Supposedly George Frideric Handel wrote “The Messiah” in just over three weeks. Mozart could whip out a minuet over coffee, hand it over to a creditor and thereby take care of his debts. And some composer whose name I’ve forgotten apparently would write out orchestral pieces one entire part at a time—the flute part, beginning to end; then the oboe; the clarinet; and so on down through the brass, percussion and strings—since he had the entire thing worked out in his head!
These are the kind of stories I heard when I was studying music composition in college (back in a prior millennium).
Amazing, right? Apocryphal? Perhaps; although it seems pretty well established that Handel did write the Messiah in an incredibly fast burst of creativity. And there’s no doubt that Mozart was phenomenally productive in his 36 years on earth.
But truthfully, these kinds of stories may have done me more harm than good. I can’t relate to such seemingly superhuman creative output. How many of us can? These stories further the idea that creativity is magical, or effortless, or perhaps entirely the province of god-like geniuses.
But it’s not. Sure, there are geniuses out there, and sure, for some creativity does come easier. But stories of exceptional creativity held up as anything but that—exceptional—serve only to distract from the reality of what any significant endeavor requires: hard work, perseverance, and sweat.
The day you realize it’s time to start over
Since December, I’ve been working on a new draft of the final act of my novel, and much of it is coming together well. But the last few weeks have been spent on a critical passage that sets up the climax, and I’ve started having serious doubts about it: Some pieces were feeling a bit contrived. Some character motivations didn’t truly make sense. And a critical incident didn’t seem entirely logical, believable… or even physically possible.
So it was time for a conference with one of my go-to writing critique partners. That’s right, my thirteen-year-old daughter, Carolyn. Her credentials? Poet. Short story writer. Lyricist. If I’d written as much as she has back when I was her age, I’d no doubt be a better writer now. But no time for regrets, it’s time for a consultation.
It was just the two of us one night, so I asked what she wanted to do. She suggested we go to the fancy Starbucks and write. Well, twist my arm! After an hour or so of writing, we headed over to Breakfast in America for burgers and to talk over our respective works-in-progress.
When it was my turn, I laid out the situation of the scene I’ve been concerned about. As soon as I got to the critical moment, she looked at me and said, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen, right?” and proceeded to predict precisely where the painfully predictable scene was going.
Yep. Saw it coming a mile away. And it wasn’t just the predictability of it all. There was the implausibility as well. Now, don’t get me wrong. Plenty of things were working just fine, thank you. I’d spent weeks figuring out the setting, getting inside the characters’ heads, solving various plot problems, tying things back to larger themes, etc. etc. But even so, as a whole, it wasn’t working.
So I was faced with a choice: stick with it and hope I could finesse it; or go back to the drawing board. I knew what I had to do.
That night I laid awake thinking through possibilities… repeatedly got up to jot ideas down… and then spent the entire next day re-outlining the whole lead up to the climax. The result? A much better scenario and no shortage of changes.
- The setting I’d so beautifully crafted got jettisoned (hopefully to be repurposed in another place, however). But it’s given way to a new—and hopefully improved—setting that has more resonance with other parts of the story and the overall themes.
- The critical action beat that was so implausible got replaced by a much more believable, simpler, and elegant solution (though it’s created some new issues to solve).
- A major revelatory sequence that I’ve been fleshing out over months has become impossible to use. I might be able to scrounge a few spare parts from it if I’m lucky.
- And a final critical turn of events no longer works. Still trying to figure that out.
So, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Time to get into the draft and start hacking away at the dead wood and begin fleshing out the new scenes. Even though I consider this the “second draft” of my novel, this is something like the fifth significant version of the final events. And I’m not done yet.
A final note: I may not be able to relate to Mozart in many (any?) ways, but I do appreciate this story about Brahms:
“Maestro, what did you do today?”
“Well, this morning I added a note to my symphony. This afternoon, I took it out.”
Ha! Here’s to keeping at it, one note, one word at a time. Even if you have to take it out later.