Sunday, January 26, 2014

Don't stop too soon

While looking through my Evernote clippings for references to guitars (and there were a distractingly large number of them) I came across this quote by recording artist, John Mayer (who may or may not use a good Telefunken M80 - I only discovered that a Telefunken M80 is a mic a few minutes ago).

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to write bad songs. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to finish songs because they don’t think they’re any good. Well they’re not good enough. Write it! I want you to write me the worst songs you could possible write me because you won’t write bad songs. You’re thinking they’re bad so you don’t have to finish it. That’s what I really think it is. Well it’s all right. Well, how do you know? It’s not done!”
The paragraph's a bit cluttered - it may have been taken down verbatim, of course - but it has a kind of truth in it. You can't write good songs unless you've written bad songs, and even bad songs have to be finished in order to prove for all time that they're too bad to be bothered further with. Over the Christmas/New Year period I wrote three or four, or maybe five songs. At least two of them breezed off the page without looking back and proved their worth from day one. The other three...? Well, they've got potential but they're not quite sorted yet. I could abandon them but that might mean that good material gets dumped because it isn't quite right yet.
Equally, when you write a scene for a play or a novel and say, 'That's so bad I can't even go further with it,' you may not have got to the nut of the thing.  Yup, you may be right about its badness, but more to the point, you'll do two things: you'll have decided on the badness of the scene before you've finished it, which may mean you won't discover something good that's still to come, and, you'll begin to tell yourself I'm not very good, so why should I bother? Once again the internal critic will have got you by the short and curlies and another possible writer may bite the dust.

I can remember trying to write a scene for the musical Grimhilda! We had a rough idea of what the scene had to do within the overall structure of the story, but the characters that were needed just weren't there. I sat and thought about it, and thought about it, and thought about it, and never quite got to starting to write it. (I can procrastinate like nobody's business.) Finally I took my co-writer's advice and just wrote, anything, something, just to get started. The scene took off, characters turned up, and we were away. I haven't gone back to look, but I doubt if that first draft is anything like what was eventually performed on stage. I know however that in the midst of the 'stuff' that the scene eventually came out of there will be some things that stayed, that were the true elements of that particular scene.

I've got a book amongst the innumerable books on writing that I possess by a guy called Peter Elbow. It's entitled, Writing without Teachers.  I don't think I've ever read more than the first chapter, but I keep the book because in that first chapter (or at least very early in the book) he makes the valuable point. When you don't know what to write, just start writing - anything, the most utter drivel on the face of the earth, stuff that you wouldn't let your mother see, stuff you wouldn't give the dog to eat. (This is my paraphrase; it's not what Mr Elbow actually says.)  And this is all you can do. Writing requires you to write. Of course there's thinking to be done, but sometimes that comes after you've started writing. I remember starting a story - I think there were about thirty pages - and realising that two or three vivid characters had turned up out of nowhere, and were determined to stay. Eventually, of course, they were changed and the story was changed and little of that original thirty pages survived, but the fire had been lit and was burning in that stretch of just writing.
Anne Lamott calls this kind of writing shitty first drafts. Yup, that's what they are, but out of the manure grows something that's beautiful and edible. Don't stop too soon.


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