Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sting, the Muse, and Getting Rid of Ego

As the old saw goes, write what you know.

We’ve all heard that old saw. Some of us apply it. Some of us dismiss it.

But songwriter Sting, in a TED talk delivered in March 2014, lives by it. He discovered going back to the world he knew as a child in Newcastle, England, where he spent his time trying to escape from the life of a kid “destined” to work in the shipyard, helped him find his muse after years of writers’ block that stopped him from writing any songs at all.

I’m going to do what he advises: I’ll slip out of the story for now and let him tell it:

Some of my earliest memories are of giant ships blocking the end of my street, as well as the sun from that of the year. Every morning as a child I watched thousands of men walk down that hill to work in the shipyard; I watched the same men walking home every night.

And then:

And then one day the songs stopped coming. And while you’ve suffered from periods of writers block before, this is something chronic. Day after day you face a blank page, and nothing is coming. And those days turn into weeks and months, and soon years with very little for your efforts. No songs. So you start asking questions.

And most importantly:

Did your best work occur when you sidestepped your own ego and stopped telling your story and told someone else’s story. Someone perhaps with another voice, where empathetically you stood in his shoes for a while and saw the world through his eyes. They say write what you know. If you can’t write about yourself anymore, then who do you write about? It’s ironic that the landscape I’d worked so hard to escape from and the community that I’d more or less abandoned and exiled myself from should be the very landscape the very community I would have to return to, to find my missing muse. As soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story the songs came thick and fast.

One of the first things I wrote was just a list of people I’d known, and they became characters in a three-dimensional drama where they explained who they are, what they do, their hopes and their fears for the future.

What does this tell me as a writer?

The clichés are wrong.

The cliché is that writers are solitary beings. That may be so while they write, but it appears more and more to me that the best writers are those who go out and experience things and, more importantly, experience people. They listen to others tell their stories and actually listen, they’re not waiting around while the other talks preparing what they’re going to say next to get the conversation back to themselves – to write what they know. They truly listen and come to know the other person so they can write their story.

Here’s one of Sting’s stories from his new period:

You see these work boots in my hands, they'll probably fit ye now my son,
Take them, they're a gift from me, why don't you try them on?
It would do your old man good to see you walking in these boots one day,
And take your place among the men who work upon the slipway.

These dead man's boots, though they're old and curled,
When a feller needs a job and a place in the world,
And it's time for a man to put down roots,
And walk to the river in his old man's boots.

He said, "I'm nearly done and asking this, that ye do one final thing for me!
You're barely but a sapling, and you think that you're a tree.
If ye need a seed to prosper, ye must first put down some roots.
Just one foot then the other in these dead man's boots."

These dead man's boots know their way down the hill,
They could walk there themselves, and they probably will.
There's a place for ye there to sink your roots,
And take a walk down the river in these dead man's boots.

I said, "Why in the Hell would I do that? And why would I agree?"
When his hand was all that I'd received, as far as I remember.
It's not as if he'd spoiled me with his kindness up to then ye see.
I'd a plan of me own and I'd quit this place when I came of age September.

These dead man's boots know their way down the hill,
They can walk there themselves, and they probably will.
I'd plenty of choices, and plenty other routes,
And he'd never see me walking in these dead man's boots.

What was it made him think I'd be happy ending up like him?
When he'd hardly got two halfpennies left, or a broken pot to piss in.
He wanted this same thing for me, was that his final wish?
He said, "What the hell are ye gonna do?"
I said, "Anything but this!"

These dead man's boots know their way down the hill,
They can walk there themselves and they most likely will.
But they won't walk with me ‘cos I'm off the other way,
I've had it up to here, I'm gonna have my say.
When all ye've got left is that cross on the wall?

I want nothing from you, I want nothing at all.
Not a pension, nor a pittance, when your whole life is through,
Get this through your head, I'm nothing like you,
I'm done with all the arguments, there'll be no more dispute,
And ye'll die before ye see me in your dead man's boots.

It might, at first, sound like a terrible story. But it's the truth, and truth beautifully told. It’s vintage Sting, of course – and what else should it be? But it’s a wonderful lesson to writers that we need to remind ourselves of what we know, even if we’re reluctant knowing it, to find that hidden muse.

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