I recently saw Stories of Me, a documentary on the life of Paul Kelly, at the Luna cinema in Perth on a stormy day. I had needed to feel inspired. Being a writer – working day-in, day-out on stories that often resist my best efforts – I at times feel despondent. At such times, I return to the voices I know: the people whose words give me flight, hope and pause for reflection.
It’s hard to believe that Paul Kelly ever feels as low but he says as much in the film, asking only for the next song. I imagine most writers have a similar Faustian pact: to ask, if not plead, for their next poem, story or screenplay.
For one so humble, Paul Kelly has made quite a name, and indeed it’s worth charting that success. It’s impressive to see that even early in his career he took calculated risks, consistently backing his vision, and writing the best music he possibly could.
I’ve often had Paul Kelly’s words on a bookshelf beside me. I first purchased his collected lyrics, Don’t Start Me Talking, in 2004. The book served me well, its paperback cover near fully bent back by the time I passed it on in 2009. In 2010, my father bought me How to Make Gravy: A Mongrel Memoir, a career retrospective mixing lyrics, tour notes and stories of Kelly’s life.
My life and Kelly’s songs have at times felt inextricably intertwined. ‘Carless’ on the tuckshop stereo while waiting for a hot dog and chips; ‘Before Too Long’ blared out of a tinny car stereo while changing lanes in my first car – a hand-me-down Smurf-blue Toyota Corolla; me and my brother laid near-horizontal in white plastic lounge chairs as the opening refrain ‘To her Door’ drifted across a neighbour’s fence.
On his Nothing but a Dream tour, I recall a friend and me ‘holding it in’ at the concert. The two of us were three pints into the night and busting for the loo from early on, but were scared that if we went, we’d miss ‘Dumb Things’. As the concert continued, we grew fidgety. We relented halfway through ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’, the first song of his encore and rushed outside, well and truly spooked by the line snaking out of the gents. We jogged back from the car park ready to rock and then collectively groaned as the 144 beats per minute of ‘Dumb Things’ echoed out from a half-open stage door.
In hearing his songs, and reading his words, I often find release – a letting go of this strange tension between the things I write and the person I am; renewed hope that by opening my heart as a writer, I am doing something brave, honest, worthy.
I often listen to music as I write. Many writers are unable to write under such circumstances. I find music harnesses a racing mind, my thoughts slowed until fluid, dancing in and out of consciousness.
Writing this article, with Paul Kelly’s ‘Leaps and Bounds’ guiding me to greater reflection, I’m aware of the shared lineage between stories and songs. Paul Kelly’s ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ is based on Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water, So Close to Home,’ and the more astute listener will spot many such echoes in his work, not so much lifts as signs of a mind so eagerly devouring his world and the art that surrounds him.
It soothes many writers’ egos to pretend they are the great creator, God-guided as they shape their fictional worlds. In watching Stories of Me, I again realised that when it comes to creativity, the truth is somewhat more complex. That, in writing, we are drawing from the best songs we’ve heard, guided by those we’ve never met; that we’re drawing from memories, hopes and fears; that, in working our lives we’re working with stories, passed down and shared, from people still living, and those long gone.
It seems, in writing, that our ‘stories of me’ are often stories of us, our voices on their way to being heard, appreciated and reinterpreted.
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and Killings columnist. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.