The first Wednesday of the month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
Over the holidays, I watched the new Beatles documentary released on Disney+, The Beatles: Get Back. I’m a huge fan of the group and always have been. I realize there are non-Beatles fans out there, but I have to admit, I’ve always been mystified by their lack of enthusiasm. To me and millions of other Beatlemanics, the band is a historical landmark, having written and recorded music that changed pop culture for generations to come.
This blog entry is about inspiration and legacy. I liked to write stories as a kid, but really, I wanted to be a rock star. This would’ve been in the mid-90s. At the time, many potential role models existed for me and every other outcast kid who picked up a guitar. I wasn’t into Nirvana or Linkin Park at that age, didn’t appreciate Red Hot Chili Peppers or Green Day. I loved The Beatles, plus lots of other groups from the 60s and 70s. Never mind that my older brother and mom began spoon-feeding me this stuff at a very early age, or the fact that I looked up to my brother and enjoyed liking the things he thought were cool. The Beatles were special, supernatural even. I believed that then and I believe it now.
But the truth is, I haven’t been feeling particularly inspired lately. Not even Christmas cheered me up. In fact, it only made me feel worse. This Get Back documentary, it’s exhaustive (and a little exhausting). Only a mega Beatles nerd could’ve pieced it together. Peter Jackson (director and co-writer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) happens to have been that nerd. The film is almost eight hours in length, split over three episodes, focusing on just one month or so in the lives of the famous foursome.
The great thing about it is that we really get to see The Beatles’ creative process up close. Lots of labor and missteps, mistakes and dead ends. Critics have said this proves they weren’t as legendary as fans have always claimed. To me, it makes them more human, which is a comfort, because it proves anyone anywhere can muster enough talent and drive to produce work of honest significance.
Inspiration is great, but it’s not nearly as effective as perspiration. When I was learning to play and sing and write songs, John Lennon was my idol. I wanted to be him, and man did all the other kids in school think I was strange. I remember looking up at the stars one night when I was ten years old and whispering to the heavens,
“I want to be the greatest rock star ever.”
Or something to that effect. As it turned out, I lived a small (very small) portion of that dream. Played music with people all the way through my teens and early twenties. Lots of tiny coffee house gigs, open mic nights, bars, private celebrations. When I was twenty-one, I met the woman I would one day marry, and eventually I found I wanted different things out of life. Writing short stories and novels, the pursuit of some kind of career in this field, it replaced my desire to make music almost entirely. I grew dedicated to the craft and learned a hell of a lot. For the most part, writing has made me happy. I’m glad I took the years necessary to get good at it.
But I wouldn’t have found that dedication, that fire in my heart, if I weren’t already intimately familiar with it. There is an electric feeling that occurs inside the body and mind of a musician caught in the flow of her or his own creativity. The Beatles clearly knew that feeling well. It’s potent and wonderful, thrilling and powerful.
I came to learn that writing is a slower burn. Tons of work up front, and then maybe (maybe) a bit of adulation months or years later. But it still holds moments of intense creative gratification. No matter who you are, how popular or famous or legendary, this process, this mental birthing experience, it can be difficult and frustrating. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were all wonderful musicians. They had nothing to prove to anyone, yet they still worked themselves to the bone to make stuff that simply had no equal.
So here’s my question for all of you: how dedicated are you to what you love? What thrills you and gets you excited for writing or anything else in life? Maybe it’s a bit unfashionable to admit that music recorded some sixty years ago makes me feel ready to take on the world, but it does. Especially when I get to see it up close, visceral, all the creative battles, coming to the logical and favorable conclusion of work that stands the test of time.
Next time you’re feeling down in the dumps and not at all creative, head back to the source—your personal wellspring of inspiration—and see if it won’t refill your cup a little. Pick up a guitar, or a pencil or paintbrush or a media powerhouse of a computer, or maybe just watch a good film about one of your favorite things on earth. All hail the makers of cool stuff. Be they Beatles or bestsellers or nobodies in particular.
Peace and love to you this new year. May it bring you everything you need, and maybe a few of the things you want, too. Until next time.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
Want to be sure not to miss any of “Words To Live By” segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress. If you found it useful or entertaining, please share.
Poetry comes in many forms. There is free verse, rhymed poetry, blank verse or metered poetry, syllabic poetry, (such as hiaku on tankas), epic poems, narrative poetry, pastoral poetry, and sonnets, just to name a few. I’m partial to rhymed poetry, although I was warned away from it in school. I love rhymes of Dr. Suess and Shell Silverstein, and I love playing with rhyme and alliteration in my own poetry. Wordplay makes writing, (and reading), poetry fun. Poetry forms with structured rules, such as villinettes or syllabic poetry don’t come as easily for me.
I think it must be even more difficult to write poetry put to music, but if you think about it, many songs do use alliteration and rhyming, and this is perfectly acceptable in the song writing world. But what is a song, if not a poem set to music? Even many of the nursery rhymes that were handed down to you as a child have been put with a popular tune, making them more memorable: Old King Cole, Ring-Around-the-Rosy, London Bridge, Jack and Jill, etc… Below are some lyrics to some popular songs that use rhyming, but if you had never heard them, and didn’t know the tune, all you would see is poetry.
Winter nights we sang in tune
Played inside the months of moon
Never think of never
Let this spell last forever
Heart – Magic Man
Drowning nightly in deep blue seas
Waves of sadness swallow me
No soul can hear me beneath the waves
No gods, no saviors, no hands of fate
The Pretty Reckless – Only Love Can Save Me Now
Poetry uses language to paint vivid mental pictures and tell stories, as can be seen in the lyrics below. Fleetwood Mac uses similes and metaphores to paint a mental picture for the listener in some very poetic ways in Rhiannon, and Jethro Tull’s lyrics in Locomotive Breath conjurs some unusual images, as well.
Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night
And wouldn’t you love to love her?
Takes to the skies like a bird in flight
And who will be her lover?
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
In the suffering madness
Of the locomotive breath
Comes the all time loser
Headlong to his death
He sees the piston pumping
Steam breaking on his brow
But Charlie stole the handle
And the train, it won’t stop going
No way to slow down.
Jethro Tull – Locomotive Breath
Narrative poetry tells a story in verse, as do many songs. Narrative songs that come readily to mind include The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot, Running Bear by Sony James, and One Tin Soldier, by The Original Caste. Here, McGraw tells a story of the growth of first love in his song, Don’t Take the Girl. (And it rhymes.)
Johnny’s daddy was taking him fishing
when he was eight years old
A little girl came through the front gate
holding a fishing pole
His dad looked down and smiled,
said we can’t leave her behind
Son, I know you don’t want her to go,
but someday you’ll change your mind.
Tim McGraw – Don’t Take the Girl
I’ve listed the handful of songs above with the names of the artists who sing them, but that’s another way songwriters and poets are alike. Both get very little recognition for their writing. Often the singer is not the songwriter. Songs may be peddled among singers, as was the case with That’s the Night that the Lights Went Out in Georgia, (written by someone named Bobby Russell), which Cher turned down before Vicky Lawrence ended up cutting the record. Magic Man was actually written by the singers, Ann and Nancy Anderson, and Rhiannon was written and sung by Stevie Nicks. Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips of The Pretty Wreckless wrote Only Love Can Save Me Now. But, Don’t Take the Girl was written by songwriters Craig Martin and Larry W. Johnson, Locomotive Breath may be sung by Jethro Tull, but it was written by Ian Anderson.
It’s customary for songs to be identified with the singer, rather than the song writer, and poets don’t become famous until after they are dead. Song writers are the unknown poets of the music world.
Like this post? Let me know in the comments. You can be sure not to miss any of Writing to be Read’s great content by subscribing to e-mail or following on WordPress. If you found this content helpful or entertaining, please share.
2020 saw the birth of the book I’m currently working on, and it was all inspired by music. In fact, the female lead character, Amaryllis is based on the music of Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless. So, I had this great idea to set the tone and offer a glimpse into the thoughts of the pov character for each chapter with a snippet of lyrics; lyrics from The Pretty Reckless for Amaryllis, and lyrics from various artists for the male lead, LeRoy. It’s a time-travel story, titled The Outlaw & the Rock Star. The only catch is, an author has to be careful not to infringe on the copyright when using lyrics in her fiction.
Copyright, whether in the literary arena or the music industry, is serious business. Artists and writers protect that which they have created, as they should. As a writer, I can’t imagine the outrage I would feel, were I to learn someone else had infringed on my copyright. My words are my creation. They came from me. No one else on the planet can write them in just the way I wrote them, unless they steal them. And, let’s face it folks, theft is what copyright infringement is. So, I get why writers and artist want to protect their creations. I want my work to be protected, too.
According to Matt Knight on in “Using Lyrics in Fiction” (5 January 2019) on Sidebar Saturdays, obtaining copyright permission for song lyrics involves a ton of research into who actually holds the copyright, and then contacting them to request permission to use specific lyrics in your fiction, and pay the requested fee to obtain copyright permission. It can be both expensive and time consuming.
Knight offers a few ways around obtaining copyright permission, including only using the song title, since titles cannot be copyrighted, or using a small enough portion of the lyrics so that you can claim fair use, or choosing different lyrics from the Public Domain realm. Since this one of my characters is based on the music from one specific band, using Public Domain lyrics doesn’t seem to be an option. Since the lyrics are going to be used to set the tone of the story, using only titles wouldn’t really work. I really feel the story would loose a lot if I don’t include the lyrics, although I might be able to trim some of them a little.
So, I’m left looking at researching each individual song and contacting each copyright holder to gain permission to use their lyrics in my work, which seems like a lot of work. In the case of The Pretty Reckless, I will need copyright permission for multiple songs, so it may be an up hill battle, and it could get very expensive.
I can do the research and strive to obtain all the copyright permissions that are needed. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that part, or that I think it will be easy, but nothing good ever is. I’ve only written about six chapters, but my heart is already invested in these characters and their story. This is going to be more of a project than I realized when I concieved of the idea for this book. Here’s hoping this venture doesn’t cost more than I can afford.