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In Which I Go Off My Nut
May 14, 2008 - 11:11am


The end of every semester is, in a sense, a finality; all those minds I’ve been living in for four months withdraw suddenly and leave only silence. But it’s also false closure, a pretense that students have learned some difficult thing once and for all, when I know good and well that Dr. Trinkle will sit reading their lab reports next fall in his office on the engineering quad, shaking his fist in the direction of the English Building.

Other stuff always seems to happen around this time of year. Last week at the museum Wolfie fell backward while looking up at the organic forms of the glass artist Dale Chihuly and had to get his scalp stapled together at Children’s Hospital. I’m worried he may grow up to be an art critic.

Combine all this with my pending trip to Abbey Road on the River (“The Best Beatles Tribute Festival in the World!”), and Wolfie using his injury to get me to play “Hey Jude” 14 times in a row, and what you get is satori: My sudden realization that the song is actually a primer on creative writing.

In the film Imagine, John, Yoko, and others come out of Tittenhurst to confront a young man who’s been living in their garden. The guy is probably an American college student, longhaired, shy, dirty, tired, and seems to think John’s music was written especially for him. John is gentle and patient. “Don’t confuse the songs with your own life,” he says. “I mean, they might have relevance to your own life, but a lot of things do…anything fits, if you’re tripping off on some trip.”

The kid tries again: “Like when you sang, ‘Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time….’” John shuts him down—“Paul sang that…that belongs to all of us…”—but invites him into the house for something to eat because he’s hungry. The scene ends with the kid dipping toast in tea and looking around the Lennons’ kitchen with wide eyes.

What Beatles fan hasn’t felt the music reveal some secret? Paul said he wrote “Hey Jude” to comfort Julian Lennon over his parents’ looming divorce, but the song has a history of people thinking it’s about other things. Even John Lennon said, “…I always heard it as a song to me. If you think about it... Yoko's just come into the picture. He's saying, ‘Hey, Jude—Hey, John.’ I know I'm sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me.”

Before I go tripping off on my trip, let me show you what the lyrics really say, so you can use them in your pedagogy if you want.

Hey Jude, don't make it bad (In order to write well)
Take a sad song and make it better (eschew cynicism)
Remember to let her into your heart (open yourself to art’s process)
Then you can start to make it better (and there’ll be hope for improvement.)

Hey Jude, don't be afraid (Art has no a priori goal, so it takes courage)
You were made to go out and get her (didn't you take loans to get an MFA?)
The minute you let her under your skin (when you immerse yourself in the work)
Then you begin to make it better (you have a shot at making something.)

And any time you feel the pain, Hey Jude, refrain (Bearing witness is hard)
Don't carry the world upon your shoulders (but don’t pose as a martyr)
For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool (or try to be a tough guy)
By making his world a little colder (because they ruin their work with sentimentality or frigidity)

Allan Kozin, the Times classical music critic, says the definitive version of any Beatles song is the standard recording. (It’s certainly not the sheet music, which the Beatles couldn’t read, nor the other 25 takes of “Hey Jude.”) The real lesson for creative writers in the definitive version of “Hey Jude” is the specific way Paul lets himself go, screaming himself hoarse, speaking in tongues, his great skill applied with great passion, a kind of sly madness.

My friend Crazy Larry is driving down with me to Abbey Road on the River. Larry is just back from Egypt so he has hours of stories to tell about flatbread. He’ll take pictures and I’ll write about what we see in Louisville. We have to pack in as much of the experience as we can in 24 hours then drive back to Chicago, where I’ll be on two panels at the Pilcrow Literary Festival. There’s a lot to be done, and I must be crazy to take it on now when I have summer projects looming, but by using Paul’s good advice maybe I can begin to make it better.


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