Laura Dzubay: Taylor Swift and the image of writing

Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 5:10pm

Taylor Swift

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I was recently asked who I consider to be my favorite writer. It’s always a difficult question for me to answer — everyone I look up to for their writing, I look up to for a different reason, and there are quite a lot of those people. A Bob Dylan quote about his influences always jumps into my mind: “Open your eyes and your ears and you’re influenced.” There is something to learn from everyone.

But today I’m going to talk about an answer I pretty much never give in conversation: Taylor Swift.

I know what you might be thinking — “Ugh, not this again.” I stumble into a conversation about Taylor Swift, or onto a news headline about her, on at least a weekly basis. We’re all obsessed with her, in a national sense, whether we love her or love to hate her. Even I, a fan of Swift’s, can admit that it can get a little tiresome. Today my goal is just to tackle Swift from a literary perspective, because to me she is the best representation of something that I’ve seen from other artists as well.

 

When I said I never give Taylor Swift as an answer, it was for two reasons. The first I’ve already hinted at: It’s Taylor Swift. There are a lot of things about her I don’t like. I think that people are right to criticize her tendency to slip in and out of convenient identities (“the victim” being a big one), and a few too many of her songs for my liking milk the concept of being “not like other girls.” I wanted to know that she supported Democrats much earlier than 2018 (although I’m very glad to have it confirmed now). Only last month, Akanksha Sahay wrote a great piece interrogating the complicated, at times problematic nature of Swift’s relationships with feminism and privilege and her recent political evolution.

The second reason is more what I’d like to go into here: When people ask which writers I admire, they usually mean a specific type of writing. I generally take it to mean novels and short stories, because fiction is what I write personally, but I’m sure people would also be receptive if I named a poet, an essayist or a playwright. A songwriter is a little less expected, which in a way makes sense — you don’t sit down and read songs.

I got into Taylor Swift in middle school, not long before I started attending an arts school where the literary part of myself would be set on fire by writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor (both of whom, I’ve found out since, have their own huge sets of problems, but that’s for another time). In those days, I wrote constantly: on the bus, in class, after school. All of my class notes from middle school generally follow a pattern — half a page or so of real note-taking, then two or three pages of exciting fiction during which you can bet I wasn’t paying attention at all. The front pocket of my backpack was always crammed with the loose pages of some story, strung together across whatever was around: printer paper, loose leaf, napkins, pamphlets.

While occasionally I’d muster up a crush on someone just to have something to talk about, I was not particularly interested in romance at the time. So when I danced around my room to the songs from Taylor Swift and Fearless, shouting along to the lyrics about some boy I was falling in love with, no particular person had taken shape in my mind. I loved Swift’s images — “the moon like a spotlight on the lake,” “Friday night beneath the stars / In a field behind your yard” — but didn’t live in them myself, and didn’t really want to yet.

I loved Taylor Swift more than anything because she made writing fun. The pieces from that initial phase that I remember most clearly all have to do with that passion: an image from her first album’s liner notes of Swift poring over a notebook, deep in concentration, a video of her exclaiming about how she’s getting a really good idea. Another video of her high school classmates being interviewed, talking about how Swift was constantly writing — they’d even seen her write on paper towels and napkins when she didn’t have paper.

There were always writers I loved, but Taylor Swift struck something new for me. In middle school, like everyone, I felt awkward, cumbersome, insecure and off-and-on lonely. It thrilled me to learn about somebody who was so passionate about writing that, when she was my same age, she’d decided to make a career out of it — and she’d done it successfully. Swift was working regularly as a songwriter long before she put out her first album, and a few albums later, she was still excited to be doing it. Her first album’s first song, “Tim McGraw,” mentions “a letter that you never read,” and one of her very first hits, “Our Song,” ends on the image of writing: “I grabbed a pen and an old napkin / And I wrote down our song.” And while it’s true that she sometimes wielded this self-reference in ways I didn’t like (“All those other girls, well they’re beautiful / But would they write a song for you?”), I was still drawn to this attention to writing because it made me feel encouraged in my own life.

As a kid who had often stayed in from recess during elementary just to write short stories by myself, I was enamored. I’m still enamored. Swift didn’t just have passion; she had the direction and determination to see that passion through, and she still does. She writes in her music videos, and in YouTube videos about her songwriting process. One Google search of “Taylor Swift writing” yields a ton of images of her scrawling in notebooks, mulling over a guitar.

I think one of the reasons we love Swift (those of us who do) is always going to be her image. When Taylor Swift falls in love, it’s in a beautiful dress, in the rain. When Taylor Swift writes, she looks good doing it, and then later that writing comes out on an award-winning album. Through all of her storytelling — her love stories, her angry tirades, her diary-esque reminiscing on childhood memories and family and friends — she paints a picture of a world, a dream, in which her own emotions and thoughts and ideas become manifest. This is the very core of the act of writing, and it’s what makes it so easy to fall in love with Swift’s work. She can take the emotions that make her vulnerable and, using talent and hard work and her craft, turn that vulnerability into something admirable and untouchable. To me that has always been the ultimate superpower.