Merle Haggard passed away yesterday and I found myself feeling pretty melancholy. His music has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been around. I can remember my father singing his songs and I sang them to my own children when they were just babies. His status as a legendary singer and songwriter is undisputed and his music will influence other artists for generations. I will let other people write about that. What I want to talk about is what writers can learn from the Hag. Songwriters are storytellers and though their medium is different we can learn a good deal from them.
All writers aspire to create memorable characters and readers love them. Merle was great at creating characters in his songs that you connected with immediately. For example when he sings, “I raised a lot of cain in my younger days and my mama used to pray my crops would fail,” you know everything you need to know about the character and his mother. One simple phrase helps us invest in the character. It really shows how powerful it can be to provide a little information at the right time.
A big part of creating great characters is empathy. If the reader can relate to the character he or she will connect to the story. Merle excelled at this. He usually wrote about people who were down on their luck, or in bad circumstances. Sometimes it was due to their own actions sometimes just bad fortune. Either way you never got the feeling that Merle looked down on these characters. In fact, you find yourself rooting for these people. When he sings, “I turned twenty one in prison doing life without parole,” you feel like you’re right there in prison with him. You feel the regret and sorrow of a man who knows he put himself in this situation. Even though you may have never been to prison you can relate to this character.
Authenticity earns the writer trust from his or her readers. If the reader trusts the writer, they will follow the story almost anywhere. It seems strange to speak of authenticity when talking of fiction, but even in fiction readers can tell if an author is faking it. Merle’s songs are authentic. He wrote out of his experiences. He did actually turn twenty one in prison after all. So when he sings about life it doesn’t feel forced. This authenticity gives him latitude to sing about all kinds of things. Whether he’s singing about getting drunk or the problems with America we listen because he’s being honest with us. Maybe you don’t agree with him or maybe you do, but you know he’s being honest and you appreciate it. Now I wouldn’t suggest going to prison to write about prison, but try to infuse your writing with authentic experiences and reactions. This will provide the readers with a connection. If it feels real, they will appreciate it.
These are some of the many things we can learn from Merle Haggard. I struggled a long time with what song to share here, but eventually I decided on one that I sang to my children as I rocked them to sleep. What are your memories of Merle?