A writing lesson from Freddie Mercury

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Are you writing for the right reasons? You might want to consider the words of singer Freddie Mercury before you continue…

Every day — I try and I try and I try —

But everybody wants to put me down

They say I’m goin’ crazy

They say I got a lot of water in my brain

Got no common sense

I got nobody left to believe…

Well, at least I believed.

It was a warm June evening and I was seated in an overheated livingroom on folding chairs with 30 other parents. My 16-year-old son was standing at the front of the room singing Freddie Mercury’s showboaty song, Somebody to Love.

My son managed to look us in the eyes, to smile and stand comfortably, without making his arms look too dorky (isn’t it amazing how arms get in the way of performing?) and to sing mostly in key, even in the really difficult bits.

And, whoa, he has pipes! His voice — a rich baritone — filled the room and beyond…. I could almost see the music pouring out of the open windows!

It was all the more remarkable because unlike the other performers, my son had been taking voice lessons for only six months.

Proud as I was of my son, I was even prouder of the teacher. He stood at the back of the room and led the applause, complete with hoots and wolf whistles, for every single performer. Even the so-so ones. Even the ones who were so quiet they could barely be heard. Even the ones who were so far from hitting the right note they might have been living in a parallel yet fatally askew universe.

As I watched the event, I was struck by how wonderful it was that music allows such conviviality. Performers could work hard at something, get guidance from a teacher and then show it off to their families and friends. The act of performing was in itself both a gift and a reward.

Why then, I wondered, doesn’t the same thing happen with writing?

The answer, I think, rests with the nature of the art. If you’re performing music written by others, then you need to be in the same room as your audience. Or, at the very least, you need to be able to copy the music onto tape, CD or a digital file.

When writing, however, you are always creating original work (well, unless you’re a plagiarist, but let’s not go there.) Furthermore, you’re doing it alone — seldom with a teacher, almost never with friends. Finally, reading itself is usually a private act. There’s no way to share it with others in the same room — unless you belong to a really good writing group (which is rare) or unless you’re a writer who’s already famous enough to get invited to festivals.

The whole dynamic for most writers is different and means you must find the resources within yourself to keep putting words on the page.

Rather than being like performing music, I think writing is more like mountain climbing. It takes a long time. It’s tough work — frequently discouraging. It requires a certain level of fitness. It’s lonely. And, unless you’re climbing Everest (which, by the way, has a fatality rate of almost 10 per cent — similar to writing, you ask?) you’re not likely to be applauded when you finish.

So why do it at all? I think the correct response is a variant to George Mallory’s answer: “Because it is there.”

Write because you have something to say — remembering, of course, that writing is something you produce. It is not you.

Write because you have something to figure out. The very act of writing can help you do this. Don’t think you need an outline specifying everything you plan to say before you start. Despite what many grade 10 English teachers will argue, there is a sorcery to writing that inspires your brain to work more diligently when your fingers are moving across the paper or keyboard. As you write, the brain figures out what it wants to say.

Write because it helps give your life meaning and structure and, if you work hard enough at it, income.

But if, like Freddie Mercury, you’re looking for somebody to love, don’t do it with your writing. Take up singing instead.

(The photo at the top of this post shows a statue of Mercury in Montreux, Switzerland.)

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