What Eminem Taught Me About Writing For Children
Rewind 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?