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A Hard Day’s Work: What the Beatles Taught Me About the Difficulty of Art


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Like many people around the world, I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back. Notice I said, “I’ve been,” as in, “I have been,” as in…well, I haven’t finished the thing yet.

Immediately upon starting the first of the documentary’s three installments, I decided that I was going to take my time with it. As easy as it’d be to succumb to my pandemic-era urge to binge straight through, I’m very much aware that this is a one-shot deal. More than fifty years have gone by since the documentary’s footage was originally filmed. Two of the Beatles are no longer with us. The two who are are 81 and 79 years old respectively. In other words: I doubt there will be a sequel.

What I have seen so far, though, has been incredible. Full disclosure: my love for the Beatles is endless. Their portraits from the White Album hang over my desk as I write this, I named my late corgi Ringo, and my fourth novel, All Together Now, was inspired by one of their songs. So, please indulge me for a moment as I speak strictly as a fan.

BLATHERING ABOUT THE BEATLES

Seeing them together at the height of their powers—the footage treated and restored to HD quality—has been a surprisingly emotional experience, like what I imagine traveling back in time and visiting younger versions of loved ones would feel like. As culturally significant as I know the Beatles to be, the documentary also shows them as funny and silly and easily distracted, particularly Ringo. John was constantly late to work, but charmingly so. George seemed to be in a perpetual state of vulnerability, not quite sure where he fit in. And for Paul, the task of being the de facto “boss” of the Beatles weighed heavily. I also appreciated the warmth on display between Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney. As the two women huddled together laughing while the band jammed out in the background, I found that I had to take a few deep breaths.

“Daddy, are you crying?” my daughter asked.

“What? No. Well, maybe a little.”

BLATHERING ABOUT WRITING

Speaking now as a writer, The Beatles: Get Back offers a startlingly raw behind-the-scenes look at the slow, emotionally painful process of creating art. In one scene, George, clearly nervous, asks Paul if he’d like to hear a song that he wrote the night before. George then sits and plays a rough, acoustic version of “I Me Mine.” (Yes, I got chills.) In another scene, after many, many failures to launch, the song “Let It Be” finally takes flight. It begins with Paul at the piano. The other three look on, fiddling with their instruments. And then the energy shifts in the room, and we watch as John, Paul, George, and Ringo work together furiously to hold one of the most famous songs of the Twentieth Century together. (And, yes, I may have cried a little again.)

I was struck by both moments, because they illustrate something that I’d never really thought about as it pertains to the Beatles. Even for them—perhaps especially for them—the work was really hard.

CREATING ART IS DIFFICULT

That may be the most obvious subhead I’ve ever written, but it’s something that needs to be stated—and stated often. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is assuming that good writing is somehow effortless. We look at the most brilliant books, stories, essays, and articles in the marketplace and assume that they were always brilliant—that they flowed directly from the smiling writer’s brain onto the page in a painless, unbroken stream of award-worthy prose. This kind of thinking, like Impostor Syndrome, is dangerous because it causes us to equate difficulty with failure—or, worse, with lack of ability.

How many times have you been deep into the struggle with a piece of writing and thought, “If this were really any good, wouldn’t it be easier?” I know I have. Hell, I’ve asked myself that question twice while writing this post. (I had trouble transitioning from blathering about the Beatles to blathering about writing. It felt clunky, and I considered ditching the whole thing.)

We’ve largely accepted, as a civilized society, that the Beatles were brilliant. Since we’re all book people here, though, and to make this more personal, think about a few of your all-time favorite books. Your desert island books. The ones you take off the shelf sometimes just so you can hold them.

At some point during their creation, all the books you’re thinking about right now were an absolute disaster. Seriously. All of them. A beginning didn’t work. An end didn’t make sense. One of the authors, for no good reason, kept switching tenses. A middle meandered and sagged into unreadability. There were dumb grammatical errors and typos galore. A now-beloved side character lacked dimension. A printer ran out of ink and was thrown down a flight of stairs. Somehow, though, all the authors in question prevailed. Here are some tips for how you can, too.

  • Embrace The Struggle. Accepting that writing is hard will give you the strength to be kinder to yourself when you struggle. Let’s be honest, a little good old-fashioned self-loathing is part of the artistic process, but don’t allow yourself to be stymied by it. And never forget that at some point the most brilliant writer you can think of curled into a ball on his, her, or their floor and thought, “What if I’m not cut out for this?” Writing is hard. You should be proud of yours for even trying.
  • Trust Your Ability. You probably didn’t sit down at your computer today and say, “You know what? I’m gonna give this writing thing a try.” You’ve devoted a good portion of your life to this pursuit, and you’re good at it. Sure, your current work-in-progress has some problems, particularly if you’re still in the early stages of its creation. But that’s okay. Because the work you’re doing now, flawed as it may be, will lead to something great. Remember, “Let It Be” started with Paul tapping out notes on his piano and wondering if they sounded nice.
  • Follow and Share in the Struggle. Net-net, I don’t know if social media has been good or bad for the world—probably a lot of both. For writers, though, it’s a great way to feel connected to a community of people who are struggling with the same issues you are. Follow and like as many writers as you can, even writers whose work you haven’t read. When not specifically promoting their books—which is basically a professional obligation now—many writers are very forthcoming about the challenges they face. Bonus: it’s also a great way to see cute dog and cat pictures.
  • Keep Going. No, don’t stop. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. More likely, the fact that it’s so hard means you’re doing it exactly right. You’re challenging yourself. You’re pushing your characters and your own ability. You’re creating something out of nothing. And that kind of thing? Well, as Ringo sang a few years after the Beatles broke up…“It don’t come easy.”

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever written, and how did you get through it?  Conversely, have you ever written something that was oddly not difficult? What do you think made it easier? Do you ever look to non-prose artists for guidance and motivation? If so, do tell.   

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About Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman is the author of four novels. His latest novel, All Together Now, is out now from Ballantine Books. His debut novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. We're All Damaged was an Amazon bestseller. And Last Couple Standing was named one of the best books of 2020 by Esquire. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore, Maryland and holds an MFA from George Mason University.

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