I was minding my own business, untangling the unholy snake pit that is my cable bag, when he came bounding up to me. A smile split his face, revealing his eager anticipation.
“Who wrote that last song? What You’ve Become?” he asked, gesturing to nothing in particular.
I stepped backwards, tripping over a cable coiling itself around my ankles. “Uh, I did.”
“Really? It’s great! What’s it about?”
“A relationship?” I posed this as a question, because even though I knew, I wanted to add a little intrigue to our conversation. A little spice.
“Who’s Tennessee?” he asked, referencing the first line of the song. Tennessee is calling from a payphone in Raleigh and she wants this car turned around.
“I don’t know. Just a girl, I guess.” Somehow one of the cable-snakes had slithered through my shirt and was threatening to wrap around my delicate neck.
“Is she somebody you know?” he asked again, probingly.
“Honestly, not really. I just sort of wanted to write a song about a relationship gone awry,” I responded, feeling like a sheep. Not a full sheep. Sheep-ish.
I felt like some kind of idiot because the song hadn’t come to me while I struggled to maintain consciousness in my overturned car, bleeding profusely from the gunshot wounds administered liberally throughout my body thanks to Tennessee’s still-smoking AK-47. “I want this car turned around,” she said, casually ejecting the spent clip from the rifle. She grabbed a fresh magazine from her leather ammo belt and inserted it into the rifle. “I want it turned around, yesterday.” She brought the gun to bear on me again. One last time. Before she could, however, I reached for my acoustic guitar. And the song of a generation was born.
I could tell by the look on the guy’s face that I’d disappointed him somehow. The song clearly meant something to him, and my lackluster explanation had killed the magic faster than stumbling in on Mickey Mouse hanging himself.
“Sorry, yeah,” I offered, half-heartedly presenting an apology as penance for my failures as a songwriter and a member of the human race.
“Oh yeah, no. Cool, cool…” He backed away slowly. A single tear slid down his cheek, becoming lost in his well-groomed mustache. Another, juicier tear, plopped onto his Chacos sandals.
As he slowly slid further and further away, his flannel blurring to a mirage in the harsh auditorium lighting, I began to think about authorial intent. Because what else is there to think about at a time like that.
What is to be truly gained from learning what the author actually intended when he wrote that thing you love? That is, what advantage really comes from learning how the poop soup is made? One thing that I really loved about all my myriad, useless English classes over the years was my teachers’ insistence that what the author meant doesn’t matter as much as what they actually said. Obviously, many disagree with this, as evidenced by the incendiary comment section of my last Cracked column. But screw them, right?
I have been blessed to live a life fairly devoid of intense relationship drama. Sure, at the time I thought the Devil had risen from Hell to personally tear me asunder every time I got in a fight with a girl, but rarely did those experiences leave me rushing for a pen. My process has always been a lot simpler than that. There is a blurring between fiction and non-fiction in my songs, but I rarely visit a singular event in my life and try and give it shape via funk-rock riffs and synth breakdowns. I just want to tell interesting stories.
I believe that by trying to figure out what I, or any author, meant, you’re cheating yourself out of your own emotional “truth” in the experience. Who the hell cares what I meant? What matters is how you find yourself in the music. If I have to show you, then you’re just channeling me. And that’s an easy way to end up in jail.
To this day, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried stands out as one of my favorite books of all time for this very reason. Throughout the book, O’Brien keeps mentioning that he either did, or did not, kill somebody in Vietnam during the war. He describes the scene in several different ways, and by the end of the book you realize that it doesn’t matter whether he killed somebody or not. Emotionally, he did. What O’Brien is trying to convey is all of the terrible guilt he feels for killing somebody, or millions of people, whether or not he personally pulled the trigger. That is an emotional truth that isn’t really enhanced by the actual facts surrounding the situation.
As I finally stuffed the monstrous cable beast into my backpack, I settled on two basic assumptions. One, the things you write have a life beyond you. That is a good thing. You will die, but your work can live on indefinitely, changing lives in ways you could never imagine. Two, figure out what things mean to you. How works of art are affecting you, personally. Once the author has published their work, his part is finished. Now it’s all on you.
Don’t cheat and look on somebody else’s scantron for the answer. You have to do this on your own.