The One Piece of Advice Every Writer Needs to Hear

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, copyright Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, copyright Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.

It’s a rainy Saturday, and I’m cleaning my apartment while the movie Walk the Line plays on TV.   A few minutes ago the following scene came on, and pulled me up short:

Johnny Cash, desperate for a break, has talked his way into a try out for Sam Phillips, the record producer.  Only 16 bars into the audition, though, Phillips stops Cash, bored, and says “I can’t sell gospel.”

Cash is desperate, and, unwilling to let the audition end so badly, he demands feedback. He asks, “Is it gospel or the way I sing it?”

“Both.”

“What’s wrong with the way I sing it?” Cash asks.

Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips in Walk the Line

Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips in Walk the Line

“I don’t believe you,” Phillips replies.  “If you was hit by a truck, and you was lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, one song people would remember before you’re dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth. One song that would sum you up, you’re telling me that’s what you’d sing?  Or would you sing something real. Something you felt, because I’m telling you right now that’s what people want to hear.  That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.  It doesn’t have nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash, it has to do with believing in yourself.”

Yup, my writer and artist friends, that says it.  We, your editors and writing teachers and literary agents, can help you refine, revise, deepen, and hone. We can help you build your platform, negotiate your contract, and learn all the publishing do’s and don’ts.  But there's one thing only you can bring to the party.  As screenwriters Dennis Gill and James Magold put it so well, your job is to give us the one song you’d sing from the bottom of your soul.

Now get out there and write your heart out.