“Make them think you’re one of them.” Johnny Cash
“You’ve got a song you’re singing from your gut,” Johnny Cash once said, “and you want that audience to feel it in their gut, too.” He spent a lot of years trying to connect that way. Some songs did it better than others. Probably the most powerful was “Folsom Prison Blues,” the second of Cash’s songs Sam Phillips recorded on Sun Records (the first was “Hey, Porter”).
In the years that followed, Cash must have sung Folsom Prison Blues thousands of times. He even sang it at Folsom Prison. When he got to the last line: “Then I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away,” the prisoners rose and clapped like crazy. Obviously, they felt it in their guts, too.
He started with gospel songs, until Phillips told him to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”
We all like songs that touch us. We like words that ring true. Except when it comes to using words ourselves. Instead of guts, we choose clichés. They hang like dying fruit. “I guess I’m not Johnny Cash,” we’ll say, forgetting that Cash spent many years trying to put emotion into his work.
He started with gospel songs, until Phillips told him to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash wasn’t even sure what Phillips meant at the time, but Folsom Prison Blues was the result. From there, he learned that guts was what made a song believable and relatable.
How our guts do this is pretty simple. Honesty comes with a certain amount of vulnerability. If you don’t have that, you’re never open enough to sound sincere. You’ll try occasionally, even saying, “Honestly, this is the truth.”
Even if it is the truth, nobody’s going to believe you. They’ve got you figured out. It’s like when politicians say, “I’m going to be honest with you now.” If they were going to be truthful, they wouldn’t have to announce it. Same goes for people who say, “I understand.” They don’t understand.
Unfortunately, we’ve become the literary equivalent of custard.
Being open and sincere requires humanness. Since we’re human, it should come as second nature. Only we don’t follow what our heart tells us as much as what our brain does.
Somewhere in our cortexes we disembody words. We don’t want to get too close to them. We form them into safe sentences, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before. We say, “This sounds right,” because it’s exactly what someone else has said, and published, and that makes it okay.
We turn in our finished drafts, believing we’ve shown ourselves to be writers. Every word flows in the usual pattern. Nobody’s feelings are hurt. No ethical boundaries have been crossed. Political correctness has been maintained. Unfortunately, we’ve become the literary equivalent of custard.
Social media is absolutely packed with regurgitation. I’ve actually stopped reading. I’m not learning anything new.”
“People have to relate to what you’re doing,” Johnny Cash also said. We think that means saying what people expect. So much of writing today is meant to nod heads, forgetting that we learn so little from nodding and so much from what we haven’t heard before.
Someone wrote me saying, “Social media is absolutely packed with regurgitation. I’ve actually stopped reading. I’m not learning anything new.”
If we’re not learning anything new, it’s not so much the information — anyone can inform. The real problem is feeling.
Think of the teachers we had growing up. Weren’t the best ones able to turn a subject into something we didn’t expect? Hadn’t they, in fact, stopped being academics and turned into storytellers? And if that’s what makes us learn, then we need to keep these things in mind when we write:
Be the Story
Regardless of the subject matter, it’s all a storyline. There’s a beginning, middle and end, a climax, a twist in direction. Anyone who can’t turn information into a story with meaning isn’t a writer. They’re a regurgitator.
Have the Guts to Say Something
Any fool can extrapolate information. It’s what under the details that interests people and makes them relate. Like when Walter Cronkite was speaking about the Vietnam War. He said: “I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost — and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.”
Make Your Audience Feel
I mentioned earlier the response Johnny Cash got at Folsom Prison with his last line: “Then I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” They clapped like crazy because they felt like crazy. Words are meant to draw emotion — even anger. Think of Cronkite’s most famous quote: “I’ve gone from being the most trusted man in America to one of the most debated.”
Don’t Follow the Pack
This is where my favourite writer, Hunter S. Thompson, pretty much says it all: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity.”
We have to stop being dullards, bums and hacks.
I’ve mentioned journalists here, only because they’ve become the least feeling and quotable as of late. But we’re all guilty. We all present facts instead of feelings. We share instead of shock. We interpret only what we feel we’re allowed to interpret.
Any form of writing, whether it’s the news, product information, corporate correspondence, or making a speech, is always a hair’s breadth from being stagnant mediocrity. We have to get back to injecting ourselves into our work. We have to stop being dullards, bums and word zombies.
The alternative is to go on regurgitating, presenting one fact after another, never doing anything right — but never doing anything seriously wrong. If you can live with that, there’s nothing more to say.
If you can’t, then try showing some guts.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.