The first time I listened to “Writer in the Dark”, I was in my car, driving back from a 2-day seminar, feeling more than a little beaten up. I was expecting something about ghostwriting, for some reason. Instead, it was a breakup song.
I liked it, like I like everything that Lorde has released—her lyrics, combined with a truly mesmerizing production, always find their way under my skin. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I really started listening to it.
And then, finally, hearing it.
It is a breakup song, and despite the mellow arrangement (more of a lullaby than something that can rival Taylor Swift at her most cutting) it does exactly what the doctor ordered: Gives us miserable lot something to fantasize about, something validating and self-affirming. “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark,” she sings.
And we sing along with her, willing our sad hearts to heal.
But there is another layer to the song, and it speaks to something that any creative (but writers and poets in particular) will struggle with.
Regardless whether we like to or not, when we do art, we put ourselves out there. We may not want to – may not intend to – but it comes out. Even M.F.K. Fisher couldn’t write about a casserole without making it about politics, love, or poverty. I see and feel it at martial arts gradings – you are asked to demonstrate technique while the examiners are pressing every single panic button you have; you either keep fighting while you’re breaking apart, or you don’t. (Think I’m kidding? Last couple of times I went for a higher grade, I nearly threw up on the examiner.)
I used to think I could make art without exposing my belly. You know what stuff I produced? Pale imitations of whatever it was I admired at the time. Cheap and tasteless. A knock-off, but without anything to recommend it. At the same time, I was like an angry hedgehog whenever someone gave me feedback.
How dare they criticize my imitation? How dare they ask me to give them more?
It doesn’t work. You either move on to do something else, or you roll over and pray the people who see you don’t stomp you to death.
Unfortunately, with art, it’s not just our bellies we’re exposing. We put our loved ones up for scrutiny as well. Freudians and Jungians will dissect our work to find clues about our relationships with our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and genders. That Taylor Swift writes (or does she?) about her past boyfriends in her songs has become a running joke (that’s no longer funny). Some creatives are aware of that and wield it like a weapon, using their songs and books and paintings to scream a big loud ‘FUCK YOU’ to the people who can no longer hear them. And the audience – some creatives, some not – nod along, and then scream ‘get over it’.
I like to think I won’t do that, bring in my loved ones to my self-inflicted therapy sessions, ahem, but the chances are, I will, and when I do, it’ll be better to do so honestly rather than deny it.
That’s where this song comes in.
Because for all of Lorde’s taunting (bet he rues, oh yeah, bet he rues)she’s also acknowledging the flip side of the equation. “I’ll love you till my breathing stops”; “she’s gonna play and sing and lock you in her heart”. Every person that touches us leaves a print. We won’t erase it. We’ll tuck it closer to ourselves, and take it out to examine; some of us will shout at it, some of us will not.
But one thing is for sure. It won’t go away. We won’t let it.
It’s better to acknowledge that than bury our heads in the sand. It’s also important to acknowledge that before we decide to submit that 300 page poetry memoir and pretend our loved ones have got no right to take issue with it.
Don’t show your belly, don’t write about your life, used to me my motto.
Show your belly, ask permission, and be careful who else you bring with you, is how it looks like now.