influence and autobiography

Yesteday I read this lecture by Jonathan Franzen which is all about the business of writing a novel. It was really interesting and made me think about the similarities between writing a novel and a song. Maybe this sounds ridiculous but I think a lot of the things he talks about in this lecture apply to both.

I especially like what he says about influence. I worry a lot about my listening habits, and my reliance on established classic albums at the moment but this bit of Franzen’s lecture made me feel much better.

“When I write, I don’t feel like a craftsman influenced by earlier craftsmen who were themselves influenced by earlier craftsmen. I feel like a member of a single, large virtual community in which I have dynamic relationships with other members of the community, most of whom are no longer living.”

I like that he takes the emphasis away from linear influence and into a much more reciprocal conversation. I think its true that when an artist of any kind is influenced by something that’s gone before, it not only effects the work that artist produces but also the position and reception of that previous peice of art in the world. There is a constantly shifting web of allusions and influence out there. I suppose in songwriting this is important to think about because influence is much more overt. The size and format of a song means that a songwriter can try out different influences constantly, and they can be perhaps less precious about it than a novelist. But it is useful for songwriters and listeners to be more concious of how songs, both new and old are by the process of influence.

So, as an example its interesting to think about the over reaching influence of Bob Dylan on songwriters. Almost everyone has been hailed “the new Dylan”, probably even Dylan, and he is one of the only songwriters now widly excepted in academic communities as a “real” writer, put on reading university reading lists. I do think he’s totally brilliant and is definitely an influence on me (Mr tambourine Man was one of the first songs I learnt to play and I played it a lot, even though its fucking ridiculous) but he was obviously influenced by a lot of music before him and I think that looking at Dylan as the genius link in the history of modern music, taking us from folk song to modern rock/pop poetics is unhelpful. Thinking of Dylan as one part of a network stretching across and beyond the twentieth century in either direction is much more interesting. Its not that every young man or woman with a guitar is “the new Dylan” but rather that every young man or woman with a a guitar is engaging in the history and future of folk/pop/rock/poetry/blues/ballad and whatever else you want to add in there, just like Dylan did.

Furthermore every young man or woman with a guitar will alter the presence that Dylan has in our world. The more we think of Dylan as the archetypal folk singer the more we limit ourselves but really everytime someone learns to play Dylan’s songs they are just at the beginning of an excting and limitless form of expression. I guess I would take as an immeadiate example the way Bill Callahan uses the framework of a singer/songwriter. He is certainly part of the lineage of singer poets that Dylan is part of, but if you listen to his song ‘America‘ and then listen to ‘Desolation Row‘ you can come to an old song in a new way. Its not that one is particularly influenced by the other, but that they are both part of a long dialogue about what America is and how that can be expressed in song. Looking at Dylan’s song through Callahan’s is not about looking at fathers and sons, cause and effect but at two songwriters tackling similar subjects in different but related ways.

So that was one part of Franzen’s essay that I found particularly enlightening. The other was when he began to discuss the issue of autobiography in novel writing. I touched on this earlier in this blog, the idea of how much truth and how much of your own life you should put in songs. I think Franzen’s description of writing a novel as “a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life” is useful. It is not so much about what is eventually in the finished product but the process of getting there that makes the novel autobiographical. Its hard for me to think of songwriting as the same kind of struggle, because when ever I am struggling to write a song they don’t seem to turn out so good. But I think that the concept of ‘direct and total engagement’ is useful as an ideal to aspire to. To be able to look at your own life through the process of songwriting must be good for yourself and your songs.

This ‘total and direct engagement’ is fraught with minefields, as Franzen touches on. He talks about his fear of putting his own life and the people he loves into his work. I have recently been thinking a lot about the way writing a song about someone is a way of fixing them and defining them. Franzen is thinking much more practically about the issue of putting loved ones into your fiction, about the possibility of alienating or upsetting friends and family members. He suggests that it can be a good thing;

“giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion of being written about – by trusting them to love the whole you, including the writer part.”

I think this is a pretty skewed view. When you use someone to make art you can’t be afraid of doing that and I think that it is neither a good or bad thing. But neither can you pretend that you are doing them a favour. In songwriting, as opposed to ficiton, the people you put in your songs are very raw and condensed depictions. You quote words that they’ve said, or allude to things you’ve done together in hopefully concise ways that can be quite difficult for that person to engage with, apart from to feel a bit strange. In a novel the writer is constructing a whole other world, fully realised so any use of real life is always going to be more detailed, and therefore maybe easier to feel that you’ve been depicted unfairly or flatteringly as the case may be. So in that sense perhaps a novel writer has more cause to think about the concrete effects of putting their loved ones in their novels.

It is a strange thing to deal with, being placed in someones art but it is not really about this person in the end. The fact is, whether you are writing a novel or a song, you are constantly writing yourself. You are engaging with the story of your life, your influences and your loved ones but ultimately what is revealed is you.

About twowhitecranes

I am a songwriter and musician. These are some thoughts I have about that fact. You can find out more here
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