Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? A Case Study

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

One of the commonest questions you get asked as a writer is, where do you get your ideas from? And the received wisdom these days is, it’s a dumb question you shouldn’t ask us.

Well, dear reader, for those non-writers amongst you I’ll let you into a secret: writers only say that because they don’t have a decent answer. They don’t really know!

For example. I recently posted, in the course of talking about April, 1979’s albums, about T S Eliot. That prompted a look at a poem of his I did at school, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.’ That, in turn, got me thinking about things, the way you do.

You see, although I appreciated that poem, I laboured under the misapprehension that Prufrock was a real life character, a minor poet whom Eliot had taken a dislike to. I imagined Eliot, the literary star, taking the piss out of this shoulda been a contender bozo who’d never quite made it. In fact, apparently it was Eliot’s first published work, so I can truly say I preferred his early stuff. He started writing it in 1910, when he was 22. And Prufrock never existed.

Seen in that context, the poem takes on a different hue: it’s Eliot, the young man, worrying about turning into a has-been that never quite made it, either in literary or romantic terms, mithering over whether he’ll mess up his clothes eating a peach, and, in the most memorable line for me, measuring out his life in coffee spoons. He doesn’t think the mermaids will ever sing to him, poor schmuck. (First tenuous reason for having a mermaid pic at the top).

Anyhoo. A couple of weeks further on, and I’m randomly strumming on my acoustic, shifting from G to C, and then onto D: apart from the fact it’s a kind of a waltz-time tempo, so far, so traditional. Non-musicians: that three chords and the truth thing almost always involves chords 1, 4 and 5 (so in this context, you start at G and count to 4 and there you are at C, if you get my meaning). Then, as I switched through the chords, I got this semi-hardboiled line about my Muse stealing your last cigarette.

What was that about? Well, I was thinking recently about stories, and how sometimes your friends can become the source of some great material, if you listen carefully. I’ve always been a bit anxious about the ethics of that, although usually by the time things are put through the heavy filter of a writer’s imagination, it’s quite difficult to see the original. Probably.

Things progressed, musically, if not particularly imaginatively. E minor’s the associated chord if you want to go all out and have 4 chords and the truth; and my fingers led me naturally to A major, which is an only slightly original switch up. I could see the musical shape of the verse, now. But what was it about?

What indeed, dear reader. I couldn’t have whole song about my Muse and her kleptomaniac tendencies. Over the course of a day or so, I toyed with the idea of what other supposedly mythical creatures the narrator might have issues with. A few ideas popped into my head, and then one morning I sat down and wrote the whole three verses out in a oner. But who’s the narrator?

That’s always another good question. On the one hand, he was originally me, apologising for my Muse. On the other hand, as the lyrics spooled out, I felt a little less sympathy for him and more for his supporting cast: his Guardian Angel, for example, was only trying to save his hide from various dangerous situations.

Which led me back to J Alfred Prufrock, and his mermaids. What if he was reincarnated as a singer-songwriter, and really wanted to piss off Tom Eliot? Hence ‘Prufrock’s Revenge.’

So there you are. A long misunderstood poem, a pang of guilt about using other people’s lives as raw material, four – no five chords, and something approaching the truth. See what I mean about us not really knowing?

Anyhoo. If I’ve intrigued you enough to listen to the result, here it is via the miracle of Youtube. Incidentally, if you do like it, I’m currently giving the lyrics away to my email list: feel free to sign up via the contact form!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 comments

  1. Funny that I was thinking of Prufock yesterday… as I dared to eat a (white) peach…
    And yes, even tho I’m of ‘average’ height my trousers are rolled…

    Liked the video.
    Nick
    Ps can still see the dust mites in Donald Maclean’s classroom when we did the poem first..

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