One of my favorite songwriters of all time is Terry Scott Taylor. He’s one of those guys who isn’t widely known, but the people who do are familiar with his work hold him in very high regard. His main project is a band called Daniel Amos, but he’s also sung and written for The Lost Dogs, The Swirling Eddies, and probably a smattering of other bands I’m not even aware of.
Terry’s lyrics are often hard to decipher. They’re filled with metaphors and allusions to various semi-obscure theologians and poets. You can tell every word of every song was deliberately chosen, though sometimes reading through his work can feel like reading every third page of a novel. Even after putting in the time to read many of Terry’s favorite writers, his lyrics can still be a struggle to wade through.
I’ve heard when people ask Terry what one of his songs is about, he rarely gives a straightforward answer. More often than not, he turns the question around and asks, “What does it mean to you?” Usually, the fan has some sort of theory on the song, and after he explains it, Terry will simply smile and say something along the lines of, “You know, I’d never thought about it that way, but I like it. Sounds good to me.”
It used to drive me nuts hearing this. There’s clearly some deep, profound meaning behind the song in question, and this guy is deliberately keeping it from his fans. It’s bad enough we have to do homework just to know the frame of reference he’s working from, but now when people are approaching him directly and asking about songs, he can’t even be bothered to explain them? Ridiculous.
Then I wrote my first book, and it made perfect sense.
I was talking to someone who had just finished reading Alpha, and she was sharing some of the things she enjoyed. The conversation turned to the book’s thematic content, and she mentioned one scene in particular, sharing the message she took from it and asking if she was on the right track.
She was not. In fact, she was way off track. I’d simply written the scene because I thought it would be a fun and funny way to set up some bigger plot elements. There were no hidden messages, no agendas I was trying to push. Just jokes and storytelling.
I could easily see how she’d take that message from what I’d written. I hadn’t intended to say anything with this little string of jokes, but there it was, easy enough to see if you were looking. What’s more, it was a message I really did believe.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. When I write a book, I usually have one or two themes that I really want to touch on throughout the story. I’ll make sure snippets of dialog and occasional situations the characters find themselves in point to that theme without getting too heavy-handed. What’s interesting is that it always seems like when I come back to the book after it’s been done a while, I can usually find a few more that I didn’t even know I was developing. Once again, they’re themes that I really do believe in.
So even when I’m not trying, I’m developing themes. I can’t write a book without my worldview slipping through, easy enough to see if you know where to look.
I wonder if those kinds of messages – the ones you put into your work without even realizing it – are the places where your art shows who you really are. Those things that are so foundational to how you view the world that they show up in your work without any conscious decisions can be really telling.
In a sense, that makes art a scary undertaking. You can try all you want to address noble themes and share admirable messages, but at the end of the day, your art has the power to betray you. You never know what your latest creation will give away.
Creatives: Have you ever found themes or messages in your work that you never intended?