You can run out of “clever”, but you can never run out of the truth

Cherry lips, crystal skies

I could show you incredible things

Stolen kisses, pretty lies

You’re the King, baby, I’m your Queen

Find out what you want

Be that girl for a month

Wait, the worst is yet to come, oh no


Screaming, crying, perfect storms

I can make all the tables turn

Rose garden filled with thorns

Keep you second guessing like

“Oh my God, who is she?”

I get drunk on jealousy

But you’ll come back each time you leave

‘Cause, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream

–Taylor Swift, “Blank Spaces”

When I’m driving, I listen to two things: old time radio on XM, and top 40, often filtered through “Radio Disney” for Jason’s tender ears.  It’s always fun to hear how they change the lyrics to make them G-rated, btw.  Doesn’t always work.  One of the funniest is Meghan Trainor’s “All About The Bass” which pretty clearly uses “Bass” to refer to her ample hindquarters, but it’s slightly re-cut so that on Disney she seems to be using “Bass” to mean her deep intellectual and moral values.   It reaches a delightfully absurd point when in her follow-up song “I Know You’re Lying ‘Cause Your Lips Are Moving” (why does that sound like a country western title?) she says: “I gave you bass, you gave me sweet talk” and Disney plays that, either oblivious or unconcerned as to the obvious meaning.  Jason certain doesn’t pick it up.   It’s fun to be a dad.


Anyway, despite the fact that people are always complaining about the lack of quality in modern music (and have made that complaint all my life. And probably for all time.  It’s fun) I listen to it because it keeps me current as to linguistic patterns, slang, and perspectives by the core youth audience.


I get scared sometime…will go months or even a year or so without having much respect for anything I hear on the radio that made it to Top 40.  And that’s when I wonder if I need to start telling the kids to get off my lawn.


But then I’ll hear something musically or lyrically that catches my attention, and I’m re-engaged.  It goes in cycles.  I suspect that the “problem” is that the kids are trying new things, and if you don’t feel or appreciate or see it, (and so many of their cues are generational that it’s easy to miss) all you hear is the stuff that references YOUR musical tastes, and they aren’t likely to get that as “right” as what you remember. Plus, of course, the older the era you’re thinking of, the more likely you are to only remember “the good stuff.” Listen to XM 50’s or 60’s radio, and it can be embarrassing how bad some of that stuff is.   You just forgot.


Also, of course, like the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” is when you were thirteen, there are imprintation windows for music and film as well.


Anyway, I realized that I was enjoying Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Spaces.”   It seemed to be a song by (or about.  I’m not totally sure she wrote it) a girl who is aware that she is an emotional basket case.    Desperately wants love, and has a scrambled sense of what it is all about (“boys only want love if it’s torture.”) no sense of who she is at the core (“I’ll find out what you want.  Be that girl for a month.”) And on the surface, hyper-confident in her beauty and sexuality (“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.”)


But underneath that confused, polished shell is a world of fear, doubt and pain (“screaming, crying, perfect storms…rose garden filled with thorns…”)


Who Am I? she asks herself.  She doesn’t know. She knows how to play a role, but is terrified of presenting her real self, with insufficient trust in her own judgement or worth.  Either she thinks ALL guys are messed up, or if she has a little more insight, knows that she will only have access to guys as messed up and superficial as she: “Oh my God, look at that face.  You look like my next mistake.”

But do you grasp the yearning, desperate self-perception in the line: “I’m a nightmare dressed like a day-dream”?

In other words, she is a typical young person on the cusp of adulthood, desiring a mate, doubting herself, realistic about a terrible relationship history, able to create a polished image (or bedroom performance) for a short time, but knowing that ultimately her fear and doubt will surface, driving any healthy guy away.


If you “know” they will leave, you’ll never expose your true heart, creating a vicious cycle of attraction, passion, false intimacy and broken dreams.  Wash and repeat.


I’m sorry, but this is perceptive writing, from the heart, and frankly, it’s more psychologically valid than 99% of anything I’ve ever heard on pop radio.   As Harlan Ellison said, this writing “pulls the plow.”


I think that all you have to do to improve your own writing is be willing to honest about your hopes and dreams and mistakes and frailties, and write a story about someone dealing with the problem.  Because I’m an optimist, I tend to write about the times when people successfully navigate such problems. A pessimist might write about another failure or defeat.  But in either case, you’ve been honest, so long as you can relate it to your experience.


DON’T TRY TO BE CLEVER.  Just be honest.  You can run out of clever, but you can never run out of the truth.


People afraid of running out of ideas simply don’t trust their own experience.  I’ve never met a dull person.  I’ve met people who present dull facades.  That’s it. Go deeper, and you always find someone with the same wealth of hopes and dreams and successes and failures, but they discount what they have learned and who they are.  Digging deeper into the pains and disappointments that motivate this emotional neutering reveals the roots of all human experience.


Song writing is storytelling, whether it is a complete story like Harry Chapin’s “A Better Place To Be”, a scream of rage like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City”  or Taylor Swift’s emotional snapshot “Blank Space”.  Take your own pain and anger or love and yearning, and capture THAT.  If you can grab it with sufficient craft, you should be able to communicate with others, link to their emotions.   Help them recognize something about life, or their own hearts. A moment of insight, sympathy, empathy, emotional release.


That’s what readers and listeners want–an emotional journey. And if you are honest, you will see that the common human pathway travels from maturation to awareness to need for connection and contribution and self-direction to building a world to protect the things and people you love.  To watching your world change, your parents and loved ones age and die, and facing your own mortality and wondering what it was all about.


Who am I? What is true?  What is it to be human, and what is the world those humans see?


Those two questions will take you all the way home. There is literally nothing else to write about, directly or indirectly.


They are all you need.




(p.s.–we’re about to open the SPRING 2015 Storytelling workshop.  We’ve had a fabulous time so far, and if you’d like to learn more go to


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