I muse a lot about the similarities and differences between fiction writers and songwriters. (Not surprising, since I do both.) And I have found in my lengthy and highly unscientific musings that there is one major similarity between the two. Those of us who write songs or fiction featuring dark characters or situations are often asked the same question: why? Why write about these kinds of people and these kinds of situations? The answer – at least, for me – is simple.
Because no-one wants to hear happy songs.
Now, granted, this is a sweeping generalisation. There are of course lots of sappy, happy pop songs out there. But I don’t write pop songs. In the genre of music I work in, people generally don’t want to hear songs about people who are happy. They want to hear songs about flawed, troubled characters going through tough, dark circumstances.
In other words: life.
Case in point: REM tried writing a happy song once and subsequently spent the rest of their career denying the existence of “Shiny Happy People”. Rock n’ roll just doesn’t do happy.
And the same is true for fiction writers. Because, once again, while there are some books with happy characters leading awesome lives, the majority – whether it be crime, thrillers or literary fiction – feature the same flawed characters as songs.
But here is where the major difference between fiction writers and songwriters comes in. Because while no-one presumes that Stephen King actually does all the horrific things he writes about, people generally presume that if you sing a song about it, then you must have experienced it.
This is a rather odd presumption. Arlene Hunt’s latest book, The Chosen, features a serial killer who hunts down women. That is, literally, hunts down women. He kidnaps them, lets them off in the woods and hunts them with a bow and arrow. Now, no-one presumes that Arlene is off up the woods of Wicklow hunting people with a bow and arrow. (Note: I said “no-one presumes”. That’s not to say she couldn’t. Because she could. She would TOTALLY kick your ass.)
But the reason for this presumption is because of artists like Adele and Amy Winehouse, artists who do (or did, in Amy’s case) pour their actual lives (and love lives) into their songs. But this isn’t always the case. As John Lennon once pointed out to an overzealous fan who thought all Lennon’s songs were about him: “Don’t confuse the songs with your own life … I was just having fun with words.”
And sometimes – not always – but sometimes, that’s what it is. We’re playing with words. We’re trying to make a story that will resonate with the listener. It may not be my life but it might be somebody else’s. And that’s good if we can make that connection. And, of course, there are other times when it might be about us, or someone we know, or something that happened to us.
But sometimes … we just make stuff up.
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