So we begin this 30-day, 26-song collection with what might seem a fairly obvious choice; indeed, an immensely popular, zeitgeist-entrenched piece of music that means pretty much the same thing to millions of people all over the world. But rather than attempt some lurching, musical-snob faux-hipster, high-falutin’ rationale of why “All You Need is Love” is more significant to me than it is to the rest of you posers who only got into the Beatles after they became popular, I can merely set the scene and leave the judgment to my dear readers.
What is the meaning of “All You Need Is Love”? Is it a tremendous oversimplification, cynical pablum for the forlorn masses, or is it a justifiable mantra, a truth keyed into by four Scouse musicians and shared, prophet-like, in the Our World broadcast of 1967 – in a performance where author John Lennon can be seen nonchalantly chewing gum, conveying perhaps his true opinion of its significance (or maybe just trying to soothe a dry mouth)? No matter; once the sound flies from the amplifiers it no longer belongs to its creators, but to the world. We puzzle over the strains of “La Marseillaise” leading into that undanceable 7/4 time introduction, and Lennon’s litany of pronouncements. “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” Reminds us a little of the opening of Waiting for Godot: “Nothing to be done.” But what’s he really saying? That there are no horizons left to conquer, or that there is nothing beyond accomplishment? Does it matter? It’s still a killer tune no matter how you interpret it.
But there’s one line that gets me. “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” It’s not the easiest of ideas to hear, let alone believe, particularly in the moments when the excrement is weighing us down to the point we can barely lift our legs to take the next step. You have to come to accept the notion that the worst of experiences are essentially mid-terms for the soul. However, the news isn’t all bad, because where you’re meant to be applies equally to the best of times. On a warm summer day, roundabouts five in the afternoon, sandwiched between a bocce tournament and a family picnic, beneath blue sky and upon green grass I looked out over the faces of sixty-four treasured family and friends, clutched the gentle hand of the woman I’d just pledged myself to and heard this song play. The first song I heard as a married man. The first song for the next step.
So you’ve gathered it’s been quiet around here lately. Perhaps the most ubiquitous topic for bloggers, aside from the Buzzfeed-esque “18 Reasons Why Something In Particular Rocks And/Or Sucks,” is the struggle with writing, in its many forms, whether it be the challenges in completing a manuscript and subsequently editing it to near-perfection and getting someone to pay to read it, or simply maintaining the often herculean effort of grinding something out with consistency of quality and schedule. The problem is the easiest thing in the world to do is not write, and there are innumerable distractions standing between us, the keyboard and the time required to produce. External factors such as the kid wants me to put together Lego with him, we have nineteen different errands to run, the laundry needs to be folded and put away, so-and-so is coming over, there’s a new episode of The Blacklist. Internal factors like I had a long day at work, I’m tired. I don’t feel like it today. I have nothing to say. I’m intimidated in living up to what’s come before, or the work of my peers (a frequent fallback for those of us who continue to be convinced despite copious evidence to the contrary that we’re Just. Not. That. Good.)
My writing teacher Lynda used to tell a story about the Muse. She reminded us that those who sit and wait for the Muse to arrive are more likely to have Godot show up first. You have to be willing to force your fingers to strike the keys in even the most random and nonsensical of motions to drag her goldbricking ass off her seashell and plop her down next to your page. Basically, the best way to get over not being able to write is to write. Even if what comes out in those initial phases is more suitable for flushing than publishing. There’s a terrific reason why “getting back on the horse” is such a lasting metaphor for the dogged resumption of effort, as standing next to said mount and staring at it expecting forward movement is the very picture of futility (as expressed in my never-painted Impressionist work, Silly Man Staring At Horse And Scratching His Head At Its Total Lack of Motion). I used to do show jumping when I was much younger, and as intimidating as some of those jumps might be, they weren’t going to get any less scary by circling them in perpetuity. You just had to shake the reins, give your horse a kick and go full tilt. And man, did it ever feel good to clear them, even if on occasion the horse’s rear leg caught the bar and tipped it over. The occasional fault doesn’t diminish the nobility of the pursuit, nor does the fact that there are other more skilled jumpers out there who clear every obstacle without a single flaw. It is easy to let oneself be cowed into stasis by the seeming facility others have with their words, the depth of their respective vocabularies and their capacity for assembling the most breathtaking imagery from limitless reserves. Show me a writer who isn’t insecure to some degree – even Franzen-sized inflated egos have many strategic holes leaking helium. But the choice is either succumb to that self-imposed pressure and never create anything again, or persist with stubbornness and get better by doing more and trying new things. Write poetry, song lyrics, short stories, reviews, lengthy op-eds on whatever issue-of-the-day made you stop and think about it for a minute or two. Eventually you find your wheelhouse, and once you do there’s no stopping.
In The King’s Speech, a movie I absolutely adore, King George V (Michael Gambon) rues the rise of the importance of radio communications in monarchical affairs, claiming that “in the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse.” In the modern era, the opportunity to pull a Salinger, to create one lasting work and fade from the collective pages yet retain relevance, is a distant memory. Our information-driven age is a ravenous monster consuming and digesting information as fast as, and in some cases faster, than it can be produced. To vanish voluntarily from the zeitgeist for even a few days at a time is to invite the chorus of “I can’t wait for his next” to change its refrain to “Whatever happened to?” and eventually “Who was that again?” Laurels are not rested upon easily, nor should they be. Whatever the circumstance, you have to stay on the horse.
So as I climb into the saddle, I look ahead. What can faithful readers expect? Well, I’m going to see some pretty big-ticket performers over the next month so there will be reviews. The recent political tribulations both at home and down south have provided plenty of fodder for some (ill-?) informed opinions. We may look back at some classics and cast our spotlight on up-and-comers we find worthy of attention. We may talk about being a dad, approaching 40, dreams of the future and regrets of the past. The usual staples of dissecting Aaron Sorkin and dissing spam. Laughter and tears and occasionally pretentious meandering. But above all, there will be heart. Always heart. Because what is the written word really other than the beats of a human heart transformed into elegant strokes of ink?
That’s my mea culpa for the day. If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell. I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away. Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O. I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.
I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me. Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly. Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.” Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere. My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it. (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing. Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.) In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):
A country road. A tree. Evening.
A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races. Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then? I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better. That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking. It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play. You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line. It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it. So it helps if you’re really good at that.
Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing. My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward. What you need to know and no more. Here’s an example from my novel:
Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street. Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry. The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.
Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray. Brine and rotting algae poisons the air. The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog. At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place. Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.
A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect. The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors. Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance. A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first. A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.
There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t. Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one. One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon. But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better. And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.
The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way. Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend. You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store. It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.” Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care! What happened at the store?!” You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button. It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.
Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind. The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon. It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).
Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture. This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice. When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you. And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on. That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm. (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either: the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.) The same goes with scenery. The tall building with the broken window on the top floor. The car with the coughing exhaust pipe. If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well. Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice. If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world. If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.
Anyone else struggling with this stuff? Let me know. Let’s help each other out.