I wrote my first song when I was 14 years old. Over the years, I’ve composed hundreds of songs. It was that interest — music — that led me to take a year off from pursuing a doctorate and led me down the circuitous path that has been the rest of my life.
I don’t write songs nowadays, more focused on screenplays and writing about writing. But I can’t help but think at least some of who I am as a writer derives from all that time studying and composing songs.
Which is why I say that one of my favorite ‘screenwriting’ books is “Songwriters on Songwriting,” a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo with some of the great songwriters of our time, from Mose Allison to Frank Zappa. For what are songs but stories?
Each day this week at this time, I will post insights from a songwriter about their craft in the hope their words may inspire us as writers.
Today: Mose Allison, the noted jazz and blues pianist, singer, and songwriter.
Your song “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” is very much about reality. The main line of it is, “I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing’s gonna be all right.”
Well, I think that’s the way we are. One of my formulas in life is “Ambivalence plus interdependence equals contrariety.” [Laughs] Now you can look that over, think about it. What I mean is that nothing is cut and dried, nothing is completely black and white, you know; all day long we’re being pulled in one way and pushed in another way. It’s all part of the interaction of opposing forces. Which is the real nitty-gritty. So if I can just suggest this in my songs, that is what I try to do.
This is directly applicable to writing fiction, whether novels, short stories, screenplays, or TV. No character is “completely black and white”. Every character is subject to “opposing forces”. Per the latter, we get inner conflict, the character pulled and pushed by competing instincts, feelings, habits, and desires. Per the former, we get characters with multiple layers of being, both devil and angel. As the Apostle Paul said, “We do what we don’t want to do, and don’t do what we want to do.”
This is a great starting place for any type of Protagonist as it sets up a central psychological question: Will they be able to resolve their inner contradictions? It also creates a key philosophical question: Who will the Protagonist become? Which aspects of their psyche will win the day?
Here is Mose Allison singing “I Don’t Worry About a Thing”:
What’s your favorite Mose Allison song?
For the rest of the Songwriters on Songwriting series, go here.