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!

“The most ordinary circumstances”

It snowed yesterday—April 2nd. At least three inches, enough to leave a thick coating on my car. I am officially sick of winter.

It snowed until early afternoon but when I looked out my window during my 3pm call, every drop of snow had disappeared. In its place, I saw dozens of tiny birds darting around my backyard. I started to think about writing a Story Safari™ piece about disappointment (snow—in April!) and optimism: birds mean spring!

ordinary circumstances
Detail from a photo by Allison Miller – CC BY-SA 3.0 Own work,

Then a hawk swooped past my windows. Magnificent, powerful. And on a mission—a mission I knew would involve having one of those little optimism-inducing birdies over for lunch. No RSVP required.

 

By then I was on another call, a coaching session to help me refine my marketing. I made a note to incorporate more of the courage and freedom of the hawk into my work. And fun—it sure looked like fun, swooping around the sky. Though I would definitely want my clients to have a more mutually beneficial experience than those little birds did.

That hawk had come far closer to my house than it needed to, showing off its wingspan as it turned the corner from one set of windows into another. Perhaps it was doing more than grocery shopping? I’m not sure how much I believe in spirit animals, but I definitely do not believe in coincidences. So I decided to look it up.

Ordinary circumstances

According to WhatIsMySpiritAnimal.com, a hawk “teaches awareness. The universe is trying to send you a message.”

And the blurb in Google added this:

“…you are now on notice that even the most ordinary of circumstances could have deeper meanings.”

If that isn’t the definition of a Story Safari,™ I don’t know what is.

“Even the most ordinary circumstances”—birds on a lawn, something people see every day and attach no significance to—”could have deeper meanings.”

Birds as a harbinger of spring, that’s a nice story anyone can tell. But what if we turned that into a story about complacency, about being ready for the unexpected? That story could fit in well in almost any business context.

And that’s a story no one else will tell—not in quite the same way. Because no one else saw the hawk swoop around the corner of my house. Well, no one but Fenway, who delivered a startled “Woof.”

Learn to see the world through the lens of a Story Safari™ and you’ll always have a unique story to tell. Except if you’re Fenway. She said the same thing about the skunk who visited later that afternoon. Fortunately, the skunk didn’t hear her.

Roses are red, violets are unexpected—a Story Safari™

“Roses are red/Violets are _________”

Of course, you want to say “blue.” If you’re like me, it’s probably one of the first poems you ever memorized. Of course violets are blue.

violetsBut are they really? Aren’t they more—crazy idea here—violet-colored? And roses come in all shades. Some enterprising florists will even dye them green for St. Patrick’s Day.

If you start the poem:

Rose are red,
Violets are violet

People think they know where you’re going with that first line. They might even put their brains on autopilot for the second one. Until that unexpected word wakes them up.

How about this?

Roses are green,
Violets are blue
But are they really?
Try an idea that’s new.

Surprise your readers and you can breathe new life into even the most tired clichés.

That’s part of the idea behind the Story Safari™ technique I share with my writers. It allows you to find fresh ways to talk about your ideas, so audiences hear them in new ways. Your ideas become memorable—you become memorable. And if you don’t want people to remember what you have to say, why are you bothering to write in the first place?


Join me this Saturday, March 17th, for a one-day program designed to help you find and tell stories more memorably. Anchor Your Ideas—five short videos and writing assignments with a writers’ group-style webinar at the end of the day. Register here.

Ethics & Molasses—a Story Safari™

What does ethics have to do with molasses?

Nothing—that’s what I always thought. Until I found the story of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

ethics
Boston Post, Public Domain,

Yes, that’s a real thing that happened—back when people stored molasses in giant tanks on the tops of buildings. Tank springs a leak, molasses rushes out—more than 2 million gallons of it—traveling at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. More than 20 people died, along with countless horses. Can you imagine?

I found that story while doing some completely unrelated reading one day. And it just so happened that one of my clients had asked me to find a regional tie for his speech near Boston. A speech about ethics.

What does molasses have to do with ethics? I dug a little deeper into the story and found that people had noticed brown stuff oozing from between the slats of the storage tank. Did the owners investigate? No. But they did take action—they painted the tanks brown to match.

Many people have written or talked about the Molasses Flood. Some of the people in my client’s audience may have even heard of it before. But I doubt they’d ever used it to discuss ethics.

A fresh perspective on ethics

That’s what a Story Safari™ can do for you. Once you learn this technique, you’ll be able to write about any subject—even concepts your audience has read or heard dozens of times before—and bring a fresh perspective to it. A memorable perspective.

Here’s my client’s perspective:

I know this is a fine program you’re participating in, but I have to tell you that I chuckled a little when I saw the title of the program: “Managing Ethics in Organizations.” The word “managing” implies planning and control. And while that certainly is the ideal to which we all aspire, in my experience—and I don’t think I’m alone here—an Ethics Officer’s best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice.

Let me illustrate that point by offering you a bit of local history. It happened in the early years of the 20th century—and although companies didn’t have Ethics & Compliance officers back then, I think you’ll notice some parallels to the kinds of work we do today.

In January 1919, the North End of Boston was hit by a devastating flood. More than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. The flood caused several buildings to collapse and knocked an elevated train right off its tracks.

You might be thinking, “That’s tragic. But it sounds like standard flood damage.” And you’re right. But this wasn’t a standard flood. It was a flood of molasses.

Now, usually we think of molasses as a slow-moving substance. But when a 2.3 million-gallon holding tank burst that day, it sent the sticky syrup cascading through the city streets at 35 miles an hour. In a wave that some reports said was up to 40 feet high.

Who could imagine that such a thing would happen? It had never happened before (and, thank goodness, it’s never happened since). But it happened once, and that was costly enough.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The exact cause of the failure was never determined, but it may be that shoddy construction was to blame—the tank apparently leaked from the outset, a fact the company attempted to hide by painting it brown.

It seems to me that the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 is the perfect analogy for our jobs today. Whatever company we work for, whatever industry or profession we work in, we Ethics & Compliance Officers are charged with finding out if there are any leaky tanks in our organizations and fixing them before they cause serious damage.

You might not be writing about ethics, or anything particularly business-related. But chances are, you’re not the first person—or the only person—who has something to say about your idea or issue. Make your words memorable, and get your audiences engaged, by taking them on a Story Safari.™


Join me for a one-day adventure in finding and using stories, this Saturday—March 17th. Register here.

When is a story more than a story?

Can a story ever be more than a story?
That’s what I’ve been exploring with an intrepid group of writers in my “Anchor Your Ideas” challenge this week.
They’ve spent most of the week gathering stories—and they’ve found some good ones. On day 4, I started asking them to use those stories to make a larger point. That can be a challenging pivot to make, but it’s essential.
Learn this skill and it turns you from someone who tells stories into someone whose stories get listened to—someone whose stories get remembered. Someone whose stories drive people to action.

A story that’s more than the sum of its parts

I asked my writers to dig up some interesting stories about a place they live or would like to live, and one of them came up with a new (to me) story about one of my favorite places on earth: the Fenway section of Boston, home of Fenway Park (and namesake of my trusty Canine Assistant).

story
My own Fenway
Apparently during World War II the fine citizens of Boston turned part of the Fenway into a Victory Garden—a garden that’s still tended today.
Now, that’s a fine story on its own—but widen the lens a bit and think about what ELSE it could be about. Cooperation in wartime—if you were writing about a business, you could draw a parallel to teamwork. Or you might go at it from the angle of making the most of scarce resources. That could be a great theme for a blog.
 
Let’s think about the cooperation angle for a minute. How many pieces have you read about “teamwork”? Only about a million, right? But how many have you read that start with a story about a victory garden next to a baseball stadium? That unique angle makes whatever you have to say more memorable. You’re not just lecturing your readers about why they should work together; you’re showing them a story about people who worked together and achieved great things as a result.
 
This is not the easiest pivot to make—from taking a story at face value to seeing a story as a metaphor for something larger. It takes practice. But once my writers learn it, they’ll have a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
If you’d like to discover how to make a story worth far more than the sum of its parts, join me on March 17th. We’ll run through the whole “Anchor Your Ideas” program in one fabulously entertaining day—my own version of March Madness. Register here—it’s free. And the skill you’ll hone is priceless.

How much of my story matters? — Frequent Questions

Q: How much of my story matters?
A: All of it to you, but maybe not to your readers.

Everyone has a story. One of the most wonderful facets of life is getting to discover the unique or quirky or just plain different stories of our fellow human beings.

But unless you’re writing a memoir, you don’t need to tell your entire story.

Have you ever been at a networking event and had a simple question like “And what you do?” explode into a half-hour disquisition about every single facet of the other person’s job.

You hate those conversations, right? You’d welcome anything that would interrupt them—a colleague rushing over to say hello, a tray of hors d’oeuvres overturning, a small earthquake nearby.

When you’re leveraging your story to introduce yourself to an audience or to make a point about your subject, you don’t need to tell the whole story. Find the part of it that connects specifically to the readers’ interest. And tell that.

my story matters
Danica Roem, photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA – 2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA 7684, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Danica Roem campaigned for the Virginia House of Delegates, she based her campaign on transportation issues. She and her future constituents spent way too much of their time stuck in traffic; she thought the House of Delegates should address the issue.

Oh—and Danica Roem isn’t just a commuter. She’s also a transgender woman.

In another context—say, if she were writing a memoir—I’m sure Roem could tell a fascinating story about how she discovered her gender identity and what challenges and triumphs she’s encountered along the way. But telling that story in the context of a campaign would siphon attention away from her key campaign issue. Instead, she focused on what her constituents could expect her to do rather than on who she is.

As she said in a recent article in InStyle magazine:

“Even through the Democratic primary, when talking about red-meat issues, I said, ‘Well, Democrats get stuck in traffic too. Transgender people get caught in traffic too.’ LGBT people don’t just get to jump on the back of a unicorn and fly over traffic. We get stuck in it like anybody else.”

After she won the primary, her Republican challenger—whose seat she was trying to win—introduced a “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. Roem used that as an opportunity to remind voters about the issue she was campaigning on:

“I came up with the phrase ‘Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom than on how you get to work.'”

Brilliant. She didn’t shy away from her transgender status—I would never advise you to try to bury an essential part of your story. But she reminded voters that she cares about the thing they care about. She focused on the concerns they have in common and her gender identity became just one piece of who she is, not the whole story.

By the way, she won the election.


Do you have a story to tell? Start telling it—join my 5-day writing challenge, starting January 22nd.

The Willits strike again

the Willits strike again
(Royalty-free image from GetStencil.com)

I’ve been thinking about the Willits a lot this week—you know, those annoying thoughts that show up whenever you stick so much as a pinky-toe outside your comfort zone to write:

Will it be any good?
Will it make people like me?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

This isn’t the first time the Willits have come to call. I wrote about them last summer when they barged uninvited into my vacation.

But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.

I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.

And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?

Will it be a complete waste of time?

I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.

My Willits, and yours

Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.

I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.

If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:

The Willits are full of shit.

The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.

Here’s what I wrote last night:

Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.

And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.


Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.

What’s in your story vault?

What's in your story vault?The women at my table went wild, which surprised me. All I’d done was answer the ice-breaker question “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had at a business event?” For some reason, a 30-year-old story bubbled up in my mind. I’d locked it away in my story vault — probably haven’t told it more than twice since it happened.

But I told it that night.

And when I saw how my listeners reacted to it, I realized it’s not just an amusing story; it’s an important story. It says something about me and about how my clients value me. It points to possibilities—if that can happen to me, it can happen to you, too, when you own your expertise.

I had locked the story away for decades because it felt like bragging. I’ll bet you have a story vault of your own.

Isn’t it time to let those stories out?

Join me for my free webinar next Monday, “Say What You Want to Say: for women leaders who are ready to be heard.”

I designed this webinar to help you get past the stories you always tell and find the stories you should be telling. And I’ll give you some tips on how to tell them memorably.

Join me on November 20th at 10a.m. or 7p.m. Eastern. I run a very interactive webinar, so I’ll be leading it live in both time slots.

It’s priceless advice from an award-winning speechwriter. And on November 20th, it’s free.

Self-consciousness and self-awareness

I’m working to shove self-consciousness into an ever-shrinking corner of my life. At the moment, it’s living in an AirBnB room in the Willits’ garage. Bathroom’s in the main house; not a fun place to be when it snows. Self-awareness, on the other hand, knocks on my front door at the oddest times. I’m always glad to see it, but usually surprised, too.

“Apparently,” I said to the VA candidate during our Zoom interview, “I do more than the average person.” She looked down and tried to suppress a laugh. Gee, I found myself thinking, maybe I really do.

Running two writing courses simultaneously while planning two others—and an end-of-year retreat; feeding the last five pieces of content into a 52-week curriculum; working with my corporate writing clients.

self-awareness
Yogi Bear, “smarter than the average bear” By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use

Oh, right—and writing for at least 15 minutes every day. (Today’s day 555!) Oops—yep, and keeping in touch with the folks on my mailing list four or five times a quarter. While always looking for ways to find more folks to keep in touch with.

Surely someone like Sir Richard Branson does all this before breakfast. While kite-surfing around his island.

No?

Well, okay. I’m not going to stop doing what I do, but I will give myself credit for being more active than the average bear. That’s self-awareness.

Self-awareness requires company

Self-awareness doesn’t develop in isolation. You need people around you (or streaming to you over your WiFi) to hear your stories and mirror them back to you.

I went out to dinner with a randomly selected group at a retreat I attended last month. One of the icebreaker questions was something about “the most fun business event you’d ever attended.” I knew my story was cool—maybe I’ll write about it one of these days—but in telling it and seeing my dinner companions react, I realized for the first time that there was some “extraordinary” mixed in with the cool. I saw that it was a story about me as much as it was about the actual events. That’s self-awareness.

I can pick out a great story at 500 yards. With one arm tied behind my back. If it’s a story about someone else. Stories about me? I mean, I have a collection of client success stories, of course. But stories that demonstrate my own successes? The ways in which I shine? Oh hell no. I don’t tell those stories.

The event I talked about at dinner happened over 25 years ago; I think I’ve told it maybe once since then. And never to people I’d just met.

What’s your story?

That’s why I’ve created my end-of-year retreat, Write & Shine. We’ll spend a lot of time looking for those kinds of stories in ourselves. Everyone has them. And we’ll also look at telling other stories—because you can’t talk about yourself all the time. We don’t want self-awareness to morph into self-involvement, after all.

What stories are you not telling that you should be? Maybe it’s time to shine. And see your light reflected back through other people’s eyes.

So what’s the second sentence? — Frequent Questions

Q: I see you want me to write about how important issue X is. So what’s the second sentence?
A: […]?

I love my clients, I really do. But for a while there I had to trot that question out at pretty much every meeting I had with one of them. Until the day they started asking it themselves. (I was so proud.)

You see, they always wanted me to write about Issues of the Day. Usually, about how Important they were. And Good, very Good.

But it’s hard to make that a particularly interesting read:

Company X supports baseball and apple pie.

So I came up with that question:

“What’s the second sentence?”

It got ’em every time. But it started a conversation, and out of that conversation we’d usually find a story or two. And a point of view. On a good day for me, that point of view might even have an edge, something vaguely approaching conflict, if not controversy.

what's the second sentence?Because that’s what you need when you’re writing op-ed essays or other pieces designed to persuade. You need a point of view—preferably one different than someone else’s point of view.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard pretty much those same sentiments coming out of my car’s speakers today. One of my favorite podcast hosts, the always insightful Joan Garry, was interviewing master storyteller Alex Blumberg.

Another way to ask the second sentence question

Blumberg cut his teeth as a producer on the radio show This American Life and now runs podcast juggernaut Gimlet Media, so he knows from telling stories. He and Joan talked for a bit about how to frame stories about issues—Joan’s core audience members run nonprofits, so they always have issues to talk about.

Blumberg said that sometimes he’d have producers come to him and say things like, “I want to tell a story about poverty,” for instance. And he’d say:

“Okay. So what are your questions about poverty?”

You can see why I liked the guy.

Usually, they hadn’t thought that far. Just that poverty was Bad and they wanted to show that

But who doesn’t know that already? So if you want to talk about the issue, you have to find a fresh angle. You have to ask questions. You have to think about the second sentence.

As Blumberg said (I’m paraphrasing, I think):

One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that because they’re talking about an Important Issue, people will automatically pay attention.

So what’s the second sentence? Figure that out and you’ve got a shot at creating a memorable piece of writing.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. The support and techniques you need to get your work into the world.