One day nine years ago, I bellied up to the urinal next to a fantasy writer named Charlie. This was during the second year of my MFA, and the fiction class that Charlie and I were enrolled in had just finished workshopping a story of mine. After we zipped and flushed, Charlie said, “Hey, man. I heard one of your songs on the radio the other day. Good stuff. Really poppy.”
He was talking about Watershed, the band I’d played in since I was a teenager, the band whose budding success had driven me to drop out of college as an undergrad and, years later, whose frustrations had pushed me back to school to try for a master’s in creative nonfiction. As Charlie had said, Watershed’s songs are poppy—and fast. The kind of songs where boy-meets-and-loses-girl in three chords and three minutes. Every now and then one of them got played on the radio, and I smiled at how cool it was that a classmate had heard it. “Thanks, man,” I said.
Charlie turned toward the sinks. “But here’s what I’m wondering,” he said. “Why doesn’t your prose have that same kind of, I don’t know, concision, I guess. That same quick, hard burst of joy?”
His question stumped me for a second. I’d come out of that day’s workshop feeling good, thinking the class had liked my piece: 6,000 words chronicling a disintegrating marriage in the Detroit suburbs, via a painfully detailed backstory and narrated from the POV of (stick with me here) the wife’s Guatemalan trouble doll. Clever! Meta! This story had come on the heels of my first effort, an 8,000-word behemoth that was also about a rocky Michigan marriage, with an even more painfully detailed backstory, this time from the POV of a small town tow-truck driver. Gritty! With social class sensitivity!
My fiction was positively breezy compared to much of the nonfiction I’d been writing, longwinded essays that left no personal crisis unexamined. My fellow nonfictioneers were largely doing the same, and in our workshops we dissected pieces about death, disease, sexual abuse, and—that ever-present staple—white men plagued with chronic dissatisfaction. Now that I think about it, sitting next to some of my classmates’ manuscripts on that workshop table, my essays, earnest as they were, were comparatively lighthearted. But measured against the song Charlie had heard on the radio, a lot of my work was, well, what’s the opposite of poppy? Sludgy?
I don’t remember exactly how I answered Charlie in that bathroom, but I probably unleashed a screed about how prose writing gave me the space to delve deep into character, motivation, and the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. Because this was grad school, I likely used the word ontology. I almost certainly used privilege as a verb.
The truth is I didn’t know then why I could write concise and joyful songs but had trouble writing concise and joyful prose. I think I know now. As an MFA student, I didn’t yet have the experience or training to write poppy. I hadn’t earned the confidence. I thought that in order to be taken seriously, I had to take myself über-seriously. I thought that longer + sadder + darker = more important. I thought that real writers wrote in the minor key.
I see now that this was the same mistake I’d made as a high schooler in the mid-Eighties, when I first picked up a hand-me-down acoustic. I figured myself to be a smart kid. I was good at calculus and physics, and I dominated American civics. I knew I could easily become a chemical engineer or a lawyer. But those jobs were for pudgy suckers with Sansabelts and comb-overs. I was going to be a rock star. Not some headbanging baffoon, but a serious musician-type, like the guys in my favorite band back then, Rush. But every time I strung together the three chords I knew—A, D, and E—it always came out sounding silly and simple. How could that be? I read Ayn Rand. I was sincere, dammit. Striving to be intense. I wanted to write songs that mattered (the italics here indicate that I am bringing two clenched fists to my forehead in tormented earnestness—to be followed immediately by earnest torment).
One day I brought my acoustic over to my friend Colin’s house. He also played guitar, and he had decided that the two of us should start a band, the band that would eventually become Watershed. While I was strumming away on my trusty A-major chord, Colin told me to shift my index finger so that it sat on the first fret of the B-string. I wrestled my fingers into position, and there it was: A-minor, the sincere sound of my sincere heart. Ayn Rand played on six strings. From there I learned D-minor and E-minor, and before long I was writing lyrics like He finds disillusion here, disillusion there. He drinks from the well of his own despair. My minor-ness was boundless.
This reliance on minor keys didn’t last long—only all through high school and my first three years of college. But after my bandmates and I dropped out of school and into a rusty van, we learned what disillusion really looked like (playing humorless, five-minute ballads for the bartender and the doorman on a Tuesday night in Charleston, WV), and my sense of what counted as an important song changed. I stopped listening to Rush and started listening to the Replacements. I slid my index finger back to the major position and got to work writing three-minute power-pop tunes.
Why the switch in sensibility? If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I had finally figured out the kind of song I was actually good at writing: quick and catchy. I would have said that I’d gotten better at my craft and that “lightweight” pop songs are much harder to write than “serious” minor key dirges. I would have said that songwriters too often use the minor key as a shortcut to—or a substitute for—meaning, as if minor chords automatically give a song gravitas. I would have said, “Rock songs don’t need gravitas. They just need to fucking rock.” I would have used those exact words, and I would have been exactly right.
I’m twice as old now as I was then, so I can see that there’s an additional element I didn’t quite understand. Before I dropped out of school, everything I knew about heartbreak and hardship was purely theoretical. My life was simple. It kicked ass. I was a civics-dominating, Rush-loving, suburban kid with nothing more dire to worry about than talking my mom into letting me see the R-rated Risky Business at the megaplex. Because my day-to-day was so poppy, so major-keyed, I had the luxury of tormented earnestness. But as soon as I dropped out of school, hit the road, and started getting my ass kicked a little bit, then I lost the need to write glum and dark songs. When my life edged toward minor, it freed me up to write major. And by then I was a practiced enough songwriter to know how to do it.
Sorry for that painfully detailed backstory, but I’m exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. And right now, in the present, my life still kicks ass, but it’s much more complicated than it was nine years ago when I had that exchange with Charlie or twenty years ago when the band was playing for the bartender and the doorman in West Virginia. Now I’m the father of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Now I have to think about the quality of the kindergarten I’ll soon be sending my son to. Now I have to monitor childhood speech development and cognitive milestones, and I have to find a way to explain to my kids that yes, we do in fact live on a big blue marble that circles the sun. And yes, some day the sun will go dark.
Now that my life is so wonderfully complex—and now that I’m a more experienced and confident prose writer—I’m trying to write with more sweetness and light. I’m trying to write with self-deprecation but not self-flagellation. I’m trying to avoid writing (and reading) essays that strike the same minor key notes my own work has struck time and time again: excessive gimmickry, admitting ones own faults and limitations in a naked attempt to gain the reader’s sympathy, the inclusion of backstory under the guise of exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present but really doing it mostly for nostalgia’s sake, exaggerating the innocence of children to amp up sentimentality.
I’m trying, but it’s not easy.
Writing in the minor key is easy—for lots of reasons. From a craft perspective, stories need trouble, and trouble ain’t cheery. From a practical perspective, ours is a community that rewards the sincere and solemn, as most literary journals lean to that side of the scale. Then again, the fact that last year’s AWP Conference featured two separate panels on how to inject humor into creative nonfiction suggests that we already suspect we’ve been taking ourselves too seriously.
Mostly, though, the minor key is easy because the material presents itself so easily. Death and suffering are everywhere. So are beauty and happiness, of course, but we often avoid writing about them because we don’t want to seem Pollyannaish. Safer to go either sad or ironic. Which, by the way, is how “important,” hipster bands typically cover mainstream pop songs: either in a whisper or while flying a postmodern devil-horn fist. Both ways can be cowardly.
After starting to work on this essay, I put it aside for two weeks so that my wife, kids, and I could travel to Ohio to spend some time with my wife’s mom, who, according to her doctors and home hospice care workers, had only a few days to live. I hate to admit this, but while we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house, essentially waiting for her to die, I found myself processing the events not so much as lived experiences but as potential essay topics. Needless to say, all of those topics were dreary. An afternoon of shopping became “Buying My Son His First Funeral Suit.” An excellent curried-chicken salad dropped off by a neighbor became “The Last Grape on the Serving Spoon.” And, yeah, I know it. Despite my original intentions, this essay, the one you’re reading now, took a sharp turn toward the minor key. Like I say, I’m trying, but it’s not easy.
Maybe I can learn from my mother-in-law. She was a piano teacher, and the hospital bed she spent her last days in sat in her living room, two or three steps from the piano bench. A few hours before she died, she smiled and told all of us who were gathered around her bedside that when she looked back on her life, “It was awesome.”
In the moment that was as minor as minor gets, she played one last resounding major chord. A quick, hard burst of joy.
Joe Oestreich is the author of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. His second book, Lines of Scrimmage: A Story of Football, Race, and Redemption (co-written with Scott Pleasant), is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he co-edits Waccamaw.