Be the Beatles

I’ve written here before about where ideas come from, and what you might do in order to make them more likely to show up. But sometimes, we’re lucky. Sometimes we wake up in the morning with so many ideas bouncing around our brains it feels like one lifetime won’t be nearly long enough to get them all down on paper and explore them fully.

In such moments of wonderful abundance, it’s natural to want to put your many ideas to use immediately and all at once, not necessarily because you’re worried about them slipping away from you – though yeah, there’s that – but just because they’re so darn good. However, in my experience, this is never a wise decision. The thing to do is take it slow. Tackle your ideas one at a time. Or, as I often tell myself, to be the Beatles.


Let me explain.

Years ago, I briefly toyed with the idea of being a professional songwriter. During this time, I studied successful bands obsessively. I’d choose one, and work my way through their entire discography, picking apart each song to see how and why it worked, or how and why it didn’t.

Many a music critic might disagree with me, but after a close study of the Beatles, I believed myself to have found one of the secrets of the band’s early success – and no, it wasn’t their good looks or groovy haircuts. It was their patience. Their willingness to keep things simple. Their ability to refrain from dumping all of their ideas (and it’s obvious they had plenty) into a single song, but rather to carefully, almost stingily distribute them among many.

I found that the Beatles’ early tunes often conformed to fairly basic, tried-and-true pop song formulas, BUT – and this “but” is big for a reason – for a single clever, and at times brilliant, tweak. Maybe it was an odd or even awkward chord change, a curiously placed bridge, an unexpected snippet of melody. But there was always one thing, and it’s these little deviations from the normal that still get new listeners’ pulses to quicken and cause the songs to stick – and then go right on sticking – in their heads.

In later years, the Beatles grew beards and mustaches, started wearing snazzier clothes, and abandoned their songwriting frugality. Their albums and the songs that made them up took such big leaps that it became harder to see the threads that in fact connected them to the music that had come before. Casual listeners especially considered this music brand-new, never before done – a sonic experience so innovative, it could only have been carved out of a vacuum, a blank and silent nothingness. John, Paul, George, and Ringo packed songs with enough ideas to sustain multiple generations, certain albums still serving as inspiration to bands forming and recording today.

And yes, there are novels like that. There are the tomes that have achieved a sort of immortality. There’s Ulysses, Moby Dick, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace. But not every book can, or should, be that. And often, novels so chockfull of ideas can be a serious struggle. Also, particularly if you’re just starting out, attempting to write such a novel is a foolish errand. You’ll only waste your time and energy – and, quite possibly, give yourself a nervous breakdown.

It’s far better to emulate the early, beardless Beatles.

To keep it simple.

To take it one idea at a time.

I recently came across this quote of Donald Barthelme’s:

The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.

It may sound strange, but it’s absolutely true. The writer doesn’t know what to do until after they’ve written a first draft, or maybe four first drafts. Only then does the task reveal itself. At which point the writer starts over yet again, and this time – he or she can hope, at least – does it right. So if you find yourself sitting down before a blank page with a head crammed full of ideas, every one of them just begging to be taken for a spin, remember: just be the Beatles.

Easy enough, right?

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