When I was asked to write about how punk music influenced my writing, I thought two things:
1. Has punk music really influenced me in any way?
2. No one tells me what to write! Fuck the man!
I guess that is a pretty straight forward way of answering the question. The anti-authoritarian roots of punk music still resonate deep within me. I have a problem with authority (watch as I talk to a cop using “yes, sir/ma’am” and smile politely, only to say “fuck the pigs” once I am out of ear shot). I don’t like doing the mainstream thing.
When I write, I want to write hard. I want to write hard and loud and fast and not give a shit what other people think about me. I want to write like I am the only one that matters, as though the only people who are going to read what I write are going to know exactly what I mean. It’s the same way with readings; I want to feel the crowd move as one, feel their angst and excitement and celebration and, and, and.
When I discovered punk music—when I started listening to guys and girls screaming out their fears and hatred through cracked vocal cords and with fast drums and out of tune guitars, listening to it live in basements and VFW halls and churches and small venues—I knew I had found something, someplace where I belonged.
…But it wasn’t really like that, now was it? Punk music discovered me. In my parent’s basement, playing ping pong with my dad, listening to Rocket to Russia by the Ramones. This is where punk rock slam danced its way into my life. Starting fast and without warning, starting without an introduction or an explanation. The record hissing and popping and then power chords and simple drum beats and Joey Ramone’s warble echoing off the wooden walls. I wish this is where the SLC Punk moment happened, the slow dawning of something “new” that would alter the course of my life. But it was just music. It was like that.
It was like that until I was old enough to start having some stake in my identity, to start deciding how exactly I wanted to grow up. And while, in reality, nothing I was capable of doing the summer between middle and high school was going to be earth shattering or meant anything other than the clothes I would end up wearing, to a bored teenager in the suburbs, this was everything. Discovering or inventing who I was, who I was going to become, was the only thing on my mind. I had started trying to hang out with the skaters, riding around on a skateboard that I have since turned into a bookshelf, and listening to more of the Ramones. I liked the romantic idea of torn clothes and a fuck-it-all attitude. I liked the idea of living fast and loud. I thought girls with purple hair and piercings were pretty. Punk rock spoke to me in a way that my over active hormones loved. And so I went with it.
And I guess it had some lasting effects. The idea that trying was passé led to a few too many semesters of bad grades. The glamorization of smoking cigarettes and drinking led me to doing both, thinking, like all of the anti-smoking ads warned against, that it was cool. That the cool kids did it. But soon, after moving from the suburbs to the city, the cool kids weren’t the ones listening to The Bouncing Souls, Anti-Flag, NOFX, The Lawrence Arms, et al. The cool kids were doing acid and listening to Animal Collective, Blonde Redhead.
I didn’t start writing seriously until I was twenty two. I had dropped out of college in an attempt to become a rock star, sheepishly went back to school, dropped out, went back, and finally settled on doing something that my teachers in high school had always said I was good at. Like everyone else. Like everyone else, I went in thinking that I was something special, someone important that was going to be famous because my teachers all said that I was good at something. Only now, working full time to put myself through school, I didn’t have the time or energy to worry about what was cool. I didn’t know what the kids were listening to, didn’t really care. I got bored with the weird music that I started listening to when I had first gone off to school, heading back to the tunes that made me feel the best, the most driven, the happiest. Punk rock.
There’s a certain ego behind wanting to be a punk rock star. Not just of wanting to be famous, but of thinking that there is something behind what you have to say that will resonate in that punk rock way with people. That you aren’t crooning out words to a song, you are singing people’s lives, giving them a reason to push forward through the shit, the overly inflated shit that punk rock kids suffer through. This is the ego I have. This is how important I assume I will become.
It’s the same with writing. Writing on one’s own can be calming, cathartic, deeply personal and, hopefully, fun. But at what point do we start to assume that anyone else really gives a shit? Why do other people want to read the words that we put down? What are we really trying to say?
The best writing is where the author has an emotion to convey, a point to make, and leads you to that emotion, to that point subtly. Where they want to talk about loss or hope and don’t beat you over the head with either (for notable exceptions, see any story that starts with “What we talk about when we talk about…” [side note, please stop using the title “What we talk about when we talk about…” unless you are Raymond Carver’s zombie]). Meanwhile, in punk rock, the point, the emotion is laid bare and put in the forefront. In a two minute song, the message needs to be clear; in the song “That’s Youth” by the Bouncing Souls, it is not hard to know what the message is going to be (“That’s youth, that’s all! That’s all!”). And this, my friends, is why I haven’t written the best story.
In a workshop, a study abroad semester crammed into four weeks, we didn’t have time to write epics. We didn’t have time to wax poetic or introduce our characters. In order to get to the actual story, we were encouraged to start with the moment of action. A great exercise, sure, but pair that with listening to Star Fucking Hipsters play as loud and fast as they can, getting to the most exciting part as quick as possible (lead singer Stza’s screaming) and suddenly you have the recipe for starting off in the middle of what’s happening in a desperate attempt to make it to the end before passing out.
So starting in the middle, writing fast and hard and not giving a shit. This is what my stories are made of? Shallow shells of stories about drinking booze and hating cops? Where’s the passion? Where’s the soul?
My favorite thing for punk bands to do is acoustic albums. The difference between the typical distortion and pounding tempo and the clean guitars and laid back beats sends shivers down my spine. The music takes a different direction, something more intimate, more personal. Something that appears in the middle of a song, wraps itself around your veins, and squeezes until your skin is sallow and your limbs are useless. That connection to the singer, to the music itself. This is where I want to be when I write.
Writing should be personal and universal. It should be soulful and stoic. It should speak truth and tell lies and hold your hand and fuck you up. The soft and the hard. This is what I want my writing to be. I don’t want to hum along to the same tunes on the radio, I don’t want to see the plot twists coming. I want to lay things out in all of their hideous beauty and show the words for the frauds that they are.
When writing, trying to find this balance of the insane and the straight forward, I try to be human. To accept my flaws, my characters flaws, to try and paint the world in my fiction as clearly as I see it. The overflowing garbage can in the park. The watercolor, pollution sunset. Writing fast and slow, letting characters be awkward and not have the right things to say. In fiction, with lives that aren’t real, I find their opposing personality traits and exploit them. They write love letters and kill animals. They clean impeccably and hoard terribly. They cherish order but are attracted to anarchy. These are the characters that interest me. These are the fast songs slowed down. This is the acoustic power chord.
Punk music has been evolving since the term was coined, getting progressively faster, dirtier, more marketable, cleaner, more sanitized, brought to the basement and played on TV. I want to follow that. I want to never stagnate. When something becomes comfortable, I want to move on. I want to write like they play. I want to write hard and loud and fast and not give a shit what other people think about me. I want, I want, I want.