R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Of Mondegreens and Mottoes

 As you may or may not know, I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter/producer Matt Hales, otherwise known as Aqualung. renisanz introduced me to him some years ago, and I've been eagerly buying up his albums ever since. His most recent (and maddeningly hard to find) album 10 Futures features a single called "Be Beautiful", and when I first listened to it just over a year ago I heard the following lines:

Perfection is silent
And elegance is still
Beauty won't catch your eye
The way that passion will

I was really struck by that, seeing as I was struggling a lot with perfectionism at the time, and finding my pleasure in storytelling blighted by fear that my prose wasn't lyrical enough. That I didn't have enough witty similes or sumptuous metaphors or breathtaking turns of phrase for my writing to make an impression in people's minds. I thought sadly of Peter S. Beagle and Patricia McKillip and other magnificent prose stylists of my fantasy-reading youth, and I cast a wistful eye at Maggie Stiefvater and Erin Bow, and I heaved a mental sigh for my own competent but seemingly unexceptional writing style.

Of course I knew that plenty of successful and well-loved fantasy authors write prose that is functional at best (*cough*JKR*cough*). But because I get so much pleasure from smart narration (when I was reading Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series aloud to my children, I kept stopping mid-paragraph to yell about how good he is), it was hard to convince myself that striving for a more literary style might not be crucial to my development as a writer. That my own natural storytelling voice, plain as it might seem to me, could be good enough.

But that stanza in "Be Beautiful" made me think again. What really grabs people and makes a lasting impression on them? Is it perfection in the aesthetic sense -- in which case any catalogue model or finely designed piece of furniture should do -- or is it the spark and vitality that come from an idea, a picture, a story, that the creator is genuinely passionate about?

Not that passion on its own, especially divorced from any element of skill or craftsmanship or good judgment, is always admirable. There are plenty of terrible artists, and terrible human beings, who feel passionate about what they're doing. But passion is memorable, for good or ill, in a way that mere artistry can't match.

So I decided that if I ever wrote another book, I would hold out for an idea that was not merely interesting to me or potentially saleable to a publisher, but one that I felt truly passionate about. I would try to hold onto that urgency, that conviction, and let it shape the words I was writing instead of trying to force myself to write in a way that doesn't come naturally.

Amazing, isn't it? The power of music.

* * *

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was singing along to "Be Beautiful" in the car and realized I had no idea what half the words actually were (to be fair, the guest singer on that particular song does not enunciate well). So I decided to look up the lyrics when I got home and...

You can see this coming, can't you?

I'd misheard that stanza. It's not "beauty won't catch your eye / the way that passion will," it's "the way the bad stuff will."

And I have zero idea what that means.

* * *

But that's okay. I heard in that song what I needed to hear, the truth I was already grappling with inside. Good writing isn't about doing all the technical bits perfectly and silencing all your critics with the elegance of your prose. It's not about copying the style and content of other authors you admire. It's about writing what really matters to you, to the very best of your ability, with the voice God's given you. I believe that firmly now, and if mishearing Matt Hales' lyrics helped to cement it in my mind, that's not a bad thing.

(Anyway, I still think my version sounds better and makes way more sense in context. So there.)
Tags: aqualung, inspiration, mondegreens, music, writing
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I like your version better too. :-)
I suspect you may be a little biased in my favor, but I'll take it. :D
'bad stuff' is a comment on human nature (the news is proof these days I think) but I love your version more.
Yeah, I figured it would probably make sense if I looked at the "new" phrase in full context, but I was feeling sulky and didn't wanna. :)

I think he's actually trying to say that perfection being silent and elegance being still are good things, albeit subtle ones compared to the way "the bad stuff" smacks you in the face; whereas I was reading "silent" and "still" as negatives, implying that they are cold and lifeless. Fascinating how just one or two words can change the whole meaning of a song for the listener, or at least for this listener...
I think your version's better and more meaningful too! (Hmm, which may indicate you've got more of a natural instinct for phrasing than you may feel you do? ^^)

It always amazes me how often I read one of your posts and it just strikes me how much I feel this. Particularly knowing so many writers who do just have beautiful, epic turns of phrase or snappy, witty style that just sparkles, my own style always feels so drab in comparison. When writing memes are going around, encouraging people to post various quotes from their own writing, my own writing just never feels very quotable. I've got characters and concepts and themes that I'm really passionate about and I hope that cumulatively a serviceable style is enough to convey them to other people in an engaging way. It's hard not to get hung up on wanting my style itself to be that beautiful, well-crafted, witty artistry that I appreciate so much in others... I have to keep reminding myself that if God's given me something to say, then I need to use the talents He's given me to the best of my ability instead of sitting on them until I feel like I have "enough" to do what others can.
I'm happy to hear that my posts seem relatable to you, and even more so that you find them reassuring.

And I have a lot of trouble coming up with quotable quotes from my own writing as well -- so many of what I'd consider my best lines are wholly dependent on knowing the character(s) who are saying them and being aware of the context. My most frequently liked quotes on GoodReads and Tumblr come from the end of Ultraviolet, which has one of the few passages that I think does resonate out of context; whereas the (much rarer) quotes from my faery books make me cringe internally, because I can't imagine they would be even slightly comprehensible or interesting to a non-reader. (A quote like "I found her lying naked on the lawn at midnight, can I keep her?" for instance, really needs a whole book's worth of context AND the reader's understanding that it's a sarcastic joke!)

if God's given me something to say, then I need to use the talents He's given me to the best of my ability instead of sitting on them until I feel like I have "enough" to do what others can.

It's all in Hopkins, all in Hopkins: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools? :D


1 year ago

I love your phrase about writing with the voice that God has given YOU--not someone else. The original is always better than an imitation. As you say, if God has given you the ability to tell stories, then you need to be the best YOU can be, not a poor copy of someone else. I personally rather prefer people who can convey a lot with very simple, but to-the-point prose. I've always felt that your writing was clean and spare and not pretentious. I find myself skimming over pretentious. ;-) Oh, it's also nice to know that other people have trouble understanding song lyrics. I figured it was just the fault of my age. Just kidding. Isn't it lovely when God uses even misheard lyrics to help us gain wisdom and insight into our problems?
Thank you for saying so about my writing, that's kind and also very reassuring.

And to be fair to both of us, I don't think any listener can be blamed for not understanding song lyrics when the singer doesn't enunciate worth a dram. Even now I know the guest vocalist is singing "bad stuff" in that line, it doesn't sound anything like it!
As someone else said above, I feel like every time you post about writing I'm sitting here nodding along as I read. Passion is indeed better than beauty, in my opinion.

I was thinking about beautiful prose recently as I was reading through the Winner's Curse trilogy. The first book was wonderful, but I felt like the second and third books (the second in particular) were a little too aware of their own prose. It felt almost purple at times. So now when I think about those books, I don't think about the plot or the characters, I think about how the prose knocked me out of the story. And that, I think, is a risk of prose-y writers: getting distracted by the strokes of paint on the canvas rather than seeing the painting as a whole.

But you do have turns of phrase that I remember: "mild as an egg" from Wayfarer is a metaphor I've adored ever since I read it.
I've read the first Winner's Curse book but not the second or third. I did like the first book quite a lot, though, so it's on my TBR list (albeit the vague and half-remembered version of said list that I haven't yet got to writing down. A lot of promising second and third books have disappeared into that list, never to be seen again).

I think you're right about self-consciously sumptuous prose, though. It's a fine balance between trying and trying too hard, between poet and poetaster. Erin Bow, for instance, is an Actual Poet and even her earliest drafts are full of vivid turns of phrase that make her settings and characters come alive; but I've read sample chapters at conferences from beginning writers who are trying to sound "literary" and only end up being opaque.

Anyway, thanks for the encouragement. "Mild as an egg" was one of my favorite similes too, but IIRC it never actually made it into the final draft of Wayfarer because I cut the scene that used it. So I'm tempted to recycle the phrase in another book for actual publication, in much the same way as I recycled "[a voice] like dark chocolate poured over velvet" to the extent where long-time readers of my fanfic were probably sick of seeing it. :)
I was going to do something very foolish and contradict the author to say "yes, that scene is still in Wayfarer!"

But I was smarter than that and looked in my copy. Sure enough, you're right. :)

I must remember it from beta reading. Funny how that turn of phrase so stuck with me that I even thought it was part of the published version.
Oh RJ! I want to roll on the floor laughing at the irony of this post, because (particularly with Ultraviolet and the related pieces of prose from whence it sprang) I consider you one of the most lyrical writers I know. How could you doubt yourself so? Silly lady!

Though... thinking more on it, it was the context of Ultraviolet which made it lyrical -- the story itself demanded constant creative metaphors to describe synaesthesia, so the lyricism and the story were one whole. And in my own work, the fic which I consider to be one of the most poetic was a Sentinel fic, and that fandom also demands a depth of description because of its context (a man with enhanced senses). So in both cases, one could say that the passion came first.

I'd misheard that stanza. It's not "beauty won't catch your eye / the way that passion will," it's "the way the bad stuff will."

And I have zero idea what that means.

I like your version of the lyrics better too.

I think that the original lyrics refer to "bad boy appeal"; the lure of the dark side.

I notice you're crossposting from Dreamwidth. Do you think you could put links between the two posts? (There's a way of doing it automatically, but I set mine up so long ago that I've forgotten how it's done). I'd prefer to follow you on one or the other, but I'd like to see what people are saying in both places, and cross-links make it easier.
I was going to put in an extra paragraph about Ultraviolet for that very reason, because I worked REALLY HARD to make that one lyrical, knowing that Alison's synaesthesia required nothing less. It was a positive relief to write Quicksilver by contrast, because Niki's view of the world was so straightforward and matter-of-fact by contrast. Writing her narration was so easy style-wise that I almost felt like I was cheating, except of course that I had to do great walloping wads of research about radio telescopes and electronic engineering and other things that were far outside my wheelhouse so it was still a lot of hard work!

Anyway, thank you for the kind words.

Re Dreamwidth, I do have it set up to crosspost to LJ and add a link automatically (and I've just double-checked to make sure I've got it all right), but in this case I crossposted manually because of a technical issue. I'll have to try again with my next post and see if I can get the crosspost working.


January 14 2017, 22:02:17 UTC 1 year ago Edited:  January 14 2017, 22:02:37 UTC

Your posts on writing are always just so, so insightful and encouraging. I'd actually been thinking along these same lines lately--usually if I self-diagnose myself with writer's block, it's frequently a paralysis I mentally work myself into, either because I am hearing my own words on the page as clunky and wooden, comparing myself to writers I admire greatly, or setting an expectation for myself that everything I write should be able to be taken out of its in-story context and quoted for all posterity. (HA!)

Anyway, I think your version is better too--and considering it was a misquote that encouraged you in your own unique wordcraft, that's a lovely irony.

(Also, AQUALUNG! I listened to his first album, on the recommendation of one of your LJ-posts ages ago, while on my very first cross-country roadtrip all by myself. SO MUCH NOSTALGIA. I should look this one up, hard-to-find though you say it is....)


January 14 2017, 22:22:03 UTC 1 year ago Edited:  January 14 2017, 22:26:20 UTC

Your posts on writing are always just so, so insightful and encouraging


Hoping that gif shows up, but in any case thank you. I write these things to help me process and remember them myself, but it means a lot to know they help other people too.

As far as "10 Futures" goes, it's a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing it's mostly guest vocalists, although the songs are all written and produced by Aqualung, and all the songs are quite different from one another. My favorites are the aforementioned "Be Beautiful" (the album version, not the remix used for the official video) and especially "To The Wonder", which is one of the most gorgeous and haunting (in a lovely and spiritual way, not a creepy way) pieces of pop music I've ever heard.

(I'm also fond of "Clean" and "Spin Wheel Oscillate", which I'm sure you can also find on YouTube or Genius or both, but that's enough to be going on with.)