Music, Lyrics and Wisdom

I can’t remember if I’ve written before about my fondness for the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, but I will now.

Grant of course plays his typical screen persona of the diffident, occasionally-clueless Brit twerp — it works for him, and clearly works for pretty much everyone, so why not? — this time, as a has-been 80’s pop star who can write a lovely pop tune, while Barrymore is a ditzy girl who just happens to have a soaring, but unrealized talent as a lyricist. The movie shows how they meet and fall in love, and that’s all we need to say about the romance. But that’s not what interests me about the story.

You see, the movie is filled with all sorts of insight into the creative process. Anyone who wants to make some kind of living at being “creative” should watch this movie a dozen times, because there is so much received wisdom in the script that it should be used as a college text. A sample  is when Barrymore professes to be unable to write a couple of lines because she’s “not feeling inspired”, and Grant excoriates that nonsense by shouting explosively:

“Inspiration is for amateurs!”

No truer words were ever spoken. If you earn a living at anything, Rule #1 is that you have to show up for work every day — and not just show up, but produce something. It’s as true of the creative process as it is for an assembly-line worker.

I’m often asked how I can write something new for this blog each day, and my answer is quite simple: I sit down at my computer, and don’t get up until I’ve written at least two or three posts. Not all of them will get published — I’m very harsh towards my own writing — but I do this every single day, circumstances permitting. Note I use the word “circumstances” and not “inspiration”, because if you are truly creative, as Grant reveals above, you don’t need inspiration to produce something.

When I’m writing a novel, by the way, I spend at least ten hours a day writing. It could be new content, it could be research, or it could be editing; all of that is part of the creation of the work, and all of that is productive.

I remember fondly that when Jack Kerouac revealed that he wrote On The Road in one, long continuous explosion of creation, Truman Capote aptly commented: “That’s not writing; that’s typing!” And he’s absolutely correct: On The Road is a long, muddled and ultimately incoherent tract, and if it can be used for any “teaching moment” it shouldn’t be for its brilliant writing, but as an object lesson in how not to write a novel. Kerouac wrote a lot of other novels, and most of them are better than On The Road because he actually worked at them, rather than relying on creativity (fueled, it should be said, by booze and amphetamines: not the best of influences).

I know, I know: writing a pop song is not the same as writing a novel; but the process is the same.

Incidentally, Music and Lyrics also features a couple of other star turns: Haley Bennett is quite astonishing as a pop diva, and Kristin Johnson equally so as Barrymore’s middle-aged groupie wannabe sister. Come to think of it, there are no bad performances in this movie — and how often do you get to say that?


  1. Reminds me of a favorite line from Dune (the David Lynch movie; the line from the book is a bit different):

    “Not in the mood? Mood’s a thing for cattle and loveplay…”

      1. I always took the line to be drawing a distinction between why a human did things (conscious intention/duty/choice) and why an animal did them (because it felt like it because of instinct). One of the big themes in the books was the distinction between man and animal/machine. The line is delivered as an admonition from one of the mentors of the protagonist. He was basically saying: “you’re a man; work is hard, you do it because it needs to be done, not because you feel like doing it.”

  2. “Genius: 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” -Edison

    My dad used to tell me that and many other things that I believed at the time to be nonsense. But as I grew older my dad grew more clever and nonsense became solid granite common sense.

    My dad also used to say, about himself: “So soon to be old, so slow to be smart”, a paraphrase of Ben Franklin, translated by dad into German and then back into English. Now I say it about myself.

    In his last years, he in his late eighties, me in my late fifties, we used to get together to laugh about how stupid we had been as yoots and plot to get his grandchildren, my children, nephews and nieces, to listen up. Our plots were mostly fruitless. They are repeating most of our old idiocies and inventing a few new ones.

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