I’ve been listening to the songs and stories of an extraordinary composer/singer/guitarist, Mark Knopfler. His songs are often stories of ordinary people — doing their work, loving, suffering, singing — maybe remembered and maybe not, but usually caught in the grip of something bigger than they are. I kept going back to listen. There is something uniquely satisfying and heart-touching about his music, his songs, especially the more recent ones. He has made the art of songwriting into the art of telling powerful stories. As a writer, I feel a need to understand why his songs are so powerful.
The key skill set I noticed:
Mastery: The music, both rhythm and melody distinctly fits the words. I can’t guess which comes first, but suspect Knopfler goes back and forth between them as he composes. Neither one is just tacked on to the other. In written storytelling, you may have good illustrations to enrich and inform the imagination of the readers; in songs the music enriches and informs the emotion of the listeners. Imagination and emotion are tightly inter-related. In either case the music or picture must be superb — and therein lies the requirement for mastery, for years and years of developing a skill to the highest point of art.
Acute observation: Seeing clearly, telling it like it is, including details that show character and feeling and make it both vivid and memorable.
Empathy: Truly understanding the people and their feelings from the inside, not just the outside. This is a kind of nonjudgmental acceptance, which leads to —
Compassion: “Sympathy” means “I hear and feel sorry for you.” “Empathy” means “I feel your feelings with you.” “Compassion” means “I hear, feel, and love you. I make no judgement about your goodness or badness — just knowing who you really are and loving you.” I remember something I learned from participating in healing — everyone at their very core wishes to give and receive love — it is what we are. We all have roots in the same ground and that ground is something we call love.
You don’t have to believe me about this — just learn to meditate and do healing, and sooner or later you will discover this truth for yourself. And sometimes when we make that connection, miracles happen.
We wrap other things around that core, thinking it needs to be protected while really it is the strong, eternal center of us. But we create all those other things — fear, anger, barriers, judgments, denial, and more — to protect something that never needed protection. That loving part of ourselves and others is what we experience as compassion when we consciously become aware of that connection. The songs, the stories become healing.
Inclusion: starting with the thread of one person, one feeling, and weaving that into something larger so it speaks for and to many. Ultimately the song may bring in the earth, the sky, the sea, the stars. The part fits into the whole quite neatly, inextricably.
The last two things on the list above are what makes Knopfler’s music truly exceptional. He didn’t start out that way. Yes, he had empathy, he has extraordinary musical talent, and he loves music enough to do the incredible years of practice with the devotion that leads to mastery. Talent is something you are born with, but mastery like this and compassion only comes through years of devotion. If you listen to what he’s saying, both in interviews and in the music, you can hear that his music is a means for communion (not just communication, but communion) with others — and with deeper parts of himself. And that touches other hearts as well. People respond, even when they may not know what they are responding to.
I understand now why so many of the comments on his YouTube recordings simply say, “I love you.” Of course, many of the comments focus on the music. Yes, he is a master guitarist and they say so, but he isn’t the only master guitarist around even though you’d think he was from his fans. Although I’ve heard him discribed as having a “golden voice” yet his voice seems quite ordinary to me — his delivery is low key and almost conversational, but the energy his voice carries is far from ordinary.
I suspect his fans are hearing/feeling that special something more — the genuine love and compassion he seems to have for people, especially for the outliers of our society who live on an edge. A few of the many examples: the lost ones (Telegraph Road and Sonny Liston), the unique ones (Jerimiah Dickson), transcendent human love (Our Shangri La and If This Is Goodbye) and the geniuses (like himself) who are so focussed on one thing, one form of self-expression that it consumes their lives (Monteleone and The Sky and Piper to the End).
(Disclosure: Writing this is surprisingly difficult. It comes out a phrase at a time, not all at once in a rush the way things do when I really understand them. So. Clearly I don’t fully get it. Sometimes a thought dissolves under my fingers as I try to type it. I find myself saving this every few words so the thoughts won’t escape.)
All right, with all of this I still haven’t said what I set out to say about writing stories — what the big take-away for myself as a writer is. Marzipan’s Adventures — she is just a young faery cat in another world, which is linked to both Earth and to Faery. But for the story to be whole, it has to show how she fits into her own beloved world. It needs to show the vastness and grandeur and possibilities of that tiny world and the connectedness of the web of relationships in it. In a way, her story represents that world with its universe fitting neatly into the multiverse. And it has to show it, mostly in the details and the little moments, not tell it.
Marzipan’s actions need to show those interactions with her neighbors, both humna and creutairean, and with Didean, the world herself. (Humna are part Earth human, part Faery. Creutairean are part Earth animal, part Faery being. In fact, humna are creutairean too, and the humna are the only ones who don’t know this and who think they are different, This little blindness comes from the Earth human part of them, which tends to see differences rather than common ground.) (Sorry, I got side-tracked there but I’ll leave it in just in case you needed to know.)
The story itself, the plot as it were, has to carry all of these details and insights almost invisibly. If an author is preachy-teachy, he or she evokes resistance — and boredom. But if, as explained in Magical Writing the storyteller just slides things in with no fuss, the reader is more likely to just take it in as they gallop along with the plot, which is the obstensible reason for the story. But the plot is just a vehicle for the real story.
So, to some extent good storytelling seems to me to be about seeing reality compassionately and sharing that vision so we all better understand how we are connected to and can support each other.
I wonder if Knopfler knows what he is doing? He wouldn’t have to… it might just be the way he naturally has grown into the world. He spent some time being a social worker and that would have enriched both his view and his understanding of people. Or he might have just figured it out for himself — he’s an intelligent man. Listening to him in the documenteries talking about his craft, he knows. He sees how in songwriting, composing in bits and pieces, fragments and fictions, he often is telling the story of the person, of the society, of the history (and perhaps the future) of the world. For all I know, he may be telling the story of the multiverse.
ALL storytellers in all of the multiverse may be doing the same.
I just had a thought-concept; I wonder if I can say it clearly? What if we who tell stories in the multiverse — and perhaps we all do — no, wait! What if living is the real story? What if we are showing the Multiverse who She is and what She shall become with every moment of our lives?
After all, we are all one piece with the trees and stones and creatures.