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On Writing

There’s a wonderful movie called I’m Your Man and it’s a documentary and a recording of a star studded tribute concert to Leonard Cohen. It’s got some incredible performances. But it’s a movie I come back to when I want some encouragement or inspiration for writing.

Having spent all of April in a frenzy of writing a lot, or nothing at all, and putting a lot of pressure on myself either way, I’m in day 2 of relaxation – stepping back and examining what I’m doing a little bit, and trying my best to be kind to myself. So, I’m watching the movie.

Here’s my favourite quote from it, and maybe my favourite quote about writing ever:

You don’t have all the time in the world, I say to myself, you know how long it takes you to get something done. So you gotta run through at least ten versions of this thing. So you have to write down what you’re going to abandon, see how it works in the whole thing and then throw it away. And then throw it away. ~ Leonard Cohen

I love this for a few reasons, but the first one is that it doesn’t play with the idea of the perfect first draft, or even that writing is easy. It acknowledges that it is work, and you have to write the garbage in order to throw it out. This quote tells me to not judge, to just write, and when it’s done, then look at it. Then chuck out what doesn’t work and then to write it again. Obviously this is somewhat easier in song form than it is with an 80k word novel manuscript, but the idea is the same.

If it is your destiny to be this labourer called a writer, you know that you’ve go to go to work every day, but you also know that you’re not gonna get it every day. ~ Leonard Cohen

There’s another good one – this idea that you have to work at it consistently, that you can’t expect it to be easy or fun all the time.

Some people make doors, carpenters. Some people cut hedges, some people are plumbers or doctors and nurses. Leonard Cohen is a songwriter, he goes to work at that. You don’t get a sense from him like ‘oh I woke up one morning and this beautiful song, there it was, freshly painted. With him, he goes ‘no, no… I hate to wait a lot time for that one’. ~ Bono

Writing, and especially, getting to something good in your writing, takes time. Time and work.

I have to keep reminding myself of these things, because I’m sometimes seized with a horrible impatience to get everything Done and Out There, but that’s not necessarily how it works.

Balance these ideas with the Agile idea of the Minimum Viable Product, or getting something out there which is Good Enough, is another mind bender. Nothing can ever be perfect, so I know I can’t keep reworking things forever. I can throw away parts ten times and twenty times, but at some point I have to say “good enough” and put it out into the world.

If you get stuck in endless rewrites, edit, perfection, then you are giving yourself the excuse to never show it to anyone, and therefore neither succeeding or failing. Perfect isn’t a thing, but good enough is. It’s knowing your definition of good enough that’s the real trick. I’m trying to learn it at the moment.

So yes, watching this movie is an education and an inspiration, and it has some brilliant music in it it too. I’m interested to hear any thoughts you have on inspiration, letting go, working at something and knowing when to let it go.