Tom T. Hall — “The Storyteller” of country music

The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall
Tom T. Hall, photo by Mercury Records – Billboard, 12 August 1967, Public Domain

I’ve been binge-listening a new podcast with the unforgettable name Cocaine & Rhinestones. If you guessed it’s about country music, you win. Now, you may not be a fan of the genre, but if you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’re a writer. Or you’d like to be. So allow me to introduce you to “The Storyteller”—that’s the industry’s nickname for songwriter Tom T. Hall. (You can listen to the podcast episode here, or just read the handy transcript.)

The writer and host of Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe, tells us:

“One word often used to describe Tom’s writing is ‘literary.’ Similar to Bobbie Gentry’s best work, there’s a quality to Tom’s narratives reminiscent of the great American short story writers in the 20th century. Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway – these are Tom’s influences.”

As a songwriter, Hall writes poetry. But he finds inspiration in short stories. How does that affect his writing?

Many pop or country songwriters will state a theme—like the ubiquitous, “I love you”—and then spin out a series of variations on the theme in discrete, often interchangeable verses or even just lists. In fact, Hall did that on occasion too—listen to his hit song “I Love.” That’s what I call short-arc thinking.

More often, Hall thinks in longer arcs than a 12-syllable line of poetry, or even a verse. That allows him to tell a story, and as my regular readers know, storytelling is one of the best ways to hook an audience on your idea. Even better if your stories spark emotions in the reader or listener. And when you combine a good story and a singer who can really connect emotionally to her material, well, that there is gold.

In an earlier episode of the podcast, Coe reveals that singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s biggest hits—”Ode to Billy Joe” and “Fancy”—both started out as short stories. Tom T. Hall’s most recognizable song, “Harper Valley PTA,” also tells a story that stretches out for the full length of the song. (And, if you’re really interested, for a full three episodes of Coe’s podcast.)

The Storyteller as songwriter

Here’s Coe again:

“Ask [Hall] what one of his songs is about and more often than not he’ll tell you a story about something he saw or did or something he heard someone talking about somewhere. The story that ends up in his song almost always starts with a story outside his song.”

I added the bold there. I talk a lot about Story Safari™—training yourself to see stories in the world that other people might not see. What I haven’t talked enough about is that those stories may not turn into the actual end product—they might just inspire the end product. And that’s perfect too, because you’re still writing from a unique perspective, your perspective.

Now, Tom T. Hall didn’t just sit around reading Hemingway. He had a lot of odd jobs (Coe adds, “and I do mean odd.”), like working in a funeral home. Among the less odd were his stints as a radio disk jockey:

“It’s probably worth noting that most of these gigs require Tom to write his own copy for the commercials he reads on-air. These are not songs, just tiny little scripts to read – again, like you hear in a lot of podcasts these days. But being forced to churn out disposable content like that can really make a writer out of someone. (If it seems funny that writing commercials could make you a better songwriter, well, try thinking about songs as little commercials for life.)”

It’s not just that songs are “little commercials for life”—though I love that idea. It’s “being forced to churn out disposable content” that made Hall a better writer.

When you write on deadline, you can’t be all precious and wait for the Muse to descend from on high and bless your typing fingers. You write. And you get used to writing badly sometimes, as we all do (even with the Muse). But it’s easier not to care about quality if your work goes out into the world anonymously. And if the script sucks the first time, you can always rewrite it the next time the commercial comes around. Plus, when you’re less attached to your writing, you rarely get a visit from the Willits. It’s a great way to experiment and grow.

Commit to creativity

Another thing you need to know about Tom T. Hall the writer:

“Before he was rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing, believing the best stuff came when he was fresh from sleeping. After he got rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing. The only thing that changed is where he was doing the writing.”

Write every day. If you’ve heard me say that once, you’ve heard me say it six hundred times.

And his definition of a songwriter tracks completely with my definition of a writer:

“In 2016, he told Peter Cooper that ‘songwriters aren’t good songwriters. People are good songwriters […] You sit down as a person and write a song. If you’ve written a song by the time you stand back up, you’re a songwriter. But the person comes first.'”

If you make words appear where there are no words before, you’re a writer. So stop waiting and start doing. The world is full of stories ready for you to find and tell.

Want more? I love coaching writers, individually and in groups. Click here for paid, low-cost (my e-book on storytelling is only $4.95), and free resources. Now get writing!

I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Lessons on Tyrrany — The Art of Charm podcast

I sampled a new podcast this week, The Art of Charm. The episode I listened to fascinated me, and although the guest was certainly charming, his subject matter was anything but. What’s a discussion of tyrrany doing on a podcast about charm? I don’t know, but I’m glad I heard it.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, specializes in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European history. So he knows a lot about how societies descend into totalitarianism. He said,

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

To help that learning process along, he’s written a book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s priced to sell—under $4 as an e-book, under $7 in print—and if the book is half as informative as his conversation on the podcast, we need to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. In fact, just stop reading right this minute and listen to the podcast. It’ll take less than an hour of your time, and it might save your life. Or our country. Or both.

Snyder not only believes the slide toward authoritarianism has already begun in this country, he’s actually surprised democracy didn’t devolve sooner. He says the Founders expected the Republic would be challenged much sooner. While we’ve been lucky to escape authoritarianism in the past, our luck seems to have run out.

“We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law.” — Timothy Snyder

Snyder argues that we are on a steady path away from political life as we knew it. If you doubt that, see’s “Trump Tracker” offers a running list of events and behaviors that defy the norms of political and social discourse. It’s a sobering, and head-scratching, read. The president’s bewildering behavior is one thing, but how can a third of the country—and nearly 100% of the Republicans in Congress—not care that Normal is shrinking to a speck in the country’s rearview mirror?

Can we do anything to stop the slide into tyrrany?

Yes, Snyder says. But we must act quickly. Get engaged politically—turn off your Netflix binge-watch and learn about the issues. Don’t just accept what the authorities say. Make up your own minds. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

And learn about the smaller acts you can take to stave off an authoritarian mindset. Talk to someone who’s not like you. Snyder says Jews in Germany in the 1930s wrote about their neighbors who stopped talking to them, people who used to be friendly and now crossed the street. Don’t let the authorities sow mistrust of any group—as they have started to do with people from Muslim-majority countries.

When you see a swastika—and I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, but swastika graffiti is becoming more prevalent every day—wash it off, or paint over it. Don’t let signs of hatred become normal.

And don’t “obey in advance.” Don’t make decisions based on what you believe the authorities want, or might want in the future. Hold fast to your values.

The window for positive change is closing fast. Resistance has to hit in the early months, before an authoritarian regime has had time to consolidate its power. After that window closes…I don’t even want to think about it.

Listen to the podcast. Read the book. And do something before it’s too late.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

“I have no regrets” — Ana Marie Cox across the political divide

When Ana Marie Cox launched her podcast “With Friends Like These,” she promised her listeners “uncomfortable conversations” with people who have different points of view. Last week’s podcast delivered that fifty times over. Cox took her microphone to Trump’s campaign rally in Iowa and interviewed a range of people waiting to get inside. The episode’s title tells the sad, sad story. It’s a quote from one of the people who voted for him: “I have no regrets.”

Ana Marie Cox
Ana Marie Cox’s Instagram profile photo

Before I get into the content of the interviews, I need to state an incontrovertible truth:

Ana Marie Cox has the patience of a saint.

I mean, I know she’s a longtime journalist—just let go this week from MTV News—but she listened without comment to some of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. Without comment. I mean, the woman has the “uh-huh” of a seasoned therapist.

“Some of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard.” And I’m not talking about the older man who thinks we should send gang members to the moon—literally. Or maybe Mars.

As I recall, more than one person cited the riots in Berkeley as a sign of just how out-of-control and intolerant the left is. “As I recall” because while everyone should listen to this episode, it would be cruel and unusual punishment to make anyone listen to it twice.

Ana Marie Cox: the patience of a saint, the microphone of a journalist

Intolerance runs rampant through these interviews, though there was far less racism and sexism on display than I’d expected. Perhaps the interviewees were on their best behavior. One businessman worried about “retaliation” from the left if his identity were revealed. Apparently conservatives are being targeted, boycotted even. Apparently it’s rude of us to inject politics into business. Those folks who refuse to bake wedding cakes for LGBT couples, or the landlord asking his tenants to show their citizenship papers—they’re not expressing political views through their business. Right? Ana Marie Cox just listened. A saint, I tell ya.

Cox asked several of her subjects which policy of Trump’s they supported most strongly. I nearly did a spit-take when one woman said, emphatically: “His agricultural policies.”

His what?

Seriously, listen to this podcast. It’s important to know who we’re dealing with. The world is calcifying into “us” and “them” with no apparent regard for objective truth.

Of course, I firmly believe the truth resides with “us.” The problem is, the other side believes they’re the “us.” And the more we push against them, the more they’ll cling to their position.

Who wants to be shown to be wrong?

Thanks to Ana Marie Cox for putting her patience to the test so we could hear people on the other side of this political Grand Canyon. Now all we need to do is figure out how to talk to them.

If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Holding the audience’s attention: a memorable podcast interview

The only thing I enjoy more than teaching is giving a podcast interview, and yesterday’s was one for the books.

I set myself up in a chipmunk-free room. I mean—no, I don’t have chipmunks inside my house. But I do have some very large windows and if Fenway spotted one outside, well, anyone listening would think the apocalypse had arrived.

So I set myself up in a room with Fenway-proof windows. I plugged in my headphones. Got on Skype with the engineer, who griped about audio quality before pronouncing my setup adequate; the hosts connected and we commenced with the podcast interview.

podcast interviewNow, one of the strange things about a podcast interview is that you’re talking into a void. You’re Skyping, yes, but with the video off (improves audio quality). So you can’t see the host. But you also can’t see the person you’re really talking to—the person with their headphones plugged in, working up a sweat on the Stairmaster or negotiating their morning commute. When I give speeches or presentations, I tend to feed off the energy of the people I’m talking to. Pick up the pace if they’re looking bored, or insert a joke. Slow down if they seem lost.

You can’t do that with a podcast interview. All you can do is send your voice out into the void and hope you connect with someone. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me in this format—no feedback from the listeners.

Podcast interview with a live audience

Well, I got some feedback today. About 20 minutes into the interview, I’m happily talking away and I hear this sound…Should I stop? Keep going? The sound derailed my train of thought so I held for 10 seconds and then repeated what I’d been saying. Okay, back on track.

Then there it was again. Louder this time.

Surely it’s not…? What the…?

But it was:


I had put the engineer to sleep.

Now, audio engineers are not my target audience. I don’t think they’re a key demographic for this podcast, either. But, I mean—the guy can’t stay awake for half an hour? At noon on a Monday?

The hosts seemed unfazed; perhaps I’m not the first guest who’s cured his insomnia. But it’s quite humbling. One minute I’m an expert, holding forth on Important Topics; the next minute my audience is sound asleep, sawing logs.

I’m far more amused than offended by Sleeping Beauty, the Audio Engineer. But it is a good reminder that we need presentations compelling enough to reach the least connected member of any audience.

We woke him up when we were done with the podcast and he swore his mic hadn’t been live—even though we all heard him, clear as day. I know yawning is contagious in an audience; I wonder if sleeping is as well.

I’ll let you know.

Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

“A separate reality” — Malcolm Gladwell on writing for the ear

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience.”

separate realityThe second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast doesn’t begin until Thursday (June 15th—mark your calendars!). But in searching for it, I found an interview he did last summer with writer Virginia Heffernan. They talk for a bit and then Gladwell recreates the final episode of Revisionist History Season 1, and then there’s more talking and some Q&A.

One of the things that struck me was Gladwell’s comment about writers creating private experiences within their work, jokes or phrases that only they (and perhaps a select group of friends) know about.

This came up after Heffernan asked him about the experience of writing for the “radio” versus for the page. She said she heard a kind of irony in his delivery—something more than the “just the facts” delivery of the news anchor and he said:

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience. Your father or mother will use some phrase and you throw it into a story and every time you see it you’re kind of—. So when you’re reading, you’re reliving all of that and it’s coming out in the way you talk in a way that you’re not consciously aware of.”

I’ve done that once. Someone challenged me to use the phrase “pink satin”—or perhaps it was “hot pink satin.” And I worked it into a blog post seamlessly. But, yes, if I had to read it aloud—as Gladwell does—I can imagine I’d smile. And my listeners would hear that smile creep into my voice. Absolutely, that hot pink satin exists in an entirely separate reality from whatever concept I was writing about. It would show.

Is all writing a “separate reality”?

When you get right down to it, though, isn’t everything we write a separate reality? We may not always choose our words based on a dare, but we do choose them. That’s why no two accounts of any event will be identical. The things that resonate with me may not resonate with you.

I think I’ll use the idea of separate reality in the retreat I’m planning for next spring: Maybe I’ll show my writers something, or give them an experience, and have them write about it. Ooh, yes. That’s going into the planner.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Virginia Heffernan. And, seriously, listen to Revisionist History. It’s like New Yorker articles for your ears.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“The feelings business”

Ask Brian Grazer what he does for a living and he won’t tell you he’s a movie producer. He certainly won’t mention his Academy Award. He’ll say, “I’m in the feelings business.”

That’s what he told me last week—well, not in person. On the phone. Well, no, Grazer didn’t call me. I was using my phone to listen to James Altucher’s podcast interview of him.

Still, Grazer might have called me. Because he’s famous for talking to people, and not just celebrities—anyone he hears about and finds fascinating. I’m fascinating; just ask my dog Fenway. So it’s only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Grazer shares insights from many of his conversations in his book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, which is a serious contender to be the next thing I read. Nope; it just won.

Yes, I’m writing about the book even before I read it because Grazer said something in his interview with Altucher that I couldn’t wait to write about—that thing about being in the “feelings business.” Grazer distilled his career down to its very essence in just a few words—and you know I’m a sucker for that kind of communication skill.

What does Grazer see as the most important aspect of his work? Not that he oversees billion-dollar budgets and thousands of people. Not that he works with A-list stars and genius actors. Not that he creates memorable, award-winning movies and TV shows.

No, the most important thing is what those movies and TV shows create: feelings. Arrested Development stays with us because it made us laugh—and think; A Beautiful Mind stays with us because it made us cry—and think.

By that measure, I’m in the feelings business too. (So we’re already colleagues. Call me, Bri; let’s do lunch.) And so are my clients, at least for the duration of the speeches they deliver or the bylined articles we write.

I know I’ve said this before, and you can bet I’ll say it again:

Feelings connect us with people.

They’re the secret password that lets you into the private club in your audience’s hearts and minds. If you want to be remembered, you have to be real. You have to make them feel something.

It’s not always easy to convince a Type A executive to do that. But if people have given up their time to sit in an audience and listen to you speak, or to watch a video of your speech, or to read what you (and your trusty writer) have taken the time to write—then you have an obligation to give them something real in return.

The “feelings business”—we should all be in it.