I have this good friend who’s utterly obsessed with a certain band. Mostly, he’s into indie electronica bands, and this band is very new, but bonus: the lead singer is completely his “type”–tiny, cute, intellectual, unapologetically badass feminist. He went to their concert in LA a week or two ago, and hasn’t stopped talking about it.
Seeing them perform was a seriously moving experience for him. He’s 32 and a professional and he cried afterward.
He was considering writing about the experience in a memoir-style essay. He tried very hard to explain to me why this was such a deeply, profoundly important moment, but he kept looping back to two very emotional, but rather boring, parts of the experience:
(1) His experience, which was, roughly, oh my god the band took a picture with me and SHE laughed at my dumb jokes and blew off BJ Novak’s sleazy sexual advances just to talk to me about music!
(2) The lead singer’s experience, particularly her reaction to the size of the crowd at the concert and to his request for a photo. Which was, roughly, dumbstruck that they suddenly had so many fans. She was, apparently, all smiles, and very obviously surprised.
Separately, these two emotions were pretty commonplace and dull, and that’s what he was stuck on. He was approaching it thinking, so what, I like their music and I have a huge crush on this singer, but what does that matter? And so what, she’s famous now, that’s not unusual when a band is pretty decent.
What he needed to do was find where those emotions intersected, and parse some meaning from them that would matter to a disinterested reader.
Fortunately, this meaning was exactly what had made him cry; he just hadn’t articulated it completely. That moment, when the lead singer realized the sheer number of fans her band had accrued, was the threshold of fame–where she’s still happy to take a photo with a fan, where she’s still struck speechless by the crowds. It’s a moment where she’s still accessible, where she’s still in it for the music and the magic of it, where she still connects, directly and openly, with the fans who’ve made her famous.
For that brief and vivid moment, she was an ideal, a talented but humble performer just stepping through the doorway of fame.
And from there, it’s all downhill. In a few years, she won’t be up for random photo ops. She won’t laugh at a fan’s lame jokes. (She might even choose to go hook up with BJ Novak instead.) She won’t be surprised by the size of the crowd. There will be a wall between her and the “commoners,” and she’ll dissolve into the world of albums and interviews.
But for that moment, there was still a pure, sincere connection between a musician and her fans.
And that’s the kind of emotion that matters to a reader–it’s a feeling that speaks broadly, to shared experiences, and which contains some important meaning. I can’t relate to his crush on the lead singer (the individual experience which has no moral or meaning), but I can relate to the feeling of seeing a favorite band become so popular that they lose touch. More importantly, there’s meaning there; it’s a tragedy that fame necessarily isolates the famous from the very fans who’ve put them there.
I find it’s good practice to try and parse broad meaning from emotional real-life events. (Beware: it’s also crazy-making. Great for fiction; astonishingly bad for navigating real-life human interactions.) I’ve found it much easier to reliably craft solid emotional impact since I started doing this.
On this day, December 3, in 1857, Joseph Conrad was born in Berdichev, Imperial Russia (modern
Ukraine, then a part of Poland). While he settled in England and wrote in English, he always considered himself a Pole. Heart of Darkness, one of the most famous of his 20 novels (which explores colonialism and the attitudes regarding what constitutes a barbarian versus civilized society) is considered one of the best English novels of the 20th century, as is his novel Lord Jim, which chronicles a crew’s abandonment of its disabled ship. Conrad died in England in 1924 at age 66.