A friend of mine recently asked, via her own blog, which books her readers found inspiring--which made them better writers. I listed several, mostly those I've either listed here or plan to list in the future. But then today I had to clean the house, so I dug out some Jimmy Buffet to keep me going, and you know what? He's a damn good writer.
I used to admire Buffet. I used to say you could listen to his songs and learn how to live. I don't think that was well thought-out on my part. I mean, certainly some of his songs are inspiring, but others, and certainly the ones he's known for, are simply hedonistic and entertaining--good songs, sure, but partying on the beach was not what I meant by living well. I think I meant relaxing, enjoying life and being able to laugh at oneself, a message Buffet expresses adroitly, but there's got to be more, some element of service, of depth. That "more" is missing from Jimmy's oeuvre.
Yet the man can write, and I think now that sheer talent may have been the thing I was inspired by all along. It is he who has penned the line I consider one of the simplest, most beautiful I've ever encountered; "Ceiling fan stirs the air/cigar smoke did swirl." Nine simple words, and only two details, yet he evokes an entire almost tangible scene. Who else can do that? True, the verb tense shifts for no apparent reason (as it does several times throughout that song, “Havana Daydreaming”), but that's irrelevant before such clean economy. The line works. I like Jimmy’s sound, but he tends to keep re-using his tunes, with slight variations, across four or five songs. His voice is pleasant, he's a competent singer, but not much more than that. He's a brilliant showman, but really how many beach-party antics do you need? No, Jimmy's gift is his lyrics. Every time I hear those songs, how he puts words together, I want to be able to put words together, too. I set out, in this blog, to review and recommend books, but I'm allowed to expand that to other forms of written material. It's my blog.
Jimmy Buffet has written several books and short stories, including two children's books he co-authored with his older daughter, Savannah Jane Buffet, herself a child at the time. The books are interesting and fun, but I rarely re-read them. I am more impressed by the writing in his songs. Curiously, in his lyrics Buffet refers to himself not as a musician but as a writer. “If I Could Just Get it on Paper” is actually about the writing process;
Simple words can become clever phrases
And chapters could turn into books
Yes if I could just get it on paper
But it's harder than it ever looks
He concludes that song with the line “if I could just get it on paper tonight/I could tell you what I think I did.” That's one of the mysteries of writing; sometimes you don’t know what you think, or even what you did, until you write about it. You learn about yourself at the same time your reader does. Of course, the same song includes the couplet “life and ink they run out at the same time/or so says my old friend the squid,” which gets both sillier and more profound the more you think about it. Buffet is very good at lines that make you say “huh?”
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say you have to listen to Buffet. But if you do listen to Buffet, don’t just pay attention to the parrots and the pirates and leave it at that. Read the lyrics.