On a long coach journey back from Leeds a couple of weekends ago, I listened to Chris Gethard’s podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. I was recommended the podcast by Mel and it’s become a firm favourite. Each person calls into the program and has an hour to speak about whatever they want before the call hangs up. The only rule is that it needs to be anonymous, hence the title. It’s well worth listening to. Chris Gethard is a natural host, encouraging conversations to go in different directions and allowing the caller to speak. It’s also fascinating to hear the opinions and stories of ordinary people, as we are too obsessed with celebrities.
This particular episode dealt with a man who claims to have written 18,000 songs, and is aiming for 20,000. He’s quite upfront about his reasons for doing this momentous act- he wants money and wants to retire on the earnings of his music. Every time someone plays one of his songs, he gets $0.02, so with 18,000 songs it adds up. The whole chat is lively and entertaining and worth listening to in full. It got me thinking about the conflict between being productive and taking the time to polish your work.
18,000 is a lot of songs. To write that many, even over a number of years, would mean never censoring yourself. He says he writes two to three songs a day, almost every day. That’s a lot of songs. I would imagine that each song is then published with minimal refinement or polish. It reminds me of the pulp writers, constantly churning out novels without going back to rewrite. Everything just gets published, almost immediately. There isn’t any time to edit or self-censor, as you’re already moving onto the next project. The key with this model is to constantly produce lots of work, so the quality doesn’t matter so much. Eventually, some of what you produce will be great.
So much of the so called struggles of art can be put down to simply not starting. So many things hold us back, fear, worry about starting something new and over planning. This man seems to have found a way around this fear by making it a regular practice, then publishing all of the results. His work ethic is to be commended, but what you lose by working at speed is the refinement that comes from reworking an idea, smoothing the edge and taking another run at it. In writing, this is having a go at another draft, whereas in other forms it would be rewriting the song, or making a sketch before the painting. In this way, you double down on the original idea. You are able to improve upon the good parts and remove the parts that don’t work. The ideas contained in the first run get clearer and you are able to control the whole process more. It’s often not until the second or third draft of a story that I realise what it is actually about.
As a writer, I constantly feel the pressure to produce more stories and articles, to publish more. This man has circumvented that by producing a lot of content and releasing it all, without any filter. The vast majority of everything I’ve written this year hasn’t escaped the text document I’ve typed it in. I haven’t wanted to publish stories because they aren’t perfect and they will need tinkering with when I get time. This is the opposite impulse than the man on the Beautiful/Anonymous podcast. It’s seeking perfection through refinement, over and over, instead of publishing the first draft. This can go to extremes, with the project never being finished because it isn’t good enough. You can end up distrusting every word and never producing anything.
I struggled with this more before the blog. Generally, I didn’t publish anything. Writing this every week has made me realise that not everything needs to be 100% perfect. Some will be good, others less so. So I write every week and gradually improve I hope. I think it’s generally a good idea to be working on your art constantly. You can certainly up your word count or the works you produce by making it a habit. The difference comes from showing the work to people. Not everything you produce will be gold, so you moderate what is released.
Every artist has to reconcile these two impulses, between getting your work out there and wanting to perfect it. There’s no right answer. Some will settle on publishing everything, like the pulp writers of old and this man on the podcast. Others will prefer to take their time and make it perfect, like Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, written over a period of ten years.
I think it differs for every project as well. Each story, piece or song will have different demands. The newspaper poems I make are a one shot process as the permanent marker is quite unforgiving. Whereas a book will take much longer to gestate and write, and will probably require endless revisions before I consider it publishable.
Personally, I generally like to write at least two drafts of anything, to eliminate any errors and hone the piece. I could never do what the man on the podcast does and endlessly churn out songs. But he works at a different pace to me and I probably work faster or slower than others. Every artist exists on the continuum between pulp and perfection. The important thing is for you to take pride when it’s finished. Only the artist can tell when a piece is ready to be seen by the world.