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
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.)