Thursday, November 11, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #54: Just Listen To Yourself

The best damn karaoke bar in my city is a place called the Old Carriage Inn in Brooklyn. It’s an odd mix of ironic hipsters singing Meatloaf and retired cops crooning Sinatra. Nobody gets laughed at but anyone who puts in extra effort gets appreciated.

When you first visit a karaoke bar, you refuse to sing until you get really drunk, then you finally stumble up there and trip through a song, but if the crowd is kind then they give you some support and you wonder what you were scared of. Maybe you get hooked, like I did, and you keep going back. If you do, you start to notice something. For the most part, the stage is a parade of drunks who warble and laugh and nobody minds, but every so often that quiet guy from the back of the bar meekly takes the stage and does an amazing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” All the background conversation drops away and spontaneous applause erupts at the end. You watch this and you start to think... “Gee, I’m glad they don’t boo me, but they don’t cheer me either. Maybe I should try to get a little better. I’d like to hear the conversation quiet down some night...”

And that’s when you’ve got a fateful decision to make. Because there are two ways to enjoy yourself onstage: you can just not listen to yourself, or you can stay within your range. Either method is perfectly valid. If you don’t care to sing in tune, that’s fine: nobody out there is paying attention anyway. And as long as you don’t listen to how you sound (which is actually very hard to hear if you’re not trying), then you don’t care either. It’s all part of your rock and roll fantasy, and that fantasy is all about image. You get to strut and shout, which is all you really wanted to do. But if you want the crowd to quiet down and listen, then first you have to start listening to yourself. Warning: you might not like what you hear, at first. Ouch! You’re blowing a lot of notes.

Now here’s some more bad news: you’re probably never going to hit those notes you’re missing. The surest way to get better is to limit your ambition. You have to figure out what your range is and pick only those songs that you can naturally sing. What a bummer. You used to have 50,000 songs to choose from, but now you’ve only got a few hundred.

And writing is the same way. There are two ways to enjoy writing. You can write any story about anybody doing anything, which might result in some polite applause, or you can know your range. Eventually, you come to admit, “I’m good at scaring people, but not so good at making them laugh…” or vice versa. Suddenly, those 200 ideas you had for your next story shrink down to 5. 

Maybe, once you’ve proven that you can win the crowd over, you can try to stretch yourself again, but if you’re trying to break in, it might be good to ask some of your readers what they think your strengths are and start focusing on those. If all you want to do is live the fantasy of being a writer, then it doesn’t matter—write a different genre every time. But if you want to get paid, then your best bet is do what you’re best at.


tanita✿davis said...

Okay, now THAT is profound.
And kind of scary.

We all hate hearing "write what you know," and no one wants to get pigeonholed into the kind of writing that they can do, but... geez. Knowing your range is kind of crucial. Huh.

Unknown said...

Thought-provoking post! And I'm intrigued by the photo. Who is it and what's it from? (From one angle, it looks a bit like Dean Stockwell...)

Matt Bird said...

Oh, that's Dean alright, from Blue Velvet.

Anonymous said...

Matt, glad you added those qualifiers near the end of your post. Because life would be so boring if Lars Von Trier, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman had never made their comedies. Or if Billy Wilder hadn't produced the occasional drama. Breaking in is all about doing what you're best at. But staying in your comfort zone for too long is boring and unfruitful for everyone, including the audience. Especially once you've proven yourself. Writers or directors are really more like actors in this regard. Guys like John Goodman or Jon Hamm might have looks that dictate their casting to type initially. But any truly talented human of sufficiently large heart and soul has no need to spend his/her life telling only one kind of story.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, certainly, I agree. Some people establish themselves and then successfully branch out (I'll be covering a Peckinpah comedy in two weeks), and then there are extraordinary cases like Hawks or Bergman who seem to be equally brilliant at every genre from the get go, but they're very rare exceptions to the rule. Good rule to live by: never assume that you're the exception. (If you are, you'll find out soon enough, and that'll be a nice surprise.)

James Kennedy said...

+1 In Dreams