How Taylor Swift Saved My Writing ‹ Literary Hub


Being a writer, being able to create characters and tap into human feelings and ways of processing things often goes hand in hand with feeling worthless. Feeling that I’m not as good as the writers I admire, feeling that I’m not writing enough, feeling that I’m wasting time on the wrong project when I should be writing about something else.

My first novel, A Little Hope, had come out in 2021, and my second novel, A Quiet Life, had just been published. There are weird ebbs and flows to the writing life, and a ton of silence, and now that I had gone on a mini tour to some bookstores, and now that my teaching semester was starting to finish, the worthless spotlight was creeping across the stage floor, and I felt fully in its glow.

I always have been tough on myself. My parents used to tell me this; my wife Rebecca still tells me this. I have an idealized version of what I should look like, what I should be able to get done in a day, what my kids and students think of me, how my writing turns out, and often, I am a far cry from this goal self.

But last December, normally my favorite time of the year, I realized I hadn’t written anything new since spring. The previous year, I had been consumed with my third novel.  After a book that had gone nowhere but to the graveyard in my laptop, this one had a lot of momentum, and I wrote it furiously in the morning before teaching. I was so happy about the characters, and I figured out a big plot hole.

At one point I thought, maybe I could keep doing this writing thing. Maybe writing two novels wasn’t a fluke. Maybe I was a writer after all who would have a catalog of books to my name and make a career out of this.

My agent had loved the manuscript and my publisher acquired it. It was wonderful news that they wanted this new one, and my editor even agreed to a two-book deal, something I thought only happened to non-worthless people. My editor, whom I’ve worked with on each book so far and who I think the world of, asked for a fairly a significant revision, which kept me busy until fall, but in the back of my mind, I started to worry about the unwritten other book.

So after the revision was completed, after I’d started teaching my usual fall classes, every week I felt like I should be starting on the new book. It was due in two years, and though that was a long way off, I’ve learned from the publishing world that two years is nothing. It takes forever to get a solid book drafted, and then there is revision where you have to re-see your writing in a different way and rip it all apart. Once other trusted readers come in, there are often months of back and forth before getting to a solid place.

Every idea felt ridiculous. I felt as though I had said everything already: every character, every name, every feeling, every possible setting and complication. I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.

I kept thinking about different characters and scenarios, but every time I sat down to write, I’d get distracted and end up putting nothing down on my taunting blank Microsoft Word screen.

Every idea felt ridiculous. I felt as though I had said everything already: every character, every name, every feeling, every possible setting and complication. I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.

Then came Taylor.

My younger daughter, Frankie, had been listening to Taylor Swift nonstop, and she and my older daughter, Gia, wanted tickets to The Eras Tour that summer. They promised if they were selected in the Taylor lottery, this could be their Christmas and birthday and Easter and whatever other special occasion gifts. So we’d said yes, and they were victorious, and all was right in the Taylor-loving universe.

I was of course aware of the ubiquitous Taylor, but I didn’t know much beyond seeing her on Saturday Night Live or whatever was in the news (Grammy awards, a legal battle for song rights) and beyond her popular songs: “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Shake It Off.”

I remember my wife’s mom had gotten Gia a singing Taylor doll with a guitar when she was in preschool, and I remember playing “White Horse” on my laptop for my family while we ate dinner (now, of course, I take credit for being the first Swiftie in the family).

Taylor had become a phenomenon I love to see in our culture: someone who for years has been tested and tried and is reliably good. An Oprah, a Dolly Parton, a Paul Rudd, a Stephen King. You don’t have that many hits by accident. You don’t procure a loyal fan base of millions from being so-so. And I remember learning how she spoke out politically and admiring her for using her platform and reach for good. It’s often easier to say nothing and be vanilla—it takes guts to let the world know what you believe.

One day that December, I was driving Frankie to school, and she asked if she could play a different Taylor song for me. I have always liked hearing what my kids like—what books they’re reading, what shows they watch. Gia made me love The Mandalorian and soundtracks to Hamilton and Hadestown, and now Frankie told me I was ready for something bigger. “It’s the ten-minute version of ‘All Too Well’,” she said.

“A song is ten minutes?” I smiled politely as I kept driving. But what if it was awful? A three-minute song I didn’t love would come and go, but ten minutes? Had I ever listened to a song that was ten minutes long? How long was the “American Pie” song? Less, definitely less, and that one was an eternity. My attention span was too short. I couldn’t stand concerts with drum solos.

Frankie didn’t blink. “It won’t be long enough,” she said.

She clicked play and I listened.

Songs never grab me the first time, but this one was…good. I loved the lyrics: I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here. I liked how passionately she sang. This shit was no bubblegum pop. This was about love and pain and being wronged.

I found myself playing it again after I dropped Frankie off. Playing it when I unloaded the dishwasher or straightened the garage or on my headphones in the back yard. The lyrics were speaking to me, and I wasn’t quite sure why.

I am a sucker for objects, and the song talks about a scarf the lover kept. And a photo album. And watching the front door waiting for the loved one to return. The writer in me loves someone who can’t get over something. The protagonist of the song walks home alone in the winter and weeps in a bathroom. And the dad in me aches when she sings about her father trying to console his daughter after the breakup.

I listened to it over and over, never tiring of any section. There is her beautiful voice, and the words had great sound, but what struck me the most was the honesty and rawness. I believed every single word: “Well, maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much.” It made me love language again, it repeatedly gave me chills.

Taylor made me want to capture something like this again. She made me want to write. She made me want to know things about characters and try to understand things that couldn’t be understood. I felt something unfold itself that had been stuck.  Isn’t that what we do as writers? Answer big questions. In the song she says she remembers it all, and writers are the ones who remember, who try to let everyone know what it all means.

Taylor was giving this back to me. She was taking away the worthlessness I felt; she was telling me we all get through things. I understood why every fan wanted to be at the big concert that summer. I understood why in every video the audience is singing along, overcome.

“All Too Well” became our family anthem, and we played it on every car ride. We even started to measure distance with it: the restaurant is two All Too Well’s away. In my Intro to Poetry class, we watched the “All Too Well” video and dissected the lyrics.

Finally, it was the new year, and I sat down. I put my laptop in airplane mode—I wasn’t going to be distracted by an email or a Twitter doom-scroll or anything else.

She made me want to write. She made me want to know things about characters and try to understand things that couldn’t be understood.

I started to write again, picking up an old idea I had a couple years ago but shelved when I thought it wasn’t the type of story readers would expect from me. I learned from Frankie that Taylor would never say something like that. I had once asked Frankie why she thinks Taylor is so successful, why she’s lasted this long and has cultivated such a fan base. She told me since her first album came out in 2006, she’s produced ten albums plus two re-recorded versions and even has another on the way. Frankie said, “She’s reinvented herself for every one of these albums.”

She’s written and performed in so many styles: pop, country, indie and alternative. She’s incorporated memoir, fiction, myth and legend into her songs. Though I didn’t have a loyal base of Swifties, I had a small handful of Joellatics on Instagram and Goodreads who were so supportive and might follow my writing to other places.

I typed and typed. I tried to take risks. I tried to keep the parts I liked about my writing and character development and experiment with showing more plot, more at stake.

After a couple weeks, I had pages again. By the time Gia and Frankie went to the Eras concert that spring, sending Rebecca and me selfies and videos, both of us wishing we could be there with them, I was polishing my first hundred pages of the new book to show my agent, listening to “All Too Well” in the background. I’m still not sick of it.

The song had shown me that it’s okay to feel things deeply, to care too much.  Because of Taylor, and her love for words, I’d gotten back something I didn’t think I was worthy of.


A Quiet Life by Ethan Joella is available via Scribner.

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