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“You can’t just threaten us with some singsongy thing”

[1]If you’re someone who enjoys reading or watching fiction around the artistic life, allow me to recommend the quirky Canadian movie, Songs She Wrote About People She Knows.

I came across it by accident and when not laughing, spent the rest of the movie watching it with my mouth open. Since then, my affection for it has only deepened. Apparently I’m not alone as in some circles the movie has gained cult status.

SSWAPSK is the story of the corporate lackey, Carol, who attends a music class at the urging of her therapist. The premise of the course is that emotionally repressed people can find it easier to express themselves while singing rather than through more traditional communication methods.

Carol is so annoyed by the timid and off-tune warblings of her classmates that she can’t make it through a single lesson. But its central message sticks with her. In no time at all she begins—spoiler alert!—composing songs about people she knows and leaving them on their answering machines. Since her compositions include unvarnished, often NSFW lyrics, the decision has far-reaching consequences.

Warning: Numerous real spoiler alerts lie below.

For example, one of the movie’s most memorable songs is the aptly titled A**hole Dave, the subject of which is revealed a few scenes later to be a powerful person in Carol’s world. i.e. her actual boss.

Besides the humor and hook, the movie has a surprising amount to say about the artistic life.

For instance, WUers will recall having had many conversations in these blogging halls about the moment we deserve to call ourselves writers or authors. Everyone has a different level of comfort with these titles. Some claim them upon writing their first sentence. Others wait until they’ve achieved a writing prize or commercial success.

In Carol’s case, Dave grants her the artist label after hearing a single ditty on his machine. One might say he even thrusts it upon her. (More on that in a bit.) As far as he’s concerned, she’s putting herself out there and that’s enough to qualify, no matter the size of the audience, no matter the reception.

The World’s Reaction to Carol’s Singing

Remember how the world treated the initial, tentative unveiling of your artistic tendencies? Well, a good part of the movie concerns itself with just that—namely, how so very few people remain neutral and unaffected when one of us chooses to explore the artist’s path. In the movie, Carol must deal with:

The skeptics, the critics, and the threatened

In the writing world, there are plenty of people who will attempt to knock you down to size if they sense you are leaving them behind or getting too big for your britches. (Oftentimes their motivation will remain fully subconscious.) This can look like:

In Carol’s case, apart from Dave, all her songs’ subjects/recipients fall into this category. And when she leaves one song too many on the answering machine of her ex and his new girlfriend, the antagonism extends to the police. (The title of this post comes from an early line of movie dialogue.) Turns out the legal system doesn’t see Carol’s utterances as benign artistic self-expression but as threats. Should she persist, her artistic journey might well include a stint in jail…

The people who see themselves as fellow artists

If you’ve spoken about your writing ambitions or successes, how many of your friends and neighbors suddenly want to talk about the novel they’ve always had in them? Dozens? Hundreds? I’ve personally lost track.

In SSWAPSK, the world is similarly awash in aspiring musicians.

It turns out Dave has a secret, misspent youth as a failed rocker and harbors deep regret over his decision to pack it in and settle for a safe, mediocre life. Fueled by Carol’s bravery—and possibly the recent decision to stop taking psychiatric meds—he quits his middle-management job in melodic, memorable fashion. He then buys a bunch of recording equipment, drives to California, and vows to reconnect to his artistic purpose by making a hit album.

The mentors/facilitators

Dave functions as a sort of antagonistic mentor and commits one final act before singing himself off the job: He fires Carol, giving her a severance package that she will forfeit if she accepts outside employment in the imminent future. (Thus providing both the call she cannot refuse and the time and space to indulge it.)

The police also fall into this category. When a pair of cops arrive to give Carol a stern warning about how her messages are being received, they notice her piano. Turns out those two uniforms cover the beating hearts of a revivalist duo. Before the appointment ends, they treat her to a song and pass her a business card with a valuable music connection.

Road Trip

While beginner’s luck can be a thing on the artistic path, most of us go through a significant period of apprenticeship. During this time, we actively acquire resources—equipment, knowledge, working partnerships. Also a heightened sense of clarity around what it is we want to say and the facility to do so.

Though initially reluctant and resentful about the path Dave forces upon her, Carol eventually settles into a full-throated pursuit of her goal. She will make an entire album of grudge songs, she decides. It will be a Quality Effort, backed by hard work, professional musicians, and a significant financial investment on her part. She will unveil it at a launch party to which all the songs’ subjects will be invited.

The Grand Finale

When the big evening arrives, Carol’s newfound professionalism and confidence falter. This viewer could easily imagine her thoughts, some of which I undergo with each blog post release, never mind each book launch!

Though the consequences of failure might differ, this last question will feel familiar to people who borrow liberally from real life to craft their fiction, or who write memoir. Will others recognize themselves in your characters? If so, how will they react?

I thought the film brilliantly handled the answers to these questions. Every person who formed the subject of a grudge song not only shows up but sits attentively through the concert. After, they also line up to get an autographed copy of her album, thus proving the point that sometimes when you involve people in your artistic pursuits, the attention they gain leads to dropped opposition.

As for Carol’s next venture, when one of them asks if she has any interest in going deeper with the same resentful material, her answer is no. She did her best by her first project and is ready to let it go. It’s time for her to embrace a different kind of music.

Apparently you can exorcise ghosts in song every bit as effectively as on the page.

Over to you, Unboxeders: Have you seen SSWAPSK? If so, what did you think of it? What is your favorite novel/movie/poem that deals with the artistic path?

About Jan O'Hara [2]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [3] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [4]; Cold and Hottie [5]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [6]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.

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