Generous Writing

You can learn interesting things in some unlikely places. I had the great fortune to be able to see U2’s Joshua Tree concert in June, and shortly after I attended the concert, I came across the interview (embedded below) on their website. If you are a U2 fan like me, you might want to listen to the whole thing, especially because I think much of what Bono says in the interview applies to learning in general and to writing in particular. He cringes about a few word choices he has used in the past, and he also says it “wigs [him] out” to listen to his singing on the album, so he hasn’t really listened to it. Of course, he had to listen to it in order to prepare for the tour, particularly because some of the songs are rarely performed, and “Red Hill Mining Town” had never been performed live before.

One thing Bono said at about 10:20 into the video has had me thinking ever since I saw this interview for the first time over a month ago. He remarks that he feels he didn’t get to finish the songs on Joshua Tree even though the band made “finishing” the songs a priority for that album. The incredulous interviewer asks which songs Bono didn’t get to finish. Bono says “Where the Streets Have No Name.” If you are a U2 fan, or even if you can’t stand them, you know that song. It’s one of their most popular, most enduring songs. I still hear it all the time when I go out places, like restaurants. Bono’s bandmates laugh at Zane Lowe’s incredulous response to Bono’s answer. Bono explains that he feels that “lyrically, it was just a sketch.” He imagines the song is an invocation, he is asking “do you want to go to that other place,” a place of “imagination” and “soul.” Over time, he has added this invitation into the lyrics when he performs the song, and he feels the “hairs on the back of [his] neck go up,” which I interpret him to mean that he feels the lyric is more finished with this line than it was as he recorded it.

Zane Lowe asks, “But how can you ask a question of an audience with a complete thought?”

Bono’s reaction to that question is what I found most intriguing about this entire interview.

Bono: Okay. Interesting. That’s interesting that you should say that..

Zane Lowe: Aren’t you waiting for us to answer the question for you?

Bono: Yeah, but what it is, and I shouldn’t really say this, but just as a… you develop vanity as a songwriter.

The Edge: He’s very hard on himself. Very hard on himself.

Bono: No, but you’ve got vanity as a songwriter, [and] I’m sure it’s the same for drums, the same for [unintelligible]. And it’s just, I knew I could write that better… Anyway, I think what you just said something really important there, and incomplete thoughts are generous because they allow the listener to finish them.

I would argue that the fact that Bono, and really the group as a whole, are hard on themselves and on each other is what makes them a band that has endured and has remained popular with many people over the years. What I mean by that is they are critical friends and help each other get better because it will help the team get better. Part of that means being honest about what is working and what is not.

I am considering using part of this video as a mentor text for thinking about writing this year because what Bono has to say about incomplete thoughts being generous made me think about what poetry does for us that other forms of writing do not do. I also really enjoy hearing someone who has been so successful in so many ways express how he feels he could have done better. One statement I make a lot when discussing writing is that it is never done; it’s just due. If we are writing a newspaper article, a statement of purpose, an educational philosophy, or an essay for school, or any kind of writing we imagine, if it’s writing meant for an audience, at some point, it’s due. We need to let it go and say it’s ready, even if we might tweak it ad infinitum.

It’s an important message for writers to hear, I think, that good writers, successful writers, struggle with the craft and wish they could do better. Bono, for example, disparages his rhyme of “hide with inside.” Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the lyric. One of the reasons this interview struck me, and particularly the parts I quoted above, is that we sometimes dismiss writing because we did it, not realizing that others might respond to it in an entirely different way. Sometimes, we might not be the best judges of what works and doesn’t work in our own writing. All the more reason to give writers an audience—to offer them our incomplete thoughts and allow others to finish them.

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