Ride the Lightning (a.k.a unintended meanings)

So if you’re at all anything like me you will have no idea of the source of the post title, it just sounds like a really cool phrase. It’s actually the title of a Metallica album.

Yes, Metallica.

So what place does Metallica have on a writing blog? I’ll be up front, I’m not a fan, but a couple of years ago I stumbled across the documentary Some Kind of Monster, it essentially follows the production of their St Anger album but also one of their incredibly troubled periods, their bass player left, the lead singer ended up in rehab for 6 months and could only work from noon to 4pm once he got out (hardly hard rockin’ hours) and they had a ‘therapist’ on the payroll at $40,000 a month. Nice job if you could get it.

I’d been thinking about this potential post topic – about how once we put our work out there the interpretation of its meaning is out of our hands and how the Metallica documentary actually helps demonstrate this – when out of the blue the doco was on TV here last night! The look into this band, their interactions and their whining about feeling disrespected and the like is absolutely hilarious and addictive viewing.

But to the point, the most interesting aspect of the documentary was the insight into their song writing process. Metallica has legions of obsessive fans, they analyse the lyrics, engrave them on their bodies, possibly get married to them. And you know what – they actually mean nothing at all. Watching them write their lyrics, Metallica throw around random rhyming sentences, there’s no topic they’re covering, no message they’re trying to convey. Their ineffectual and pricey ‘therapist’ says a trite line that they find amusing and they throw it on the whiteboard – that sounds like a great line for a song. Taa Daa, Billboard topping album.

How often does that happen in art? I know writers agonise over every word and yet some sentences ring with their beauty from the first moment they flowed onto the page. But still you reread, to make sure, you read it again, you play with alternatives and return to the original. Sometimes you just get it right the first time. And benefit of the doubt to Metallica, maybe that’s how it works for them, but it sure seemed a heck of a lot more random than that.

But the lesson from Metallica is that it doesn’t necessarily matter what your original intentions were. The ultimate analysis is up to the fans. The meaning that was intended, the messages the writer wanted to impart are secondary. Once you put it out there, there’s no telling what people will read into your words, what messages you have unintentionally portrayed.

Of course the beauty of the presentation of the message is all up to you, the understanding of the message is out of your hands. Just make it beautiful and I’ll buy it and read it, and if I decide your main character is 5’10” and you thought they were 5’6″ – bad luck, your story is mine now 🙂


12 responses to “Ride the Lightning (a.k.a unintended meanings)

  1. Pingback: Tuesday’s Top 5 | The Happy Logophile

  2. Just popped over from Jo’s blog. Great post. Some songwriters have indeed been very random in their lyrics. David Bowie has used the William Burroughs “cut-up” technique, from what I’ve read. And I remember from when I was a musician that some lyrics were written in… altered states of consciousness, and they certainly defied rational analysis afterwards. I had a keyboard player who always wrote his on bar napkins and he’d be there the next day, moving the little napkins around on top of his keyboard, trying to remember which order they were supposed to go in. 🙂


  3. This post really has me thinking! I should sprinkle my work with a little more of the weirdness that comes out in first drafts. Some of my silly things could be profound, maybe? 🙂

    I love the feature on Amazon where you can see popular highlights in books. I’m absolutely delighted to see people highlight passages that resonate with them, but … now when I’m writing I get that feeling, that “oh, yeah, people are going to highlight this!” Then I probably try too hard and mess it up. “Look at me, everyone, I’m having my Oscar-nomination acting moment!”


    • Tamara, I think there are darlings which should probably be killed. If it’s there to make the reader go “Wow, man!” then you’re right, it might have to go. But if it’s first draft weirdness, that’s something else. U-town, my second novel, has a bunch of that. A lot of the first half has episode titles for each little segment, left over from when it was posted on BBSs. There are lots of references to old-time radio programs. There are a few random scenes which don’t relate directly to anything else in the book. There are parts where I write about the books I was being inspired.by.


  4. So true, and so beautifully put.


  5. Just a quick anecdote for you. I wrote a 500-odd word flash fiction story last year about a woman who was convinced that leprechauns had moved in under her house and were responsible for her migraine. (You can find it here if you’re interested.) I wrote it as a cute “are there really leprechauns”/”is she really insane” kind of story, and then moved on.

    A few months later my sister read and and commented that she really liked it. I was surprised — she’s a non-fiction reader, and doesn’t generally like Fantastic Fiction. So I asked her what about it particularly appealed to her.

    “Well, it’s clearly about someone trying to overcome an addiction to heroin,” she said.

    Wait… what? She then went on to point out particular words and phrases to back up her interpretation. And you know what the funny thing was? Even though I know that I didn’t intend the story to have anything to do with drug use, I found it difficult to argue with her “proof”.


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