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Home » What I learned about writing from Tina Turner: Rough writing is good

What I learned about writing from Tina Turner: Rough writing is good

It is a Saturday morning and I have just finished playing a song on my 100-year-old upright piano. For the record, the piano is in better shape than I am. The song is “Proud Mary,” written and sung by John Fogerty in 1969 (the year I met my wife Karen) and recorded by Credence Clearwater Revival. It reached No. 2 on the charts.

It is a great song, but I would argue it was made greater soon after in 1971 by Tina Turner. It is her version I have in my head as I pound the keyboard.

Because I write almost every day, and because I also play music daily, it should not surprise you that I can’t help but connect the two. As a writing coach, one of my favorite sayings to reluctant writers is this: “If I can sing, you can write.”

When a favorite performer dies, I often write a tribute, drawing writing lessons from their musicality. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — all have inspired me. I would ask those residents of rock and roll heaven to please step aside to make room in the choir for the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll (sorry, Richard) Tina Turner.

There is much to write about Tina: her dirt-poor childhood in a Tennessee town called Nutbush; her discovery by Ike Turner and his subsequent abuse of her; her escape from him to reclaim her independence and inspire others; her forging a musical legacy that has few equals.

In this space, I will focus my remarks on Tina’s rendition of “Proud Mary.” It is not unusual for one artist to take ownership of another’s hit, in the same way that writers learn to take an assignment and make it their own. Otis did it with Bing Crosby’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Aretha did it to Otis, taking his manly version of “Respect” and turning it into a feminist anthem. What magic, then, did Tina perform with “Proud Mary”?

The most obvious revision is a radical change of tempo. In a version produced by Ike, who sings harmony and bass, Tina and the band start things much slower than the original, but they end it much faster. This change is so pronounced that it eventually earns what I might call a prologue, spoken by Tina, with a low soulful beat in the background.

You know, every now and then
I think you might like to hear something from us
Nice and easy
But there’s just one thing
You see we never ever do nothing
Nice and easy
We always do it nice and rough
So we’re gonna take the beginning of this song
And do it easy
But then we’re gonna do the finish rough
This is the way we do “Proud Mary”

Every time I watch her performance, I am stunned by the athleticism of her dancing. As I listen, I am inspired to think about my own writing. Simply stated, it helps me appreciate the rough.

Most writers, I would guess, would like to be able to create fine pieces of writing, and do it nice and easy. But it rarely works that way. The early versions of work, if we can even get our hands moving, come out rough. I used to have bad feelings about the flaws in my early drafts. I caught those feelings — like the boogie woogie flu — from other writers, the ones who testified as to their “vomit drafts” and, with a good pun, their “offal drafts.”

Writers I know, really good ones, say they suffer from the imposter syndrome — the fear that good readers will see the cracks in their writing and come to learn that these bigshot authors really suck. This is what leads to writer’s block, according to the poet William Stafford. He argued that writers begin their work with standards that are too high, and when the early drafts fail to meet their fantasy versions, the writing grinds to a halt.

Instead of these recurrent agonies, I began to honor the rough in early versions of my own work. Rather than revile those drafts, I coached writers, we could honor them, realizing their roughness was gold, a necessary stage toward the revisions that would lead to our best work.

Advice came to me from an old professional bowler, Billy Welu, who described the way some bowlers, the ones with the big curves, had to start a ball on the edge of the gutter so that it would, at the last moment, spin into the pocket for a strike. “Trust is a must,” he would say, “or your game is a bust.”

In other words, trust the process. Like the work of Michelangelo, the statue is hiding inside the clay, waiting to be revealed.

My first book, published in 1987, was called “Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers.” I wrote it after three years of teaching writing as a volunteer in local public elementary schools. I learned so much from those children.

One of them was named Mark Beery. When he was in the fifth grade, he came under the influence of a great language arts teacher, Mary Osborne. When I visited her class — this is almost 40 years ago — young Mark was eager to show me an opinion piece he had written about “Teenagers and Drugs.” Here’s what I wrote in my book: “The final version of his story was stapled to eleven other drafts! Each draft brought the paper closer to publication, and Mark was as proud of his revisions as he was of his final story.”

To get to the smooth, you need to take pride in the rough. Thanks to Mark Beery, and now thanks to Tina Turner for that important lesson.

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