I carry a notebook around with me, and I jot down things I want to remember to write about. But it’s a small notebook, and I have 50-year-old eyes, and so sometimes in the name of expediency, I lose either legibility or intelligibility and sometimes both.
Like the entry that I wrote a few weeks ago in bed, late at night. Here it is, in its entirety: Paul McCartney, song (talk to Renee) / partnership between reader and writer.
Now, this time, I happen to completely understand what I was getting at. For Christmas, I got Renee, who is a huge Beatles fan, this two-volume book of Paul McCartney lyrics and commentary, called, fittingly enough, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It’s huge.
And one night we were lying in bed, reading our respective books, when she told me that she had just learned an interesting thing about a particular song – that while the lyrics were powerful and moving to us both, it turns out that when he wrote them, it was meant as a fun song, almost whimsical.
I bet you are wondering what song it was. I am too because while I wrote down the event, I made no mention of the song because I would surely remember it.
I do not remember it. My brief note was a bit too brief.
But I wrote it down because it so perfectly encapsulates the partnership that exists between the writer and the reader.
In 1994, I was dating a woman who was my superior in practically every way. She made more money than I did, she was older than I was, and she was smarter than I was. And when we broke up, which was, in hindsight, inevitable, I took it rough. Really rough, in the way only a 22-year-old could.
I went on a three-day drunk. I drunk-called her house at all hours. I showed up outside her house and the police got called – not by her, but by the neighbor who took umbrage to my declarations of my love in her front yard at 3 in the morning.
Eventually, I came to terms with the breakup, but like 22-year-olds everywhere that go through tragic breakups, I found solace in music.
At the time, there was a popular country music song called Little Rock, by Tom Douglas, sung by Collin Ray. In it, the protagonist is starting his life over in Little Rock after destroying his relationship and is now trying to rebuild his new life while mourning the loss of the life he had.
A sample of the lyrics:
Well, I know I disappeared a time or two,
And along the way, I lost me and you.
I needed a new town for my new start
Selling VCR’s in Arkansas at a Wal-Mart.
I haven’t had a drink in nineteen days.
My eyes are clear and bright without that haze.
I like the preacher from the Church of Christ.
Sorry that I cried when I talked to you last night.
I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.
I’m solid as a stone, baby, wait and see.
I’ve got just one small problem here in Little Rock,
Without you, baby I’m not me.
Now, you might look at those lyrics here in the cold light of day in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two and say to yourself that they are trite and sentimental. And I would agree with you. But 22-year-old me in 1994 drank at least a few cases of beer while sobbing and listening to that song on repeat, for weeks and weeks. I wore out that cassette tape; playing that song, then hitting rewind and playing it again. One thing you can say for MP3 players – listening to sad breakup music is easier than it was back in the day.
I already knew the song, of course. It had been out a while. But when I went through that breakup, it perfectly captured the struggle, the mourning, the lament, and the hope of it all.
When Tom Douglas wrote that song, he had no idea who I was. He had probably never set foot in Southaven, Mississippi, the scene of the yard incident. But he didn’t have to. He wrote the words, but I supplied the meaning. We were in partnership, Mr. Douglass and I.
It doesn’t matter if he had ever been through a breakup. It doesn’t matter if he had ever dated anyone, ever. I supplied every bit of meaning that I put on that song. And while I hear that song today and it reminds me of that time, I recognize that, objectively, it’s not a great song.
But it didn’t matter.
I try hard to write in an accessible way – people who know me say they can hear my voice when they read my writing, which is 100% what I’m shooting for. And I’m fortunate that I have a really interactive group of readers. Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email or Facebook message from someone who read something I wrote, and often they will tell me the story of how something I wrote – sometimes something I wrote years ago – really spoke to them.
And sometimes, they see things in my writing that perplex me, because I didn’t put them there. Luckily for me, they tend to be good things, by and large, but still. But I guarantee you I saw things in the song Little Rock that neither the singer nor the songwriter put there. In the partnership between the writer and I, he supplied the worlds, and I supplied the meaning.
Now, I have to confess that as a writer, there are times this frustrates me. I will spend a great deal of time crafting an essay about, say, birds, and then I see where someone shared it on Facebook, and they talk about how it’s a testimonial to the enduring power of the human spirit.
I really thought it was about birds. But if they needed to hear about the enduring power of the human spirit right then, I’m willing to let them have it. After all, I just bring the words – they supply the meaning.