I was listening the other day to one of my favorite radio shows, Sound Opinions, with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. In this episode, they were interviewing music producer, Don Was, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Was talked about working with what he called “generous” musicians, musicians who played from the heart, who were not quick to show-off what might be his/her flashy technical prowess. “There were two kinds of music,”Was said. “Generous music and “selfish music.” “Selfish” is someone standing up with his guitar playing “a thousand notes a second.” Basically, all he is saying was “look at what I can do.” It is like “watching an acrobat.” He must have “practiced a lot.” But this music doesn’t “impact your life.” One can appreciate the skill. On the other hand, “generous music” comes from people who “spill their guts” and then have the ability and courage to share it with strangers. “Generous music” transcends any style or genre.
Was was right. But I wonder if he knew he was not only talking about musicians, but writers, too.
What is a generous writer?
The generous writer doesn’t spend his time trying to craft the acrobatic sentence. That’s what a selfish writer does. “Look at what I can do,” he says. Certainly nothing wrong with a well-crafted sentence. But what have some of our most revered storytellers said? Hemingway: “Write one true sentence.” Kerouac said, “Don’t count syllables.” When talking about poetry, Kerouac said to keep it “simple and free of poetic trickery.” “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple,” he wrote in The Dharma Bums.
Do you keep it simple where you can? Do you believe opening your heart, (in memoir or fiction or personal essay), is more important than being praised for your technically perfect grammar? Are you authentic to your prose? Are you true to your story? You don’t make your story sweeter than it is. You don’t make it more troubling than it is. Will the reader discover your soul in your writing? Do you reflect a shared humanity? Do you believe in the power of words?
Do you believe your words have that power?
Generosity comes in many ways, and being a generous artist comes in different forms. But the spirit of generosity comes from one thing—something deep inside. William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, The Prelude: “Fill your paper with the breathings of the heart.” I’m not sure there is any better piece of advice.