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Category: Arts & Entertainment / Topics: Arts & Entertainment Communication Media Music Writing

Forget About Songwriting: Try Fiction

by Garrison Keillor

Posted: August 19, 2022

My ambition had been to write limericks, but thank goodness I gave that up. There’s no money in it, just misery.…

The word from people who know is that Taylor Swift is working with younger edgier indy artists, trying to stay relevant, hoping to hang on in today’s rapidly shifting pop culture, trying to free herself from the bonds of the narrative lyric and pick up the style of spatter imagery. Miss Swift is 32.

So forget about songwriting. Thirty-two is much too young for irrelevance. In solid professions such as medicine, engineering, law, the humorous essay, you’re just hitting your stride at 32. Miss Swift’s problem is that she prospered for years appealing to 11-year-old girls but now much of her audience is in its early twenties and doesn’t want to be in the same demographic with 11-year-olds so she needs to change the act to drive away the children, make it edgy, frighten the parents.

I see the perils of the music biz while strolling around Central Park on a weekend and passing by kiddie birthday parties where East Side parents have gone to vast expense to celebrate their child’s second or third birthday. The parents are guilty, having hired young women to raise the kiddos, and the lavish party, with catered hot dogs and potato salad and a designer cake, flocks of balloons and streamers, perhaps a mime artist and a monkey, a craft table, a photographer, and a singer, is meant to show the depth of their love. A dozen toddlers sit on the grass, the birthday girl or boy wearing a gold crown, and the singer entertains, and it’s all too obvious: she is talented, beautiful, has a degree in theater, had Broadway ambitions, and now she is performing for two-year-olds, which is like singing to a herd of house cats. She sings her heart out, big projection, great articulation, hoping to impress the mothers standing in back who may hire her for their kids’ birthdays, and she cries, “Let’s all clap our hands!” to kids who don’t know their hands from their feet, and it breaks my heart. Miss Show Biz was a star back in Iola, Kansas, and now she’s a joke: what’s next for her? Singing at birthday parties for dogs?

I intended to move to New York when I was 24 and become a writer and I got myself a room in a rooming house on West 19th and met a serious photographer who drove cab at night to support his wife and two infant daughters living in a squalid tenement on the Lower East Side and taking photographs in the afternoon, black-and-white pictures of street people, most of them as depressed as he. I followed him around for a few days, thinking I’d write about him, but seeing his life up close decided me on going back to Minnesota. A young artist needs friends, supporters, aunts, perhaps a welcoming basement for a while.

Being young and broke in a strange big city with nothing but a distant dream in your pocket is a form of imprisonment and not a course to be taken lightly unless you have a nice trust fund to fall back on. A friend of mine is a successful photographer, also b&w like the cabdriver, but he stayed close to home and married a woman with a good job and they practiced birth control. Twenty years later, the art world started smiling on him.

As for me, I am an heir to the Keiller orange marmalade fortune. The Keillers in Scotland died off and we American Keillors, who were illiterate farmers and misspelled our own name, found a trunk full of stock certificates in a barn in Barnstable belonging to Thomas Keillor in 1774, but Thomas was a Loyalist, opposed to the Revolution, and the shame of this caused many Keillors to change their names. Ralph Waldo Keillor did and Henry Wadsworth Keillor and also George and Martha Keillor. Meanwhile, Thomas fled to Canada with the marmalade stocks, which fell to my grandpa James and then my father John, so my siblings and I are loaded. It’s a long story. And that’s how I financed my career in fiction. My ambition had been to write limericks, but thank goodness I gave that up. There’s no money in it, just misery.

Young men who take up light verse:
It’s not a career, it’s a curse.
Clean rooms or wash dishes,
Rhyme is pernicious,
It’s a huge waste of time, perhaps worse,
A tragic decision
Leading to supervision
In a mental ward by a trained nurse.

Garrison Keillor © 08.05.22

America's story teller, known for his heartland wit and wisdom, and for many years as the voice of Prairie Home Companion on NPR. For additional columns and postings, subscribe to

Posted: August 19, 2022   Accessed 166 times

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