Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Poor Hearing Approach to Good Stories

I remember reading a piece by Harlan Ellison once about how a story idea and a title came to him. If I remember correctly, he was on a plane and overheard two women talking about their kids. One woman asked the other about her son, Jeffy. Ellison heard the woman answer: “Oh, Jeffy is five. He’s always five.” Now, Ellison was pretty sure the woman actually said “fine,” but that’s not what he heard, and out of that mishearing a story was born. That story was called “Jeffty is Five” and is quite a good one.

A week or so ago I posted a poem here called “Harmland.” That title, too, came from mishearing something. I was listening to a song, not sure by who, when I heard the singer use the word “Harmland.” I was almost immediately sure he said “heartland,” but that’s not what I heard. The title instantly resonated with me and the poem came only a short time later. The emotion of the poem had been inside me for a while but the title helped coalesce it into something real.

Yesterday I was listening to “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies. I like this song very much but never have figured out quite what the lyrics are. I know I could look them up online, but what’s the fun in that. Instead, I enjoy trying to puzzle them out, and I enjoy the weird associations that come to me from mishearing certain phrases. For example, I’m pretty sure there’s “a machine ahold of my right hand” somewhere in that song. And there’s a story in there somewhere that one of these days I’ll write.

While listening to that song yesterday, for the thousandth time, a perfect title for a noir crime story also came to me: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I’ve got to write this one, and I’ve got a pretty good idea how it’s going to work.

So, if you’re looking for titles or story ideas, I suggest you mishear a few things. What say you?


Deka Black said...

In fact, i'n writing a story right now (i hope to finish it the next saturday). And not the title, but a key point of the plot came fom mishearing "Talavera" (name of a city here in Spain). What i heard was "Calavera" ("skull" in english)

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, Sounds pretty good. Looking forward to hearing more about the tale.

Golden Eagle said...

I know there's a term for mishearing song lyrics, but I can't think of it now . . . it sounds like a good way to find story titles and ideas, anyway. (No pun intended.)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Misheard lyrics is an excellent souce!
And think about the origin of Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida. (Being drunk helps I guess.)

Erik Donald France said...

I say, what? What?

Absolutely dead on. Also inspirational (and sometimes comical) are words that are a little off in conversation: such as "scrapegoat" and "That's a mute point, my friend."

Erik Donald France said...

I just remembered a recent work email that referrred to "a tale of woo." Pitch that one!

Charles Gramlich said...

Golden eagle, come to think of it, I think you're right, but I don't know what that term is either.

Alex, good un. Took me a lot of years before I realized what the heck that song was saying.

Erik, yes, exactly. Good fun mistakes. Lol. That "tale of woo" would be a great one.

Tom Doolan said...

I challenge someone to write a story/poem entitled "Wrapped up like a douche." :D

Oscar Case said...

Hey, right on, Charles, and your story title, too.

laughingwolf said...

works like a damn, charles :)

for the longest time i thought the title of a tune would be better as 'london derriere', instead of 'londonderry air'! ;) lol

mishearings are called 'malapropisms', after the previously unknown mrs. malaprop...

laughingwolf said...

ooops! i'm wrong!


The hilarious world of malapropisms, verbal slips and gaffes, Bushisms, Colemanballs, and, of course, Mrs. Malaprop.

We all know, when someone misuses a word, the result can induce hysterics, unless of course it is we who have made the blunder, in which case embarrassment is the more likely effect.

When an incorrect word is used like this, a malapropism is born.

Here are a handful of genuine malapropisms, gathered from across the Internet:

He had to use a fire distinguisher.

Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination.

Isn't that an expensive pendulum round that man's neck?

Good punctuation means not to be late.

He's a just wolf in cheap clothing.

Michelangelo painted the Sixteenth Chapel.

My sister has extra-century perception.

"Don't" is a contraption.

The word 'malapropism' comes from the fictitious character of Mrs. Malaprop. Find out more about Mrs. Malaprop and her original malapropisms.

There is no shortage of hilarious malapropism slips from the world of famous celebrities, TV presenters, sports stars, commentators, and so on.

Mondegreens are, in a sense, the opposite of malapropisms; they result from something being misheard rather than missaid.

A few misheard phrases and song lyrics (the first three are well-known examples):

"Excuse me while I kiss this guy",
for, "Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
~Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix

"There's a bathroom on the right",
for, "There's a bad moon on the rise"
~Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival

"The girl with colitis goes by",
for, "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes"
~Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles

"Crimean River", for, "Cry Me a River"
~Cry Me a River, Julie London

"Bring me an iron lung", for, "Bring me a higher love"
~Higher Love, Steve Winwood

"Mama don't take my clothes 'n' throw 'em away", for, "Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away"
~Kodachrome, Paul Simon

"You make the best homemade stew around", for, "You make the best of what's still around"
~When The World Is Running Down, The Police

"Very close veins", for, "Varicose veins"

"Paper View TV", for, "Pay-per-view TV"

Deka Black said...

Thank Charles. Is a sword & sorcery tale. Want to know if i'm able to do something in the genre.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I love it. I've often misheard lyrics-thought something was great line then find out thats not what it said at all-so I use what I heard in my poems.

BernardL said...

I say you came up with a couple of very good titles with benefits. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom Doolan, lol. Definitely one I’ve misheard.

Oscar, yeah, I like that title.
Laughingwolf, “Mondegreens!” Hum, I did not know that word. Cool. That’s the word I’m looking for. Another I hear is from the Eagle’s Hotel California. “Warm smell of coitus rising up through the air.” Another one from my teenage years, the Steve Miller Band, Fly like an eagle, which has a line that I once thought was “shoot the children with no shoes on their feet.”

Deka Black, luck with it, man.

David J. West, I know, sometimes my ‘misheard’ lines are much better than the original.

BernardL, and as I get older and harder of hearing I have nowhere to go but getting better. :)

Ron Scheer said...

As a boy, I thought the Christmas carol went "Glorious beans from heaven afar."

Spy Scribbler said...

This is the coolest blog post ever! I love it. I really love it. Another source of story ideas!

sage said...

wifi and wife?

Sometimes you have to take things and run with them--I like the song and the idea of a long cool woman in a black dress :)

Ty said...

I thought I was the only one. I do this all the time, especially when it comes to short story titles and ideas. For misheard ideas, I probably have the most luck when listening to Soundgarden.

Heather said...

it's fun to twist our brains in new ways via malfunction of our ears or vision isn't it? I used to love to draw based on starting out with a random scribble. Same kind of exercise.

Travis Cody said...

LOL! That approach never occurred to me. When I can't understand a lyric, I go on a search and destroy until I've got it right.

Perhaps I should change my thinking.

Cloudia said...

Excellent creative advice!

Aloha from Waikiki;

We are crazed moving! Please excuse my absence!

Comfort Spiral

> < } } ( ° >


Drizel said...

Well it can also be very funny, as my sister can never hear anything the right way. We have a restaurant add here that says It is a taste of life in the jingle. She sang along out loud, I am gonna take my life....whahahahaha.....but yes those are some awesome misheards there....I must try that some time:)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron Scheer, lol. I misheard a few of church songs as well.

Natasha Fondren, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed. It makes going slowly deaf seem not so bad.

Sage, my wife is a cool woman and sometimes wears a black dress, but she’s not very long!

Ty Johnston, you should try listening to foreign bands, like when Rammstein sings in German. I get ideas from them because it sounds “almost” English at times.

Heather, I still like to type titles up on the top of a new clean page and just riff off of that. It’s a very enjoyable type of play.

Travis Cody, my wife will do the same thing as you. I seldom do. Could be laziness on my part, or maybe I’m just protecting my creative space. :)

Cloudia, it works for me.

Drizel, jingles are a good source of mishearing!

David Cranmer said...

I love a good title and I've pulled a Harlan Ellison once or twice.

jodi said...

Charles, how about 'there's a bathroom on the right'?

Lisa said...

This is cute an interesting. I know we always mishear song lyrics but my husband and I for a long time thought that the lyric and title of our love song was fool in your heart. When it was actually room in your heart. Well, we didn't really mind being fools for each other. That was the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, Sometimes I'd just like to write titles and not bother with the rest of the story.

Jodi, perhaps, if it is an evil enough bathroom. ;)

Oceangirl, sometimes I wonder if any song gets heard correctly. :)

X. Dell said...

(1) Well, the title might draw interest, since it will immediately remind some readers of the song.

Actually, that would be a good title for a movie.

(2) Maybe I should write a story called "Twisting the Hide Away." It'll either be about weight loss or taxidermy. I'm not sure.

(3) Apropos Laughingwolf's comment, there's a type of Japanese pop song (can't remember the exact term at the moment) that is a cover version of songs in other languages (typically English). Instead of translating the lyrics straight to Japanese, they translate the lyrics into Japanese words that the English words sound like.

A hypothetical English example would be if I translated the song lyric "Eres Tu" to "Earaches Too."

(3) In case nobody else here is pointing it out, the Hollies passage:

"Well the DA was pumping my left hand,
And She was a-holding my right.

X. Dell said...

As you can see from that last comment, I also forgot how to count.

Sidney said...

John D. McDonald's The Green Ripper came from a child mishearing and being scared of the Grim Reaper. I read movie poster tagline wrong once and still get a chuckle. The real tag was: Heroes aren't made. They're cornered." I read it first as "Heroes aren't made. They're concerned." I still kind of like that.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-Dell, I actually think I've looked up those Hollies lyrics before but I always still remember them the way I mishear them. Hard to teach an old dog new tricks. My friend David has visited Japan several times and says they have t-shirts there that repeat complete nonsense phrases in English but they sound good apparently.

Sidney, I forgot about the Green Ripper. I remember that. And there was something in there I think about the "Twinight Double Header," which the kid took to be some kind of monster.

Richard Prosch said...

I like "Harmland." Very good.

Much of my own made-up lyrics I blame on poor transistor radio reception in my youth. The first few weeks it was out, I thought the Fleetwood Mac song "Rhiannon" was "Green-heaven"

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, "Green Heaven." I like that very much.

Mary Witzl said...

I love this post! I love Mondegreens and prefer some of the weird things I've imagined to the actual lyrics. My youngest daughter used to sing 'Say Hi's' line about having 'the dogs, the tots, the pretty wife' as 'the dog that talks to pretty wives'. I still love that image.

For some reason, the long tall woman in a black dress song has been in my mind recently. I had no idea it was done by the Hollies!

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary Witzl, the Hollies did a lot of good music. I think Mondegreens really show us a bit how our thoughts work.

cs harris said...

There's a word for that: mondegreen, a slip of the ear.

They say Lady Gaga got her name from an autocorrected text message.

eric1313 said...

Cannonball! Cannonball-all oh oh oh oh...
(Instead of Panama, by Van Halen, that one always gets me laughing at myslef)

eric1313 said...

Another one was from the Def Leppard song Rock of Ages. The half chanted gibberish part right at the beginning, we always interpreted it as "Smokin dope and drinkin Goebbels" (Not sure if you had Goebbels beer down there, it's uber cheap brew in case you were unfamiliar)

eric1313 said...

Not sure if those above have good literary inspirations, but they sure do make one laugh at the way we hear certain things.

To make up for that, here's an old Motown hit song:

"My momma told me--ya better chop around"

Got to be a strange family-centric horror story in there somewhere.

ivan said...

My students used to groan when I'd introduce them to the concept of The God Out of the Machine.

"Deus ex machina. Synchronicity. The God Out of the Machine. Bullshit!"

But there is something to be said about "The poor hearing approach to good stories."
I think they eventually got the idea and I sallied forth with a story.
Happily, no groans. :)


Your site is so loaded with stuff that it takes my browser some time to bring it up. Maybe it's my oldfashioned Explorer.

ivan said...


I especially like the line out the
Beatles' Lucy and the Sky with Diamonds, where "The girl with colitus goes by."
LOL. I guess people would notice.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, I just learned that word. Didn't know it. Hum, I could easily mishear gaga as gag or gaggle.

eric1313, I can hear "cannonball" myself. Never heard of Goebbels beer. We had some cheapies around our area too, especially Blatz. "Better chop around" would make a good title.

ivan, I'd forgotten that one from the Beatles. Yeah, I've got a lot of images on my page. I probably need to cut back on some stuff and simplify it a bit so it'll load faster.

Snowbrush said...

I've no doubt that some of your mishearings are more to the point than the actual word. As for me, my mishearings are usually ridiculous.

Charles Gramlich said...

snowbrush, often mine are too. I just don't share those. :)

Unknown said...

There might be a little dust on the bottle
But don't let it fool ya about what's inside
There might be a little dust on the bottle
It's one of those things that gets sweeter with time
David Lee Murphy sings this song.

When I first heard it and many times after I thought bottle was bible.

I told my husband we needed to sing this country song I heard in church. He listened to it and crushed me to pieces with the real lyrics. But seriously Bible works too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Carole, oh that's good. Really good.