It’s amazing how quickly word usages change, and disturbing how many nuances of meaning are lost in the process. This was brought home to me the other day as I was watching (not for the first time) an episode of Pete Seeger’s short-lived but ground-breaking television show, Rainbow Quest (1965-66), the one in which he hosts June Carter and Johnny Cash. In it, Pete Seeger asks Johnny Cash to sing a couple of old songs, and a couple of songs that he “made up.” Somehow the wording sounded quaint, although I used it all the time in my childhood, as in
Q: Where did that poem come from?
A: I made it up.
A host today would be more likely to say, “Sing something you wrote/composed yourself.”
How and why, I ask myself, do I prefer the older usage? Perhaps most obviously, a singer may not have actually written the song, but simply set it to new music; or the other way around, s/he may have not have composed the tune, but rather, written new verses or come up with a new arrangement. So in these cases, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that s/he had written or composed it. Furthermore, the word “writing” when applied to a song, which is made to be sung, places an unnecessary importance on the written word, whereas bards of old drew upon memory and repetition as well as their own inventiveness to teach and delight their audiences. In this sense even the contemporary compound word “singer-songwriter” does not quite succeed in conveying the spirit of the folk tradition that Pete Seeger sought to carry forward.
When one examines the verb “to make up,” one will notice that it isn’t the same as “to create,” which gives the distinct impression that something is being brought forth out of nothing, or at least, that something new is entering the world. By contrast, “to make up” makes a more modest claim: to form by fitting together or assembling or to prepare or arrange something. In this sense, making up a song is never creating something entirely new, but drawing upon a tradition and arranging into a new form something that has come before.
The first meaning of “to make up” suggests a different kind of creation: to invent an explanation for something, especially to avoid being punished or embarrassed. It is in this sense that a parent might suspect a child of making up a story to get out of trouble. The art of fiction involves making up in both of the above senses, requiring invention as well as the assembling or rearrangement of the various elements of the story and plot. This is acknowledged in Albert Camus’ characterization of fiction as the lie through which we tell the truth.
The show in which Pete Seeger asked Johnny Cash to sing a song he had “made up” was aired in 1966, the very last of the 39 episodes of Rainbow Quest. The very next year, in 1967, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes published his groundbreaking essay, The Death of the Author, in which he challenges the established concept of the Author as Creator-God and presents a perspective quite similar to Pete Seeger’s. In it he argues that, far from creating anything, the author is simply weaving threads into the vast web of words that have come before, and that to give him (Barthes does not entertain the idea of a female author) sole custody of the meaning of the text is not only limiting its multitude of possible meanings, but in fact, entirely wrong. For Barthes, author needs to be written with a lower-case, not capital ‘A’, and the idea of the “Author-God” needs to be demoted from Creator to “scriptor,” a mere node through whom words cross and combine.
Of course, Barthes was deliberately overstating the case to challenge Authority (and to demote it to a lower-case ‘a’ as well—it was the Sixties, after all!), but his point is nonetheless well taken. If, following Barthes, we think of an author as a compositor as well as a creator, the use of “makeup” in printing and design becomes clear, referring to the formatting of a printed page, which includes the layout of headers, footers, columns, page numbers, graphics, rules and borders. Especially in letterpress printing, the arranging and rearranging involved in makeup is not only a painstaking physical act, but also an exacting art.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think I’ll go back to using “making up” to describe the recombination of words (and tunes), and to reviving some of its other nuances of meaning before they become utterly archaic. The addition of a simple preposition to “make up” gives it a new meaning, as in “make up to” and “make up for.” Making up to someone is behaving in a friendly way toward them to gain some advantage for oneself. Adding the pronoun “it”, as in making it up to someone, suggests doing something good for them to make up for having done something bad earlier. The latter usage refers to compensating for an omission, failure, or deficiency. In this same sense, but without any preposition, to be reconciled with someone after a quarrel is, simply, to make up.
Makeup as a noun reveals the fascinating tendency of language, when examined closely, to mean one thing and its opposite simultaneously. A person’s makeup refers to abstract internal qualities—their physical, mental, and moral character. And yet makeup in its most commonly-used meaning today refers to those substances with which we cover our faces to conceal our physical imperfections, to make ourselves look different from—better than—the way we “really” are.
All of the above nuances of meaning come into play as I write these stories for Tell Me Another, whose very title suggests the slippery nature of story-telling. In the act of retelling them I am drawing upon the past, but also making things up, simply because memory is selective and subjective by nature. As I write I’m rearranging and reassembling my own experiences and those recounted to me by close friends and family members, and necessarily embellishing them in the telling—although still remaining faithful to their spirit and to my truth, I hope. There is bound to be a degree of self-justification in them, and a balancing of artistry and historical accuracy. They will suggest a great deal about my makeup—individual, cultural, generational—and, in a blog that is open to the public, they must wear a little makeup in the interests of privacy. As in the most skillful use of makeup, I hope that this does not serve merely to prettify the underlying truths, but rather to enhance their natural beauty.
- Am I making up to you, Dear Reader, or making up for deficiencies real and imagined? I have no wish to plead or placate; but if ever I have offended, please, let’s kiss and make up.