I recently heard a song that made me think about writing. Performed by Wooden Wand, “Winter in Kentucky” features character and a story, and it left me thinking about the twists and turns in a life.
After hearing it, I thought about the lessons we can take away from songs as writers. When I got home, I searched online and listened again, marveling at the imagery, specificity and character study, all elements needed for a good narrative.
First snow of the season, the church gimme fifty bucks to shovel out the parking lot
No use thinking out loud when you’re the only one that hears
But I can listen to Jimmie Dale and watch my breath blow out like foggy flames
I ain’t gotta call nobody “sir”
Beth, I wish you’d move back here — you’ve missed a lot of crazy shit
Like last month Doc went crazy and took off in his cruiser goin’ about 110!
He was throwing blank prescription pads out the window, and I followed him for miles and miles
Until the brake lights were like the Devil’s eyes staring straight into me
Beth, when we met, you looked like the kind of girl that gets won in a drag race
Guess all them Bloody Mary brunches dulled the edges on you
You got a stay of execution; some deferment from oblivion Until the things that didn’t kill you made you weak over time
It’s winter in Kentucky and I’m all tapped out The pastor got some parishioners to shovel out that ol’ lot for free
But sometimes you’ve just gotta stop and consider the good things
Like how your money don’t get ruined when it gets washed in the pockets of your jeans.
I tracked down the songwriter and performer, 35-yearold James Toth — he is Wooden Wand — and we had a wonderful conversation about story, inspiration and the hard work it takes to put words on a page.
“We are all looking for inspiration in a variety of ways,” he said. “I’m always putting sentences and words together. The ability to do those things isn’t a gift of talent. The work comes from figuring out how not to be terrible.”
Toth’s mission — and it should be the mission of every narrative writer — is to “send out to the world something with empathy, letting them hear something that makes them feel less alone in the world. Maybe they nod in agreement or chuckle. They identify. That’s happened to them, or could happen to them. There’s something universal.”
Toth said the idea for his song came while watching television. What I found fascinating is how he uses the same skills we use — or should use — when we head out to an interview, or enter a character’s world in search of a story.
“Occasionally, I’ll turn on the TV for white noise while I’m strumming a guitar on the couch,” he said. “One day, an episode of this show — which I had not seen before and have not seen since — caught my attention. It dealt with a young couple with a drug problem. Clearly, the man in the relationship was the problem, a bad influence.
“But this couple was so tethered to one another, they had to be physically separated by the counselors and the girl’s family before they could attempt to rehabilitate the girl,” he said. “To do this, they sent the boyfriend on a fool’s errand while they diverted the girl so as to spring this ‘intervention’ on her. By the time the boyfriend knew what was going on, the girl was already on the bus, en route to rehab.
“The camera zoomed in on his face and the feeling of despair was palpable,” Toth said. “A riveting TV moment. Anyway, being the sort of writer I am, I immediately identified with the man, who was clearly worse off than the girl, who at least had the privilege of having a family who cared enough to ‘intervene’ in the first place. So I wrote “Winter in Kentucky” from what I imagined to be his perspective — as in ‘we were losers together, now I’m a loser alone,’ which, to me, makes all the difference. The first verse is non-fiction, written while I was actually shoveling snow from a church parking lot.”
Toth reminds us that storytellers need to react to what we see, hear and feel, and then use those emotions to craft a story. That’s tough to do when you get your story ideas from press releases or from calls by the PIO. It’s always better to get out of the newsroom and interview a character in person.
Near the end of our conversation, I talked with him about inspiration and how we try to harness it.
“I don’t know where songs come from,” he said. “My job is to try and capture them. I want them to seem easy. But I’m a shrewd editor. I write as fast as ideas come to me. The muse is a pest. It wakes me up at night. I’ve had to pull over on the side of a highway to write something on a receipt. I worry that the one time I won’t do it, the muse will stop knocking.”
His final advice is simple:
“Get out and observe,” he said. “People see things and ignore them. Maybe that’s what separates me. I pay attention.” Check out Toth at woodenwand.org.
Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter@thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.