The other night, when Kath and I were sitting in bed doing our best Morecambe and Wise impression, we got talking about work. Kath is a nurse at a veterinary practice; a very good nurse with great empathy for her patients.
“We’ve got a kitten in at the moment,” she said, with the hint of sadness that usually means the animal in question has been mistreated in some respect.
I steeled my insides. One of the things I’ve gained from four-and-a-half years with Kath is greater compassion, as well as a better understanding of the feelings and personalities of animals. The downside of that is a struggle with the stories she brings home about injustice to innocent creatures.
You’d be amazed to discover the relationship a veterinary practice has with the RSPCA, for example; heaven knows how I’d cope if she worked with children from broken homes…
What the owner did I'm not allowed to say. It wasn't deliberate malice, but it was stupid and I could feel the anger rise. Anger that people can be so ignorant about taking on a pet. Anger at the burden that ignorance puts on Kath and her colleagues. And anger that I could do even less for the poor thing than she could.
There was frustration there as well – that Kath has a passionate voice for her work but lacks the means to make it heard. The passion she has for her profession, and specifically for the caring of her patients, is part of why I love her. And for that reason, I want to help her find that voice.
* * *
A few nights later, I was out driving in the small hours of the morning.
When I first owned a car there was nothing greater than the freedom of the road – particularly at night, when there was nobody else around to share it with. But as the years have gone on, my friends and I have succumbed to the inevitability of age and domestication, and late night drives are now something to simply get out of the way before retreating to the comforts of bed.
This night, though, was a throwback to those times a decade ago. The latest Ben Folds Five album was on the CD player; it was on loud, and I was rediscovering the beauty of songs I’d last listened to a few months previous. As often happens when you come back to something fresh, lyrics that had gone undeciphered before were suddenly becoming clear. Lyrics both beautiful and profound.
“It’s a frame, it’s oblique like life
Oh and how much now should we pay for the past
Cause you could age with grace if I freed you in my mind.”
(Away When You Were Here, Ben Folds Five)
I’ve always been jealous of musicians, the way they can express thoughts and feelings so completely in just two-and-a-half minutes. The way their music complements the lyrics and causes a great swell of emotion inside. I’ve never felt confident that anything I write can possibly achieve the same economy, or inspire feelings to a similar extent.
I wonder if other writers feel the same.
Yes, you can write in a certain rhythm or cadence, choose perfect words and demonstrate great profundity, but nothing quite matches soaring orchestral strings or the pain in a singer’s voice. Maybe the written word is simply more powerful when delivered out loud, rather than absorbed in silence by a solitary mind.
* * *
That last thought is, surely, hardly groundbreaking. After all, scripts are brought to life by actors, and poetry takes on a new life when delivered in performance.
None of this is to say that I think Kath should start writing ballads about animal cruelty or veterinary practice. More likely, she’ll one day start a business educating ordinary folk like you and I who want to own a dog but don’t know the first thing about their training and behaviour. Her business will have a website and hopefully I’ll get to write a few bits and pieces for it.
That is for another time. For now, this is a musing (if you will!) on what it means to be heard. Maybe, even, what it means to understand the expectations of your audience. I read novels when I want to enjoy a good story, I listen to music that suits my mood, and I devour information from the web when I have nothing better to do.
Everybody else, presumably, does the same. We pick our entertainment as we desire. Hopefully, people will one day read my work because it means as much to them as some other form of expression. To want it to be the best I can possibly make it is natural, but that won’t stop me envying those who express different emotions in other ways, and it won’t stop me envying those people who have found the format for their particular message.