Getting to the essence, plus my weekly shareables: Tina Turner, Janelle Monaé, and a stunning Memorial Day story
Austin Kleon had a great post this week on the Bill Withers song “Lean On Me.” He linked to a Songfacts interview Withers did back in 2004 where Withers talked about how important it is, and how hard it can be, to say things clearly and simply:
It's very difficult to make things simple and understandable. You ever sit down and have a conversation with somebody who took their formal education too seriously? … And they're speaking and throwing in a bunch of words that you don't have a ready meaning for? You're sitting there nodding because you don't want them to think you're stupid, but what you really think is, there's a lot of easier ways to say it, and you wonder if they even know what the hell they're talking about or if they're just showing off. … So to me, the biggest challenge in the world is to take anything that's complicated and make it simple so it can be understood by the masses. … When I say I'm a snob lyrically, I mean I'm a snob in the sense that I'm a stickler for saying something the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry.
“The simplest possible way with some elements of poetry.” That sums up my goal as a writer better than I’ve ever said it.
Three-dollar words and compound/complex sentences have always turned me off. What turns me on is complex IDEAS written in a way that anybody can understand. I think I mentioned this in THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM … one summer, when I worked at the Charlotte Observer, we had an intern who had come up with a computer program that calculated the reading level of a piece of writing. A bunch of us fed our stories into the program. My work was written at a fifth-grade level. That was the lowest of the group. I considered it the highest score. Because I was trying to write things anybody could read.
One of my favorite books of all time is Tony Earley’s 2001 novel JIM THE BOY, about a year in the life of a 10-year-old boy in Depression-era rural North Carolina. Earley wrote the book at a child’s level—you could probably teach it to third-graders—but the ideas and emotions are deep and profound. I will never forget the passage where Earley introduces us to Jim’s mother, a young widow:
Although she was not yet thirty years old, she wore a long, black skirt that had belonged to her mother. The skirt did not make her seem older, but rather made the people in the room around her feel odd, as if they had wandered into an old photograph, and did not know how to behave. On the days Mama wore her mother's long clothes, Jim didn't let the screen door slam.
Dammit, now I’m going to have to go read JIM THE BOY again.
So much of communication—as a writer, and as a human—is about getting out of our own way. Fancy words aren’t going to impress anybody, or at least anybody who matters. Resist the temptation to doll up your thoughts. Say what you want to say and let it be.
In that Bill Withers interview, he talks about recording “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which is equally as simple and brilliant as “Lean On Me.” The heart of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is the moment in the middle where everything drops out but the beat and Withers sings “I know, I know, I know …” over and over and over. It turns out he intended to write other lyrics in that space and just sang the “I know” part as a placeholder. But the musicians hanging out in the studio—including Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Booker T.—told him to leave it like it was.
They were right.
10 things I wanted to share this week:
The new episode of the SouthBound podcast features the great Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen … we talk about his new album WESTERN CHILL, his calamitous final tour, and how he finds inspiration to write.
My weekly for WFAE was about North Carolina’s backward-looking new abortion law.
As we move into the Memorial Day weekend, I want to share one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read: “Pfc. Gibson Comes Home,” from 1968, when reporter John Fetterman (no, not the senator) followed a Kentucky soldier nicknamed Little Duck to his final resting place. I’ve been reading this story for 30 years now and it crushes me every time.
Preorder alert: My friend Kim Cross has a new book coming called IN LIGHT OF ALL DARKNESS, about the 1993 kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas—a case that not only reverberated throughout America but changed the way the FBI operates. I’ve read parts of the book and it is truly captivating. Preorders mean the world to authors—it helps generate word of mouth and increases the chances of a book making the bestseller list. Kim put her heart into this one. If this is your kind of book, order it now.
DOG NEWS: While I work on my book, I’m devoting this slot to dog stories. This week: Balto, the famous Alaskan sled dog, was a mutt—and that probably helped him survive.
When I briefly taught at Wake Forest, I was lucky enough to have Mankaprr Conteh in one of my classes. Now, her profile of Janelle Monaé is the cover piece in the latest Rolling Stone. Very proud.
Jason Isbell gives some of the best interviews around—he’s always honest and thoughtful. I especially enjoyed this one with Steven Hyden for Uproxx.
A wise Twitter thread from writer Hanif Abdurraqib on the best creative advice he ever got.
A new generation is falling in love with Steely Dan. (I don’t know another band with a bigger gap between fans obsessed with them and people who absolutely HATE them.)
RIP to an utter original, Tina Turner. I learned so much about her from reading the obits and tributes this week. She did a country album I didn’t know about and will definitely be checking out. She did a kick-ass, funked-up cover of “Whole Lotta Love.” She did an interview with Mike Wallace where she shows off her French estate, and when Wallace asks “You feel like you deserve all this?”, she laughs and replies, “I deserve more.”
I know she didn’t really go away in those lost years after she got rid of that bastard Ike … she was still out there singing and performing. But I still think of PRIVATE DANCER as the greatest comeback album of all time.
And even though Ike’s involved, when you talk about the greatest covers of all time, her “Proud Mary” is up there near the top.
See y’all next week, everybody.
This newsletter is completely reader-supported. If you’re willing and able, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. You can also buy my memoir, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Thank you so much for your time and investment!—TT