Last week my son William sent me a link to this conversation between George Saunders (whom I have mentioned several times in the last couple of months) and Jason Isbell, one of my very favorite songwriters. If you have 54 minutes, I encourage you to watch the whole thing. If you only have 43 minutes, I encourage you to watch the whole thing at 1.25x speed.
About six and a half minutes into the conversation, George Saunders asks Jason Isbell where his song ideas come from. Here’s part of what Isbell has to say on the matter:You train yourself to look in the corners that everybody doesn’t think to look in, and you train yourself to hear the conversations that most people aren’t paying attention to, and you get better at pulling those threads out.That’s great advice, whether you write fiction or nonfiction or poetry or songs. For that matter, it’s great advice for those areas of life that don’t directly relate to writing. Pay attention. Notice what other people aren’t noticing and show it to them.
Noticing what other people don’t notice isn’t necessarily (or usually) a matter of going off and finding things that other people don’t have access to. Mostly it’s a matter of paying attention to what’s actually in front of you—seeing what you see rather than what you expect to see.
Over at The Habit Membership, there’s currently a great conversation about last week’s Habit Podcast episode with Stephen Roach. He talked about the Hebrew word yada, which is translated “skillful” in 1 Samuel 16:18, specifically with regard to musical skill. The word yada, as Habit member Emma Fox summarized it, “has more to do with a perceptive, discerning heart than with fancy talent. In other words, ‘skill’ has much to do with the art of simply paying attention!”Ever since I watched that conversation between Saunders and Isbell, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the ordinary and the clichéd. Saunders asks, “What are some symptoms of a bad or sort of mid-level song?” Without hesitating, Isbell says, “Cliché is number one on the list of bad things, always number one—even a situational cliché, a cliché of subject matter.”
But then Isbell launches into a discussion of his song “Speed Trap Town,” which is concerned with many of the subject-matter clichés of bad country songs: “small towns and pickup trucks and football games and things that could go horribly wrong in a song if mishandled.”
If you know “Speed Trap Town,” you know it is neither cliché-ridden nor a bad country song. Why not? Isbell says it’s because he was able to “choose the right details.” That’s true. But how do the right details keep a cliché-adjacent story from falling into cliché? Let’s look at how the pickup truck and the football game function in “Speed Trap Town.”
Here are the opening lines:She said “It’s none of my business but it breaks my heart.”
Dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart.
I made it out to the truck without breaking down.
Everybody knows you in a speed trap town. In a different kind of country song, the pickup truck in the fourth line might have been a major clue to what kind of man this is and what kind of town he lives in. In this country song, we know about the town and our protagonist’s place in it when the grocery-store cashier comments on the flowers he’s bought for his ailing father. It’s none of her business, but she just can’t help herself.
So, yes, our protagonist is the sort of person who drives a truck; if he had said, “I made it out to my Tesla without breaking down,” you would have had different feelings about him. But this necessary detail, the truck, is also the least interesting detail in these lines. It’s simply a fact.
In the next four lines, our protagonist goes to a football game.It’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high-school game.
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name.
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross.
It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.I’m going to resist the temptation to analyze those four lines to death, but I think they’re just remarkable. First of all, why didn’t Isbell say, “It’s a Friday night, so there’s a high-school game”? That would have made perfect sense, it would have scanned perfectly and it would have been perfectly believable. But that surprising, even unnecessary detail of the Thursday night game makes this line even more believable. To quote my own self, surprising and unexpected specifics make a story more believable than the specifics that everyone expects–as long as those surprising details remain within the realm of possibility. Let us not forget that real life is forever surprising us with details that we would not have guessed. Surprising but believable–that’s the sweet spot for stories that feel like real life.In the next line, we’ve got our protagonist getting drunk in the stands. A little mischievous tippling is to be expected, perhaps, at a high-school football game. There were certainly some mischievous tipplers in the stands when my Warner Robins Demons took the field. But a lonely man drinking himself to oblivion—that’s taking it to a whole other level.
The line after that is one I find incredibly evocative. You feel the frustration of the small-town boy watching helplessly as the team from the bigger school (isn’t that why he mentions that they’re 5-A?), runs their fancy crossing routes and whips the locals. I bet those 5-A bastards all drive Teslas.
By the next line, we’re in a full existential crisis: a boy’s last dream, a man’s first loss.
Are pickup trucks and high school football games clichés of small-town American life? Well, yes and no. They’re certainly facts of small-town American life (though not the only facts, to be sure). They become clichés if their mere mention becomes a substitute for actual, specific details of small-town life. The skilled writer doesn’t stop there. The skilled writer keeps looking in the corners where the rest of us aren’t looking.
The ordinary, the quotidian is clichéd only when we choose to depict it in clichés. Even in a speed trap town, those old boys driving their pickup trucks to the high-school games are living out their dramas and their existential crises. Great storms and seas roil inside them. And we can say the same for everybody else, however mundane their lives appear to those of us who aren’t paying the right kind of attention.