Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Every Day I Write the Book

You've heard that song, right? It’s by Elvis Costello.

I realize it’s actually about some dude trying to convince this girl that he’s the right guy for her, and the book-writing thing is just a metaphor and all that. But, hey, it’s got a hooky little refrain, and when you’re a writer, there ain’t a lot of songs about writing out there, so I’ll take what I can get. And I like the song for what it is anyhow, which is why it's on my iPod. 

A couple weeks back, I read this profile of Monsieur Costello and in the article, he mentions that he never thought much of “Every Day I Write the Book.” He wrote it quickly and effortlessly, and pretty much its success left him shrugging. 

(Incidentally, I read this profile in the New Yorker, not in Spin magazine, which I’ve mentioned before that I get for free because Spin quite possibly believes I run a fan site for this wacky Japanese punk band, Rock in My Pocket. And wouldn’t I just be the coolest if I WAS running such a site, but I’m not. Don’t tell Spin this, however, because I don’t want them cutting me off.)

Anyway, back to Elvis and his indifference to what became a big hit song for him.

I thought, huh, that’s interesting. The implication of his reaction seems to be that because he didn’t work very hard to write the song, he didn’t think it deserved the attention it got.

It got me thinking about how sometimes you write sentences, scenes, chapters and you toss them off without much of a thought. Others you slave over, agonizing over every single comma, spending hours choosing the perfect adjectives like they’re diamonds being set into the queen’s crown. And inevitably, when you have critique readers give it a once over, they love the stuff that took you no effort and couldn’t care less about the sections you sweat blood over.

There's a great short story about just this phenomenon.* Here’s the nutmeat for you: Every few months a photographer puts together a portfolio of his best work and takes it to an art dealer, hoping to make a sale. The art dealer looks through everything and decides to buy some of his photographs but not others. There is one particular photo that the photographer is fixated on – it’s of a panoramic, alpine vista -- and every time he brings in his portfolio, he includes it. But the art dealer has repeatedly refused to buy it, and finally the art dealer asks, “Why do you keep showing me this photo? I’ve already told you I’m not interested in it. Why can’t you let it go?” And the photographer replies, “I can’t let it go because I climbed a mountain to take it.”

Does it matter how much work you put into something? Is that what makes it good? Sheer effort? I guess the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. (Irony's a real pain in the arse, isn't it?)

What’s the hardest scene/chapter/story you’ve ever had to walk away from? Did you come to that conclusion on your own or only after some “This is an intervention”-type critique group experience?

*Unfortunately, like many short stories, the gist has stayed with me, but I can’t remember the name of the writer or the title of the story. I spent the better part of three hours searching through my short story collections for it yesterday but to no avail. My apologies to the author, whoever you are!