Songwriting (And Supposedly Straight White Boys)

It didn’t make any sense. During the day, I received a salary to help poor disabled men and women in legal cases before the federal government. I came home every night to a flourishing community that hosted regular dinner parties. For the first time I was in a relationship that was honest, secure, and normal—well, as normal as a Catholic relationship can be. But I was angry.

The anger seemed to come out of nowhere, during a time in my life when I felt more stable, integrated, and happy than ever before. I found no reason for it. But it was specific. I was mad at him, really mad.

Again, my counselor sat opposite me with her yellow pad.

“Remember when we’ve talked about depression before? People think that depression happens when you don’t have any feelings,” she said.

“Yeah, but that’s not what it was for me,” I said.

“Sometimes, when we go through traumatic experiences, our emotional reactions are too strong for us to handle at the time,” she said. “So we just shut them down, we put them away to survive.”

“Yeah, we shut them in a box.”

“Do you think that maybe, now that things are going so well, that you’re ready to process those emotions, and that’s why this anger is coming up?” The lightbulb came on. Yes.

So I began opening that box. I didn’t want to at first. Anger doesn’t feel natural for me. At times I’ve thought that my responsibilities as a Christian precluded dwelling on the past in frustration. But the lid on the box was slowly opening, and I could either let the anger come out, pick it up, hold it, and respond to it, or I could shut it away and let it continue to simmer within me.

So I wrote. I wrote music, the beginning of what I considered “The Angry Album.”

“The Bourgeois Mind” came first, titled after a favorite Christopher Dawson essay and focused on past experiences with “supposedly straight white boys.” I was angrier than I’d realized.

Later, a writer friend told me, “As a writer, you have a responsibility to write whatever is inside of you.” We like to think that inside of us we have love for others, empathy, a passion for justice. But not me. As I wrote, I found inside a lot of anger at some guy who had hurt me years before. It wasn’t pretty. But a novelist once asked Mary Karr, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I asked myself that question. And I wrote that song about those “boys that got into Notre Dame,” the boys “living in their white noise.” I wrote about the “supposedly straight white boys.”

I feared the song. I didn’t understand exactly why I wrote it. I didn’t totally understand what it meant. But I had written a penetrating critique of the calculating bourgeois life so prevalent among the privileged classes, in the context of a song that came out of my raw personal experiences. That’s cool, right? I took the song to writing workshop.

Mary, a friend whose writing advice I sometimes treat as spiritual direction (a fact that probably horrifies her as she reads this… as it would any spiritually mature person), liked the opening line, and the image of “white noise.” But, she commented at the end of the song,

“These last verses strike me as pretty raw. I think what is hard for me is an accusatory tone. Even if you’re mad, bitter, whatever, I do think it is harder for the reader to trust the ‘voice’ of the author or protagonist if we sense a tone quick to judge others but unreflective about one’s own shortcomings. There is so much lyrical wit in this poem/song that I really appreciate, because I appreciate wit. But something in the tone makes me uncomfortable, and I think it is that sense that there is a pretty harsh condemnation of ‘supposedly straight white boys,’ but no admission of, if you will, the ‘fallen human nature’ that we all share, that the protagonist himself may have been guilty of duplicity or using another or hypocrisy or whatever it is that the straight white boys are being accused of. Does that make sense? There is something that draws us in when we know the poet is just as willing to admit his own weakness because this makes him vulnerable, and vulnerability is disarming. I feel like I could say this a lot better… maybe it will come out better in discussion.”

Mary appreciated the song for its cultural critique. It diagnosed a problem prevalent in wealthy aristocratic cultures, including the culture of upper-middle-class privileged Christian straight white male America. The pointed finger pointed justly, but it did not point artistically, because it did not point back upon the self. I diagnosed the problem and pretended to be removed from it, pretended to be impenetrable and immune to it. But the serious artist and the honest man knows that he is never clean from the ills of the world around him.

So I tried to change the song. I tried to write again, with myself within that world.

But no words came. The song didn’t have forgiveness in it. I wasn’t in it. Maybe those vulnerabilities just didn’t exist in the world I had written. Maybe they were covered over by all the shit that I had gone through, by the anger and frustration. Whatever world that song existed in, I hadn’t dug deep enough to find myself in it.

I listened again, and I knew that she was right. And I was horrified. I realized my need for a community of writers. How would I have known all this if she hadn’t been sitting in my living room for writing workshop? A writer writing on his own always runs the risk of self delusion. We all need others to help us see when we’re not being honest with ourselves. Thanks, Mary.

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