A Walk In The Woods With Taylor Swift & Tolkien
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
"I would like very much to be excluded from this narrative."
- Taylor Swift, in the music video for "Look What You Made Me Do"
Just five months after she stunned fans by dropping her surprise quarantine record, folklore, Swift announced last Thursday night that she would be releasing its sister record, evermore. To say that she has been prolific throughout her entire career is an understatement. In nearly 15 years, she’s released nine albums, many of which are comprised of more than fifteen songs each.
She’s released four concerts and documentaries on Disney+ and Netflix and dozens of music videos with epic storylines than rival those of Reba McIntire during the 1990s. She is also a master marketer, planting clues and Easter eggs for fans to decode and forming a personal bond with them through her confessional lyrics. But releasing two albums with superb lyrical and musical unity within the space of less than a year, during one of the worst crises in history, defies prolific. It’s something no one has ever accomplished before. It’s quite possibly the defining moment of her career.
The internet is now speculating that she never sleeps, or perhaps that she is actually a robot.
I want to talk more about what I’ve learned as a writer from these two albums, but first, we need to get one thing straight: You are allowed to not be productive right now.
Immediately after Swift dropped the bombshell news of the album release, the memes started. Including this one:
There’s definitely something to be said for creating art during times of trauma and crisis. In fact, part of the reason Inkling Creative Strategies exists is because the way we write post-COVID-19 is going to change, and I want to work together with writers to figure this out.
The fact that Shakespeare and Swift composed among the best of their art during pandemics is truly inspiring. Art is a product of the time when it was created and both artists’ work definitely fits that statement. But it’s also a dangerous statement to make because of the guilt and judgment it can inflict on writers who are genuinely struggling right now. If you can’t write right now, it’s okay. If all you can write is text messages telling friends about your struggles, that’s fine. This isn’t a competition. Shakespeare was having his experience. T-Swift is having hers. You can’t compare your situation to someone else’s, especially when there’s no blueprint for dealing with a pandemic. If you are feeling guilty right now for not writing consistently, not finishing your NaNoWriMo novel, or even not writing at all this year, stop that. Show yourself some grace. Nobody has had it easy this year.
I’d be willing to bet that even Taylor Swift has cried herself to sleep and screamed into her pillow.
Okay. With that out of the way, let’s talk about writing material and where it comes from.
I have to admit, evermore hasn’t quite hit me with the same force that folklore did. But one advantage it has over its predecessor in spades is the variety of diverse influences that come together to form such a unified album. And by Swift’s own admission, a lot of that unity is rooted in something we writers know well: story. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she describes how during lockdown, she and her boyfriend watched classic movies every night, everything from L.A. Confidential to Rear Window to Jane Eyre, and how consuming massive amounts of stories impacted her songwriting: "I feel like consuming other people's art and storytelling sort of opened this portal in my imagination and made me feel like, 'Well, why have I never done this before? Why have I never created characters and intersecting story lines? And why haven't I ever sort of freed myself up to do that from a narrative standpoint? […] It was really, really freeing to be able to just be inspired by worlds created by the films you watch or books you've read or places you've dreamed of or people that you've wondered about, not just being inspired by your own experience." When I first read this quote, my mind instantly went back to watching movies with my dad in junior high and high school. Beginning when I was in eighth grade, my dad decided that I was finally ready to experience his lengthy list of favorite films.
Every weekend, not to mention when I was home sick from school, we devoured them all: The Godfather, The Guns of Navarone, Bridge on the River Kwai, Patton, Dr. Zhivago, Sophie’s Choice, The Third Man, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Citizen Kane, and of course, my all-time favorite, The Shawshank Redemption.
Even better than just watching the movies was talking about the movies. Discussing the stories with my dad gave me even more insight into how they worked and how they affected me emotionally.
I now see that the entire experience was a master class in storytelling that I didn’t know I was getting. I think the same thing happened to our girl Taylor. Simply put, she realized that there was source material beyond herself, that creating her own narratives could strengthen her work. Swift has always been telling stories, even stories that go beyond the breakup songs she’s most known for. For instance, take a listen to “Starlight,” which beautifully tells the story of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s romance from Ethel’s point of view.
There's also "The Lucky One," about an unnamed singer who achieves instant fame, but chooses to retreat into a private life and disappear instead of embracing the life of a celebrity. It's a theme that Swift continues to explore on folklore and evermore on songs like "Mirrorball" and the linked stories of "Dorothea" and "Tis The Damn Season."
Anyone can tell a story.
But good fiction fuses life experience with the art we consume, eventually taking the form of powerful narratives.
J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote that stories come from “the leaf mould of the mind.” When you walk in the woods, you are trodding on layers and layers of dead leaves, dirt, moss. It’s the compost of season after season depositing its remnants on the forest floor.
Just the same, our minds are covered in life experiences layered on our other influences—the music and stories we love, our faith or lack thereof, our world views, our interests. This “leaf mould,” according to Tolkien, is where our ideas come from: "It grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.” evermore, even moreso than its predecessor, is leaf mould in action. Yes, Swift’s personal pain from failed relationships is found here, most notably in tracks like “Long Story Short.” But other voices and experiences present themselves: the title’s subtle allusion to an Emily Dickinson poem, the references to The Great Gatsby in “Happiness,” how “No Body, No Crime” evokes the long tradition of country music revenge songs. Perhaps the most stunning example, though, is “Marjorie,” a stirring tribute to her grandmother, Marjorie Finlay. Marjorie, too, was a singer, who achieved a modest career as an opera singer in Puerto Rico during the 1950s.
The song is lyrically and musically haunting, particularly at the conclusion, when Swift’s arrangements subtly mix in an actual recording of Marjorie performing. Swift doesn’t just sing about her grandmother’s influence; Marjorie literally enters the song itself and imbues it with her artistic presence.
The triumph of folklore and evermore is not that they were made during quarantine, although the pandemic will always provide crucial context for their inception.
What makes evermore in particular so powerful is its use of narrative—the fictional stories of broken relationships, deception, the superficiality of fame, and even murder.
The album contains layer upon layer—the quarantine movie binges, literature and poetry, her personal brokenness, and the ongoing influence of people who are gone, but “didn’t stay dead.”
What does your “leaf mould” look like? What stories have impacted you? What friends and family members visit you in your dreams? What themes emerge when you think of the totality of what influences you as a writer? That knowledge doesn’t just give you a better understanding of how you create. It gives you a better understanding of yourself.
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Writing Prompt: Draw your leaf mould.