Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why didn't I think of that?

yellow-sub1By Joe Moore

On this day in 1969, the Beatles released their Yellow Submarine album. Like everything they did, it was wondrously original; another path they chose to travel where no one else thought to go. Looking back at their music, from their first U.S. hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the final chord of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)", the last song they would ever record as a group, they were the benchmark of originality for which all other musical groups are judged. And they delivered a total package: music, art, fashion, hair style, spirituality, politics, moral consciousness, lifestyle, and so much more. They were a force of nature, and the impact of their work is still being felt.

I remember pre-ordering and pre-paying for their Sgt. Pepper’s album at a local record store, and I still had to stand in line for over an hour to get my copy. To say that it contained sounds I'd never heard before would be an understatement. It left me breathless.

It’s hard to imagine that the Beatles were mere mortals. In fact, it’s easier to just assume that they were musical gods endowed with super powers beyond our understanding. Certainly from the standpoint of originality, there have been few names in music or any of the arts that remotely compare.

So, what is it that makes someone or something original? What causes us to be left breathless? Is it merely the first time something is used or done? After all, most people think that everything has already been said or done in one form or another. Of all the zillions of songs and books written, why do some stand out as totally new thoughts or lyrics or melodies? Even to the point of causing artistic and cultural paradigm shifts as the Beatles did.

First, I know something is original when my reaction is, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that”. The Beatles overwhelmed us with originality almost to the point that we took it for granted.

Second, their ideas were always simple, and I think that might be a key lesson to be learned as writers. Keep it simple, stupid. In the process of writing our books, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that to be original, we must be complex. And yet, there is nothing complex about a message like, "All You Need Is Love".

Third, true originality appears effortless. The Beatles left us with a feeling that anyone could have written their songs. For instance, we all need love, so why didn't they call it "I need your love all the time" instead of "Eight Days A Week"? How many writers have been frustrated and willing to do just about anything to get published? But no one ever expressed it quite like the Beatles did in "Paperback Writer". Relationships can be as up and down as a roller coaster ride. And yet, who has said it in simpler terms than in the song "Hello, Goodbye". When we fall in love with someone, we love everything about them. So why didn't the Beatles call their song "everything" instead of the elegance of "Something"? It's hard to get much simpler that expressing life as "A Hard Day's Night"? And my favorite Beatles song title, "Help!" I mean, come on, no one would ever write a song called Help because, well, what rhymes with help? But they did.

So to be truly original, I think it should be simple, leave us breathless, and make us wonder: "Why didn't I think of that?"

Anything left you breathless lately?


Nina Wright said...

Joe--I think you got the three-part formula just right. I've been visiting schools to promote literacy and my books. Every time I hold a brainstorming session with kids, their unfettered energy, simple solutions, and "outside-the-box" thinking leave me breathless and delighted. I think the Beatles and all other creative geniuses hold on to more than a little childlike wonder as they grow into adults.

If I had to narrow it to a single quality, I'd say that the ability to draw connections where others can't see them is what true art--and genius--is all about.


Joe Moore said...

Nina, you're right about approaching creativity from the eyes of a child. It goes along with keeping it simple. Children don't think in a complex manner when solving or inventing. As adults, and certainly as writers, it's easy to lose that child-like spark of genius.

Felicia Donovan said...

Joe, great post and I completely agree with you and Nina about why kids are so creative. They are not "tainted" by presumptions and prerequisites. They are simply thinking freely without constraints.

Music has its own complexities because there are so many entities - rhythm, form, composition, lyrics, etc; that all have to work well together.

You're right - the Beatles were groundbreaking, original, brilliant and we appreciate them as much today as "Yesterday." I'm thrilled that newer generations still appreciate what they have to offer.

Mark Terry said...

So, Joe... Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Oh never mind. I can already guess.

A few years back I was contemplating writing a biotech thriller. (I'm not making this up). Cloning was in the news, I had a background in biology and genetics, why not write a tech thriller about cloning. So I started sifting through ideas of who a great person to clone would be. I knew Hitler had been done so well by Ira Levin. And I thought, Ah-ha! How about a clone of Jesus!

Well, it had already been done. (By someone else than you and Lynne, by the way, which is to suggest that there's more than one way to clone a deity, or skin a cat, or...)

I still think there's a real blockbuster cloning idea out there. Sometimes I just need to sit back and sift through ideas...

Mark Terry said...

Oh, and a postscript here. I recently read an interview with Douglas Preston and the interviewer asked him if there was any book he wished he'd written. He said, Yes, "Jurassic Park." Preston used to work at the NY Museum of Natural History, he was around dinosaurs all the time, he wrote a book about it called "Dinosaurs in the Attic," and he'd even (like me, as it turned out) read the original article about pulling boll weevil DNA out of amber that sparked the dinosaur cloning idea for Michael Crichton. It just never occurred to him at the time.

Sometimes it's just a confluence of events that sparks inspiration.

Joe Moore said...

“So, Joe... Beatles or Rolling Stones?”

Beatles, of course!

Mark, you’re right about there being other Jesus-cloning books out there. Interestingly, Lynn first pitched the premise of THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY to our local critique group 14 years ago after reading an article called “Crusade’s End?” in a 1994 issue of Discover magazine. She, and later the two of us, did nothing more than talk about the idea until we got serious and started outlining our story (then called Corpus Christi) in 1999. And the rest, as they say, is fiction. :-)

Keith Raffel said...

Great post, Joe.

BTW, Mark Terry, did you notice who did that interview of Douglas Preston? See

Mark Terry said...

Well, I knew I read it SOMEWHERE!

Good interview, Keith. And I bought the book and it's right there on the shelf, waiting to be reading after I'm done reading Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs.

And ya know, I wish I'd thought of the idea, too.

Maybe if someone cloned a Neanderthal...