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Voice - Part 2

Using the YOU in your writing to take it from the generic to the particular

A couple of years ago, a friend and I went to see Paul Kelly perform.( Paul Kelly is a brilliant Australian singer songwriter & a living treasure. I love his songs and have listened to his music since he was a Dot <G>. (more details below))

The venue was — as usual — packed out. There was a band on before him and I listened to them with interest. Their songs were all original, the music snappy and well performed, the musicians clearly talented, On a checklist of skills, they would have done well, but somehow, their songs failed to grab me.

I listened and tried to work out why. It wasn’t until much later, when Paul Kelly was performing, that the reason suddenly clicked in my mind. It was to do with being generic, and being particular.

One of the songs the first band had sung was about the singer being away from home, interstate, and how he was missing his girlfriend. He was wondering what she was doing now, and telling us how happy he’d be when they got home and he could be with her again.

Paul Kelly sang a very simple but evocative little song called The Midnight Rain. Something wakes him in the middle of the night — must be the midnight rain. She’s inside his head again. He know he won’t go back to sleep, so he gets up and wanders around in his dressing gown, puts the kettle on, turns on some music — not too loud, because the neighbors complain. And he thinks about what he and she talked about last. He wonders what coast she’s on, what country, what she’s wearing, who she’s with. Is she alone or with someone, talking soft and low under the sound of the midnight rain…

Basically the two songs were about that same thing — about a guy missing a girl who’s far away. But Paul Kelly’s was full of fine evocative detail and it made the song completely personal, completely intimate and softly emotional.

The ordinary small details of him wandering around in his dressing gown, in a mood, putting the kettle on, and all the while the soft sound of the midnight rain — they painted a picture we could all identify with. We’ve all woken to the sound of rain in the night, we’ve felt that sleepless restlessness, felt melancholy and pensive and alone in the middle of the night, listening to the rain. We’ve all gone over old conversations and wondered about the absent one — so we enter into the mood of the singer so easily. 

Those small, very individual personal details invite the listener in — they evoke the moment, evoke the mood. They make the song come alive and have an intimacy for everyone — not just the singer.

He never once said “I’m missing you,” or “I’ll be happy to see you again” etc. He didn’t explain how he felt, or what their relationship was — he didn’t have to. We knew enough to feel. It was a wonderful example of “show, don’t tell”. 

The song of the first band told us all about this feeling (rather than evoking it), and worse, told it generically. The girl in the sone was “my girlfriend” — not a unique individual. There was no complexity, no subtlety: there was no entry point though which the listener’s emotions could connect because the generic nature of the song was too broad and bland to contain any invitation to intimacy.

Paul Kelly’s song showed the complexity of how he felt in subtle nuances and though it was completely personal to his own experience and life, every small detail contained an invitation to intimacy – a bridge though which the audience could connect — and feel.

Sometimes small particular moments can evoke a much more powerful response than “big” moments with “big” descriptions. Try to move away from the generic; use details of your own experiences to build small particular worlds into which you can invite your readers.

« Voice – Part 1