What Writers Can Learn From Eminem

Taking off from the notion that good writing can be found in the unlikeliest of places, here are some lessons from the volatile rapper:

(Potentially offensive material ahead–proceed with caution.)

  • Voice–aka “brand.” Marshall Bruce Mathers III hit the scene punching with his first big single: My Name Is.

My name is (what?)
My name is (who?)
My name is (chika-chika) Slim Shady

But who was he kidding? Slim, Shady, Slim Shady, Eminem, Marshall–he turned the expression of warring personas into its own unique identity.

Well since age twelve, I’ve felt like I’m someone else
Cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt.

Is there any doubt, in any of his songs, who you’re listening to and what he’s saying?

And since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse
And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works

He’s screwed up, he hates his parents, he doesn’t sweat over whether he’s being PC and he’ll drop liberal amounts of pop culture rap challenges to all and sundry. As critic Robert Christgau said of the Slim Shady LP, “Not every listener will feel what it’s trying to do, but anyone with ears will agree that it’s doing it.” Most writers looking to market themselves in the new media would love to have this clear of an idea what their platform is.

  • Balls: Carries masculine anger and derision to dizzying extremes, it’s true, but you can’t deny Em is fearless. He grew up poor in all the wrong neighborhoods. But he picked up his pen, spat out his guts on paper, then spat them into a mic, and won rap battles and music contests all the way up to the Oscars. If you’re going to be a writer, you might as well take a position and defend it with every word in your arsenal–and sheer ‘nads.
  • Nothing bad ever happens to writers–it’s all material. Whatever life shoves in your face, turn it into your story. No one knows for sure how much of what he writes is true, but at the very least, he was abandoned, abused and not wanted. Personifies the notion that, among the many reasons not to abuse your kids, they might grow up to be writers. He took the lemons of a rough upbringing and made lemonade–bitter, vindictive, enraged lemonade, but still. He’s made quite a penny on that lemonade stand, not to mention the multiple Grammys and the Oscar.
  • Throw a little rhythm into your writing. Ever notice the way some writers can swing a sentence like a good jazz riff? That’s because prose has beats and rhythm and rhyme, just like music. John Gardner writes about this in The Art of Fiction, how sentences have ‘slots’ where the emphasis should fall, and if you overload those slots, you make a mess out of your writing.

Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain’t callin
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em
There probably was a problem at the post office or something

He uses assonance and tricky rhyming schemes like a poet. (Not to mention the story is epistolary– very hard to pull off.) Check out the whole song, his remarkable Stan, here:
Warning; bad language, violence and a Dido sample ahead–enter at your own risk:

Lastly, no matter how dark it gets when you tap into the collective unconscious and express our darkest fears and worst impulses, don’t forget to pack a sense of humor:


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2 Responses to What Writers Can Learn From Eminem

  1. Talk about the perfect use of a sample: the first verse of Dido’s “Thank You” (before her song turns upbeat). The Yin to Eminem’s Yang.

    (for a cornucopia of perfectly used samples, try the Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterpiece “Paul’s Boutique”)

    From my “official” Vampire Syndrome” playlist, the theme song for D.’s thoughts during the car chase, Rose Tattoo’s “All The Lessons”.

    Picture D ramming a Cadillac CTS-v into a tree at 100+ mph (thinking his wife is driving that car) while his stereo blasts:
    “Don’t kiss me babe, don’t miss me babe, I won’t remember your name”.
    A moment more “Quentin Tarantino” than he is himself nowadays…


  2. Chris Devlin says:

    Yeah, secretly, I love Dido. She’s on my Guilty Pleasures playlist, along with Nickelback, Lifehouse and Jordin Sparks. What can I say? I’m a big sap sometimes.

    I’ll have to check out the samples on the Beastie Boys–haven’t heard much from that album. Great playlist! Quite a mix.


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