What Eminem Taught Me About Writing For Children

eminem-relapse-album-cover_0thumbnailjpgRewind a decade.

I was a full two years from my first zygote and yet to say “I do.” Cindy and I were living together in a small cottage a few blocks from the beach and the loony looping bombarding beat for Marshall Mather’s “My Name Is” was everywhere. I’d heard enough clips and sound bites to draw my own conclusions about the content of character contained in both the music and the man behind the mix.

Or so I thought.

“That dude’s an asshole,” I said to Cindy as the two of us prepared to watch the Grammies. “It’s sad he can sell so many records just by being vile. Really, how much talent does that take?”

Cindy settled into the space of the moment, gazing at me with those eyes I couldn’t wait to marry, the ones so willing to constantly challenge me. “Have you heard the record?” she asked.

“No,” I said, but I’ve heard enough to know he’s an asshole.

She pursed her lips and allowed her silence to say more than her words would have. I started to stutter through a long string of half articulated examples – the thin criticisms of others slipping through the filter of my voice. She continued to breathe as I stumbled through a series of sorry sounding defenses, all from behind a position I’d found all too easy to adopt considering I hadn’t bothered to use the brick and mortar of practical knowledge.

“You know if you listen to the record you’ll be a lot more entitled to an opinion, right?”

My wife has taught me more than any other soul alive.

The next day, I dipped into Tower Records on my lunch break and bought the Slim Shady LP along with the newly minted Marshall Mathers LP. I spent the next few months in awe. The music wasn’t anything like I expected. I’m not really sure what my expectation was, but it wasn’t to meet a man who used language in a way I’d never heard before.

I’m about to tell you something I find a bit embarrassing, and haven’t told a soul since Cindy on that day when I first told her she was right. About a week after first putting a double M disc in my player, I pulled my car to the side of the road and listened to “The Way I Am” over and over and over again until I’d transcribed the entire song on the yellow legal pad I kept on the floor of my truck.

I don’t consider it Em’s best song, but it is the first I ever made it my business to unravel. Here is a slight excerpt.

And, “Oh, it’s his lyrical content –
– the song ‘Guilty Conscience’ has gotten such rotten responses”
And all of this controversy circles me
And it seems like the media immediately
Points a finger at me (finger at me)..
So I point one back at ’em, but not the index or pinkie
Or the ring or the thumb, it’s the one you put up
When you don’t give a fuck, when you won’t just put up
With the bullshit they pull, cause they full of shit too
When a dude’s gettin bullied and shoots up his school
And they blame it on Marilyn (on Marilyn).. and the heroin
Where were the parents at? And look where it’s at
Middle America, now it’s a tragedy
Now it’s so sad to see, an upper class ci-ty
Havin this happenin (this happenin)..
Then attack Eminem cause I rap this way (rap this way)..
But I’m glad cause they feed me the fuel that I need for the fire
To burn and it’s burnin and I have returned…

The rhymes are relentless, delivered in the face of a nerve racking chime that makes you feel as though Father Time himself is about to kick you over the ledge and into the abyss.

I love great lyricists and songwriters. Some of my favorites include Lennon and McCartney (of course), Dylan, Springstein, Jackson Browne, and as much as my sister likes to make fun of me for it, even Billy Joel. Yet I have never heard anyone able to indulge satire, rage and sorrow; shame, guilt and regret; power, passion, loneliness and bravado; stupidity, genius, leadership and idiocy; misogyny, sympathy and tender compassion – sometimes in a single song, swimming in a stream of pentameter that would cause Shakespeare to shudder.

And the dude is a storyteller.

As a character study, I could write pages on Mathers. I have plenty of posts plotted out for other places or different times. This post is about the precision of his language and it’s profound effect on me as a writer. When I listen to an Eminem record, I am listening to a man for whom not only does every syllable matter, but so does the exact tone of its delivery.

This isn’t to say all his songs are good. Each album without exception has a handful of songs I find both repugnant and unlistenable peppered against the gems of absolute genius. Before I started writing copy, before I started writing for myself, I wrote children’s stories in rhyme. There is no bigger inspiration to me as a children’s author than Marshall Mathers. If having said that keeps me from ever getting published, well cool beans, at least I’ll have control over my work.

With my children’s rhymes, I want every line to matter, flawlessly fall into the next, and strike a chord with the reader, while slowly gathering to a narrative climax – the model I learned from Eminem and which saturates most of my early work.

After a 5 year hiatus, Marshall has returned with a new album, Relapse, which I am not yet able to write intelligently on. I learned long ago to listen before I open my mouth. I have not spent much time with the new album as a life with children doesn’t lend itself to many such minutes, but I will say this:

Ever since The Eminem Show, I’ve been waiting to see what Em had next; waiting for the boy to be a man and wanting him to take the step forward as an artist and human I hoped was inside him. Though his lyrical brilliance is obviously still present in his latest effort, I feel it is a far horizon from what I was hoping.

Collective Inkwell Community Question: Do you have any surprising influences you would like to confess to?

Sean Platt is a ghostwriter for hire, specializing in custom blog posts and SEO web copy.

56 responses to What Eminem Taught Me About Writing For Children

  1. Phil

    Trust your own instincts, girl. He’s a talented soul. And if your sister made fun of you for liking Billy Joel, she’s got a serious defective music appreciation gene. THAT man is the best musician out of all of them.

    • Sean

      I love Billy Joel, though I do understand her objection. It’s a bit of cheese and his definite pretentiousness, but he is a remarkable songwriter and wordsmith, PLUS the dude started writing symphonies a few years back! That’s pretty cool.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  2. Barbara Swafford

    Hi Sean,

    What a wonderfully written story. It just goes to show, what we see/hear on the surface isn’t necessarily so. I love how Cindy challenged you to the point that you did listen to the lyrics.

    Although I can’t think of a surprising influence I’ve had (off the top of my head), I’m sure there have been many. And I continue to remind myself, “you can’t tell a book by it’s cover”.

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..The Biggest Challenge Of Blogging

  3. Alan

    “I pulled my car to the side of the road and listened to “The Way I Am” over and over and over again until I’d transcribed the entire song on the yellow legal pad I kept on the floor of my truck.”

    Or you could have just opened up the booklet that came with the CD and looked at that. 😉

    I’m with you on the quality of Eminem’s writing and story-telling ability. The guy is incredible.

    Alan’s last blog post..Last chance to win a signed copy of RealmShift

  4. janice

    I really enjoyed this, Sean. I don’t enjoy listening to a lot of rap music, if it’s still called that, but the odd lines do have the power to slap me in the face and make me sit up and pay attention.

    I don’t have any shocking influences, but my passion for Greek lyrics has made me braver as a writer. The Greeks are unashamedly lyrical – poetry by their national poets is put to music and enshrined in popular songs. I also love the poetry and power in Beth Nielsen Chapman’s lyrics and John Denver’s. Tom Waits gets me every time; so does Leonard Cohen; I wish I had their wit and breathtaking perspective.

    janice’s last blog post..How to be Successful by FLIRTing more

    • Sean

      Most rap I can’t stand, but when it’s good it’s great. The problem is the ratio of gems to garbage (in my opinion) is really difficult to sift through – even within Eminem’s own catalogue the same is true. His good songs though, I could listen to them on infinite repeat. The language bothers me not at all.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  5. Hayden Tompkins

    I feel much the same about his new release.

    I was in high school when Eminem was really making it big and I can’t even express how perfectly his music captured my rage (at my father, at the system for letting me down, at a school that considered their students the problem and not their purpose), my feelings of helplessness and empowerment (one following quickly, surprisingly, after the other), my silliness and sense of fun or sarcasm.

    Above all I felt his music and stood in awe at his sheer power and ability.

    Hayden Tompkins’s last blog post..Top Secret Method of Saving Money

    • Sean

      The problem with his new release is that there just simply isn’t enough growth as a human. What was acceptable in the first few records, is now a little tired. I’m sad to find myself asking if that’s as deep as the rabbit hole goes. Having said that, some of the tracks still have remarkable flow and wordplay – I guess I just want to see him dig a little deeper. I did hear a rumor that he has another more serious album coming out at the end of the year. That would be awesome and I’ll be there on day one.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  6. Mary Anne Fisher

    It’s my experience, too, that most rap songs tend to fall on the extreme ends of the spectrum. I either love them or can’t stand them.

    I’m not a big Eminem fan, but he weaves a pretty good story.

    The most precious gem in this post [beyond your wonderful writing, of course 😉 ], is what you learned when you made the effort to look beyond your dislikes and “prejudices” and opened yourself to experiencing them which enabled you to see and benefit from their “hidden” beauty.

    That’s my boy!

    Excellent read, Sean.

    Mary Anne Fisher’s last blog post..7 Stupid Simple Steps to Crazy Online Profits… Almost Overnight!

    • Sean

      Hi Mary Anne! Sorry, I didn’t get into the dash to approve this comment yesterday.

      That’s precisely how I feel about rap, Eminem songs included. Some of them I think are monsters put to music, definitely. It’s true, not only was my mind opened to Eminem, but Eminem opened my mind to a lot of other stuff as well.

      Thanks for the compliments. : > )

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  7. Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)

    Do you think Eminem is marketed the wrong way? Is his brilliant side ever highlighted? By brilliant I mean the depth of the words that have touched you so personally? I don’t know very much about this artist but I have heard some of his music and also seen him on television. Attitude a plenty.

    I have a free-spirited side so I’m open to anything ‘offbeat’ (it just came out, honest) as long as it isn’t harmful to others.

    Ya, you got me, I never expected you to be into Eminem. Cindy obviously has an open mind – how wonderful that is.

    Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)’s last blog post..What Makes Review Writing Ethical? A Real Experience

    • Sean

      Rarely. There is the occasional write up for sure, but MTV is hardly concerned with that dimension to his music. Cindy is wonderfully open minded and makes me all the better for it. If you are interested, I’d be happy to send you a link to a track if you would like to check any of his music out. It is honest, there’s no doubt about that.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

      • Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)

        I listened to Crack a Bottle and Lose Yourself.

        Lose Yourself actually reminds me of African music. The repetitive rhythm and sing-song sound is almost trance-like. I also picked up the breathing (especially exhaling) of Eminem – very African – it connects him in a flow to the rhythm and the lyrics – powerful. In Lose Yourself I did feel his angst about what he is and what he wants to be. He was more than his voice, he became the voice of countless men.

        Crack a Bottle was so real I would be afraid to be in the company of such men.

        Rhyming – excellent.

        I believed the lyrics were authentic as in they weren’t contrived for the sake of being popular or selling etc. I don’t know if this is the case with all his work.

        I would only be able to listen to his music like I read certain poetry. It’s far too real and abrasive to just have in the background. Immensely powerful, disturbing and strangely hypnotic all at the same time.

        Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)’s last blog post..Catch Your Daydreams

      • Sean

        Oooh… Paisley, very well articulated. I’d have to agree with every word.

        When it works, his music is savage and beautiful. When it doesn’t, it is the harmonic atrophy of mankind.

        Sean’s last blog post..Wrapping the Morning Glories

  8. Chase March

    I have always said this about Eminem. Say what you will about the content of his songs, he is amazingly gifted with his use of words.

    He can rhyme multiple syllables. One of the best examples of this is how he rhymed “orange juice” and “chocolate milk” several times in a matter of seconds.

    He rhymed “orange juice” with “door hinge loose” and then “four inch screws” and then “foreign tools.”

    And then he rhymes “chocolate milk” with “dropped and spilt.”

    WOW! That’s all I can say.

    Those lyrics are from his song “Brain Damage” and it’s a great song. I can’t say that about all his songs. In fact, there are some of his songs I absolutely cannot listen to. But as far as how he puts words together and designs his rhymes, we can all learn from him.

    I was really surprised to see this post from you. Too many people just dismiss hip hop. Thanks for letting everyone know about some of the good things about it.

    Chase March’s last blog post..Unbalanced

  9. Chase March

    As for his latest disc. He doesn’t seem to have grown as an artist. I don’t like the new CD at all.

    But he still has some great rhymes in there. And like he said on his third disc.

    “You ain’t even impressed no more, you used to it.”

    We should be impressed with his use of words. Thanks for highlighting it.

    Chase March’s last blog post..Unbalanced

    • Sean

      LOL, that is true. We are used to it.

      I’m still impressed with his flow, but I haven’t seen any growth as an artist OR as a person. He’s still talking about the same things in the same way. If you are still talking about the the same things in your mid-thirties after a decade of untouchable success that you were in your mid-twenties when you were clawing your way up from the dirt – you are an asshole. : > )

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

      • Sean

        I forgot to add yesterday – I love Brain Damage. In the original version of this post I had a few excerpts from various songs, but I felt the post ran too long so I cut them. Brain Damage was one of them.

        Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

    • Sean

      I’ve viewed music as art and great writing since I was a child. Melodies are written as are lyrics. The right song can grow to become a part of our collective unconscious. Like any art, true music comes straight from the soul of another and into yours. It’s just a shame that there’s so much assembly line music these days. It’s diluting at best, and disintegrating at worst.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  10. Michael

    When Eminem burst onto the scene I thought his intent was superficial: to promote profanity, drugs and violence simply for the fame and money. Still he lured me in with his edginess and catchy beat. When I moved to Metro Detroit and took a job situated on Nine Mile Road–just north of “the” Eight Mile–working in social services in and about Detroit, I quickly discovered the environment that Mathers wrote about. His lyrics have credibility far beyond a means for profit. I appreciate his willingness to share his talent for writing and performing, even though it’s not always my taste.

    My high school offered an English class called Rock Poetry, the most popular course on campus. It was a combination of Rock and Roll history, music appreciation, and the art of critiquing lyrics. Through that course I developed an admiration for a lot of song writers, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Steven Stills, Neil Young, James Taylor and Paul Simon. Billy Joel’s Piano Man was too new for the course syllabus, but I’ll admit I like him too.

    Surprising influence? That would have to be Shel Silverstein. Not just his stories for children, which are great, but his adult humor as well. I still cherish my old, beat up, vinyl album “Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball”. I no longer have a means to listen to it, but the lyrics are printed on the jacket. The dude’s definitely twisted!


    Michael’s last blog post..Picture This: Day 11. Testing Eric Hamm’s Strategy for Keeping things Simple

    • Sean

      You’ve just listed some of my favorites, right down to Shel Silverstein. I can imagine that was the most popular class on campus. I wish I went to your school! The most popular class on my campus was Home Economics.

      I make a mean apron. : > )

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  11. Randi

    I never would have taken either you or Cindy for an Eminem fan. So ok, I’ll bite. Post the link to the track and I will give him a listen. My usual criteria for whether a song is good or not is, “Can I dance to it?” Rap’s kinda hard to dance to, unless you krump and a grandma looks silly krumping.

    And yes, I do have some influences that I’ll admit to.

    Shel Silverstein, for “A Boy Named Sue.” I heard that song as a child and always wanted to write so that people could visualize everything I was saying.
    “And we crashed through the wall and into the street
    Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer. ”
    You can almost feel the filth and cringe from the smell of alcohol.

    Warren Zevon for “Werewolves of London.”
    I learned effective alliteration from ” Little old lady got mutilated late last night,” and “He’s the heavy-handed gent, who ran amuck in Kent.”
    I learned less is more from, ” I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s, and his hair was perfect.” He didn’t have to assault us by overdescribing how the guy’s hair looked. He just said it was perfect and I have the visual firmly planted.

    Orson Scott Card, for every book I’ve ever read of his. He can take any personal experience he has had and craft a novel from it. I learned from him to pay attention to daily life because that is where inspiration comes from. His “Ender’s Game” surprised me with its ending, which is always a plus. His “Lost Boys” made me cry. He showed me how to create believable characters in the “Memory of Earth” series. I learned to create fantasy from fact in the “Alvin Journeyman” series. I’ll stop there…I’m getting carried away in Card land. Now I wanna go read.

    Randi’s last blog post..Internet Explorer Problems UPDATE (new items in red)

      • Randi

        Ok, so after about five hours of brainwashing by Sean and Cindy….oops! Wrong story. Ok, so after actually deciding to listen to Eminem instead of making snap judgments (which are much more fun) I have come away with a new appreciation for his abilities. Like I told Sean and Cindy in an email, “I think the thing that stood out to me the most as I listened to these (each one twice) was his ability to rhyme, even when the syllable that rhymed was not the one that is normally stressed when pronouncing the word. The man is a very talented writer and that comes through especially when what he has written is set to music. My eyes were opened.”

        I absolutely loved the video “When I’m Gone” (is that the name?) He’s a very gutsy, honest artist who is not afraid to lay all his mistakes out for the public to see.

        I still don’t like rap, but I like and maybe even possibly love, Eminem. My judgmental self has repented.

        Randi’s last blog post..The Story You Won’t Hear

      • Sean

        Randi, awesome. Open minds all around!

        I’ve gotta give you a giant high five for being so willing. You took one track after another and really listened. Not everyone would be willing to do that. Though if everybody was, the world would be a far better place.

        Right on!

        Sean’s last blog post..Wrapping the Morning Glories

  12. Bamboo Forest - PunIntended

    I like what your wife says about how to be entitled to an opinion. Those are wise words indeed. And… truth is… I’m not all that familiar with Eminem and his songs.

    I will say this, however, I think that some rap music is a poor influence on youth. I do believe that music that glorifies that which shouldn’t and props up hopelessness when there really is hope, is bad for the mind. Its influence is inevitable. And this is why I think it can be truly detrimental.

    That said, I like what eminem said regarding, “where are the parents.” That’s, unquestionably, the most important factor of all. The parents can and should have the greatest influence. The parents must take responsibility for their children.

    Problem is… Not all parents will or do. And so… when you have negative music so beloved its influence can be even more detrimental when grasped by youth who have little guidance.

    Bamboo Forest – PunIntended’s last blog post..Why You Should Anticipate Things Will Go Well

    • Sean

      That’s a REALLY BIG theme in Eminem’s music – bad parenting and moral hypocrisy. Even when he’s doing it from a mouth full of gutter, he almost always lays out a brilliant argument. And often with a devastating punch line.

      Sean’s last blog post..Children Write the Future Writing Contest

  13. Trina

    I had initially written him off as more rap crap too, I garnered respect for his artistry after having listened closely to his lyrics. It may well be my first exposure to actually looking beyond the feel of the music for enjoyment.
    A recent surprising influence for me has been Twitter. There will be yawns, eye rolls, and applause I am sure. I have found it rewarding to find range of positive influence defined by a 13 yo – yes Dan Miranda, to the ‘live your life well’ influence of 104 yo Ivy. Certainly there is garbage, just as in music. That is why we develop critical thinking. Then, I always keep in mind – one persons junk is anothers treasure – so that I measure my judgements with tolerance.

  14. Randi

    Sean: High five to you and Cindy too, for spending the time to hand select some tracks for me. I just found out I have to teach high school this year instead of elementary so the Eminem experience may score me some points with my students. 🙂

    I appreciated, and agreed with Paisley’s review as well.

    Randi’s last blog post..The Story You Won’t Hear

  15. Writer Dad - Christmas Means Hope — Writer Dad

    […] grandfather pushing his latest batch of fudge like a drug dealer with a fresh group of junkies.  Curse words and insults could be heard every couple of seconds, and nothing was considered sacred or off-limits. If we’d […]

  16. Rosa

    I’ve always considered Eminem as one “smart rebel”, he can be rough but he has his reasons most of the time. I guess we always have to be open about other people, because, as you experienced, you never know who we might help us learn about something or inspire us.

  17. Nobody

    If you’d like more inspiration for children’s rhymes, check out the work of Howard Ashman. He’s probably best known for being the lyricist behind the Little Mermaid/Beauty and The Beast/Aladdin “trilogy” that revitalized Disney. There is an entire generation of kids that have grown up with his lyrics set to Alan Menken’s catchy melodies, but their best work is arguably the decidedly more adult Little Shop of Horrors.

  18. Frank Marcopolos

    Hi Sean, It’s weird, I had a similar experience of connection with Em’s music. I’m more of a classic/alt rock fan, so it was definitely unexpected. Personally, I think the guy’s a genius.

    This new album has been somewhat of a disappointment for me, too. My only hope is that the end of the album, with songs like Beatiful, My Darling, and Careful What You Wish For, points toward Relapse 2 being more of what we’re hoping for in terms of artistic growth.

    He is definitely one of my surprising influences for sure. As a podcaster, I also take some of the kinds of things he does with background sound effects and use them in my stories.

    Frank Marcopolos’s last blog post..Podcast Length Poll

  19. Ryanrich1016

    Great Post!

    I encourage you to listen to his first CD Infinite, if you haven’t already. The word play and rhyming schemes are unbelievable. Here is a link to a youtube video with the single from that CD http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtRbEgoTqQs.

    This is eminem in his purest form. Enjoy!

  20. RedZz

    I truly love your post, not only because I’m a big fan of eminem but also because i have the exact same thoughts about Em, right before i listen to his words carefully.

    I listened to Em’s song, Stan, when I was still in elementary school. I only liked that song for it has a nice chorus by Dido. I thought Em’s other songs are rubbish. Til I got to Junior High and accidentally heard his “Marshall Mathers” I started to actually listen what he’s saying.

    From then on, I usually learn his lyrics before I actually listen the song. I’m amazed by how he puts his life in words. I’m amazed by how I feel like I know how hard his life was, like I understand him, only by listening to his songs. Of course I’m not blind, there are some songs I cant stand hearing. But when he’s bursting his emotions about life and what’s happening around him, my ears perk up.

    I wonder if you’ve listened to his newest songs, like Toy Soldiers, Not Afraid, to my fave song 25 to Life? I really want to know what do you think about Em through those new songs? His lyrics are pretty much different now, you know.

    best regards from Indonesia 🙂

    • Sean

      I love his new stuff. I think Recovery was his best album in a long time and I really enjoyed it a lot.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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