Thanks to everyone who responded so thoughtfully to last week’s post and my dilemma. The outcome was roughly two to one in favour of not singing the song at all, and most of those who thought it was still feasible advocated extreme caution. I’m grateful for your collective wisdom.
The whole exercise made me aware of how much general fog swirls around in my mind, of how many unattended issues are bumping about in there, until the act of writing about them calls them out and forces me to square up to them; and therefore what an incredibly valuable tool writing can be. I know this is hardly an original thought, but it’s useful to have a personal reminder from time to time of what I’m constantly telling other people. As EM Forster so memorably said, ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say.’ And in last week’s case, what others say too.
Another sound piece of advice emerged in the process of writing that post. Reading interviews with Randy Newman, I came across this from him on a site called Performing Songwriter: “One thing that you can never let happen is to become more of a critic than you are a writer, where you actually choke yourself off. I tend to get that way. The guys in the Eagles tend to get that way, Paul Simon does, where the critic in you stops everything. Finish some stuff. You know, you look at some Bach Inventions, well Bach finished everything. Sometimes it’ll be just like no kind of idea at all, but he’ll go right to the end and something will happen. Finish your stuff.’
To a greater or lesser extent we’re all hosts to that critic. Ted Hughes called him the inner policeman. My fellow Dark Angel, Stuart Delves, describes him as the internal editor. Another colleague refers to him as Gollum, and I’m sure there are just as many female incarnations. We have a need for him or her, of course, to avoid descending into personal anarchy and chaos, but only in his or her place. Unfettered, our inner critics can strangle creativity and wreak havoc with other aspects of our lives.
Much of what we do on Dark Angels courses is designed to bypass this potentially troublesome person and ensure that we finish our stuff. We ask people to undertake exercises spontaneously and quickly to ensure that there’s not too much time for obstructive or negative thought. On The Stories We Tell workshops, Sarah and I address the inner critic more directly, inviting people to engage in a dialogue with him or her, while also getting to know his or her counterpart, the compassionate self.
And in the battle with the inner critic, endings matter – which is why Randy Newman’s injunction is so important, not only in the business of writing, but in life. I know only too well from the experience of writing this blog that what might feel like a good idea at the start can quickly degenerate into an incoherent muddle of which that inner voice whispers ‘This is no good’, and from which there seems no way out; and it’s only by forcing oneself onwards to a conclusion of some sort, any sort, that one realises one has drawn out the golden thread that makes sense of it all. There’s a kind of alchemy to finishing your stuff that can transform what may seem base into something with a little bit of lustre. It might not be a Bach Invention, but it will at least be a small triumph over Gollum.
My internal editor is having great fun with me at the moment, playing with my anticipation about coming to Dark Angels in Spain! I was really interested to read about yours and Sarah’s approach in The Stories We Tell – it sounds similar to ‘shadow work’ which I’ve experienced and is very powerful, and I felt was so very linked with creativity, self-belief and that internal editor. Thanks as always for sharing Jamie.
Thank you Jamie. I’ve been stuck on one particularly ambitious project for over a year and every time I sit down to make a start my editor turns up – as a ghost. Voice clear as a bell. I need to take her for a long walk (somewhere in my world, in the here and now) and at some point in the conversation I’ll ask for her help. I’m sure I’ll either get a definitive ‘no’, in which case I’ll be resolved to abandon the project, or a few bright ideas of how to move on.
Love it – finish your stuff! Also relatable – “get to the end of the first shitty draft”. We’re still wondering whether or not you sang the song though Jamie! As always great post.
I’m pleased you resolved your dilemma about the song. And in a mischievious frame of mind I wonder if you’e heard Tim Minchin’s Taboo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hR2FePUVKI, which plays with the concept of words we can and can’t say, depending on our personal backgrounds (and there are other ‘not safe for delicate ears’ words in there too).
Personally, I’m still writing to try and make sense of what I think, and searching for the golden thread.
From Andy Milligan:
I am horrified to see that 2/3rds of people have told you not to sing this song as it was originally written. What kind of cultural tyranny is this? The word is there for effect; it is precisely chosen. To remove it is an act of censorship.
This week I went to see a play that could be described as one of the most offensive I have ever seen. It used the word ‘nigger’ liberally; the drama turns on a woman who falsely accuses a man of rape because she is sexually rejected and its hero describes poor white people as ‘low calibre’. In fact it would not be hard to interpret the play as a prejudiced attack on poor white trash who were generally portrayed as liars, rapists, drunks, murderers, child-snatchers, thieves, incestuous bigots and racists. The play received a standing ovation from its mixed but mostly middle class audience.
So by all means introduce the song by explaining the word is to be used but don’t censor the word for fear of what might happen to you..