Discover more from Be Where You Are
Cut to the feeling
a music writing prompt
Hello to new subscribers! I’m happy you’re here. Today, I have a prompt for you based on one of my favorite poems by Hanif Abdurraqib. I hope it brings you a moment to listen, breathe & write.
Anybody else just IN IT right now with fall? These days, I’m trying to find ways to drop into a writing space quickly because I have limited time to write. What are your shortcuts to get to creative mode faster? Music is one of the key ways I do this.
I’m teaching a class this year called Song, Stage, and Screen, and we spend the first part of the year writing poems and song lyrics. Our first poem assignment is to read, listen to, and write a poem inspired by Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem, “When We Were 13, Jeff’s Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back.” It’s a poem that gives me chills every time I read it, and that made me see this classic Journey song in a new way.
If you have 2 minutes or so, watch this brief video of Abdurraqib talking about his path to writing through music. In it, he makes a case for being led by curiosity, and he says, “The best musicians and the best writers are essentially tour guides through the interior of a world that you cannot on your own touch.”
He speaks to how music transports us, and shares that his central question when writing is, “How do I cut to the feeling?” (btw, b/c I know Abdurraqib is a Jepsen fan, have you heard this Carly Rae Jepsen song, “Cut to the Feeling?” I found this in a Culture Study thread on favorite “pump up songs”).
This idea of cutting to the feeling has me thinking about how often music helps me out of a funk, back into my body, back into the now, more than almost anything else. So, let’s try this with a prompt…
When We Were 13, Jeff’s Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back
and this is why none of us sing along to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ when we are being driven by Jeff’s mom, four boys packed in the backseat tight like the tobacco in them cigarettes Jeff’s mom got riding
shotgun with us around I-270 in a powder blue Ford Taurus where four years later Jeff will lose his virginity to a girl behind the East High School football field then later that night his keys and pants in the school pool so that he has to run
home crying to his mother with an oversized shirt and no pants, like a cartoon bear, and the next day when I hear this story, I will think about what it means for someone to become naked two times in one night to rush into the warmth of two
women, once becoming a man and once becoming a boy all over again but right now it is just us in this car with Jeff’s mother, that cigarette smoke dancing from her lips until it catches the breeze
from the cracked front window and glides back towards us a vagabond, searching for a throat to move into and cripple while Neal Schon’s guitar rides out the speakers and I don’t know how many open windows a man has to climb out of in the middle of the night in order to have hands that can make anything scream like that.
nothing knows the sound of abandonment like a highway does, not even God.
in the 1980’s, everyone wrote songs about someone leaving except for this one cuz it’s about how the morning explodes over two people in one bed who didn’t know each other the night before when alone
was the only other option and their homes had too many mirrors for all that shit and so it is possible that this is the only song written in the 1980’s about how fear turns into promise
I think I know this because there is so much piano spilling
all over our laps that we can’t help but to smile since we still black and know nothing can ransack sorrow like a piano.
Jeff’s mother’s hand trembles and still wears a wedding ring so she pulls over to the side of the highway and turns the volume up so loud after the second guitar solo when the keys kick in again that we can barely hear the cocktail
of laughter and crying consuming the front seat until the song fades away and the radio is low again and the ring once on Jeff’s mother’s hand is on the side of the highway beneath us, a sacrifice
and so maybe this is why grandma said a piano can coax even the most vicious of ghosts out of a body.
and so maybe this is why my father would stare at the empty spaces my mother once occupied, sit me down at a baby grand and whisper play me something, child.
First, think about a piece of music or a musician/band that moves you, that you want to understand better by writing about it. Listen to this song or album closely, a few times. Close your eyes and really listen.
Then, free write about it. How does the song connect with your life? Is there a specific memory attached to it? Write about that memory and list sensory details, feelings, thoughts, etc
What does the music sound like? How would you describe the vocals, instrumentation, technical elements—the feeling it creates?
You could try out your own spin on some of Abdurraqib’s craft choices, including a very long title that runs into the first line of the poem, lyrical language mixed with everyday speech, long lines that ramble across the page, vivid imagery, the present tense telling of a past memory
Try to bring yourself and the reader somewhere new—to cut to the feeling of what you’re trying to say.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He’s the author of the poetry book, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, the essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and many other brilliant books. Check out his work; you will be changed.
Be Where You Are is a newsletter about how to use writing and mindfulness to be where you are. You’re always welcome to reply to this email, comment below, or find me on instagram (@mohnslate) or elsewhere. If you enjoyed this, I’d love it if you would subscribe, share this post, or send it to a friend.