

Since then, I’ve populated my writing with a variety of unsavory, unpleasant, or just plain unwitting narrators, none of whom (I hope) are me. “Not Quite the Truth” was sung by an inveterate liar; “Wagon” was someone who had, perhaps, a bit too much familiarity with alcoholism; the singer of “I Wanna Write Me a Bad Song” was, well, someone that I simply can’t identify with at all. I don’t really attempt to rise to the Richard Shindell level of inhabiting the body of, say, a widow in the Revolutionary War, but in my modest way, I try. Because, laundry.

Which brings me to my latest tune. A few months ago, I went to a show at the Lizard Lounge, which featured Rachel Marie and Lindsey Sampson – both of whom I like very much – opening for Hana Kahn, who I’d never heard of. At one point during her set, Hana told an absolutely charming story about meeting her boyfriend in a broken elevator. Instantly, of course, I thought “what a great idea for a song”, followed immediately by “but I’m sure that Hana has written this song”, followed a few months later by “I don’t care”. But, of course, I’d never met anyone in a broken elevator, nor could I imagine doing so, since I’ve already met my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, and she’s somewhat firm on the topic of whether I might meet anyone else (I’ve been led to believe the answer is no).

So I needed an angle. And it took me a few months, but I found one. My protagonist, it turns out, has a fatal inability to distinguish between his life and other people’s:

The elevator stopped between the floors
We made a little small talk in the dark
We met cute
We fell hard
We had a wedding in the tropics
Perhaps you sent a card

I found a dogeared novel on my shelf
I’m pretty sure I’d never read myself
They met cute
Right on cue
In a busted elevator
In chapter number two

It’s called “Someone Else’s Love Song”, and I’m kind of delighted with it. After all, if you’re not going to write what you know, you might as well make it preposterous.

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