The Soundtrack to Getting It Done

“Those who can, do, and those who can’t, blog.”

Not exactly true, but words that give me comfort when I’ve let time pass without recording my observations about writing so faithfully. Trust me, readers, it only means I have been meeting my deadlines for once. I’m rewriting a thriller set in upstate New York, fulfilling a long-term ambition of setting a story in a vacation destination in the slight off season.

I love to spin music while writing – literally spin it on LPs, since the act of getting up and walking to the turntable is a convenient way to count time. If you flip the record and you’re still on the same page, then you know you’re going slow. Say, for example, I put on Court and Spark. Writing is enjoyable, but “Free Man in Paris” means Side One is already half done, and if I’m diddling with the same paragraph, then it’s time to make some quick decisions. “Other People’s Parties” means it’s almost over, and I’d better have moved on.

If, like Jonathan Franzen has written about, you struggle to focus while the internet is just a click away on your screen, then LPs make a good means to discipline yourself, Musical Chairs style: As long as the music’s playing, no Safari for you!

And then there’s the music itself. Some albums lend themselves to a getting-it-done atmosphere more than others. Eric Hobsbawm, writing about the 1930s, says it was the decade when many shops and homes starting playing the radio all day long, and music became the “aural wallpaper of twentieth century life” (which is a delicate and well-played metaphor for a historian). At your desk, your music becomes the soundtrack, and you the dramatic hero, in the thrilling story of the page that got written using nothing but a keyboard.

Get Happy!!

The more I cultivate a regular writing practice, the more I get off on the music of songwriters with a big body of work. One day this week, for example, I put on Time Out of Mind. It has the atmosphere I’m trying to create on the page, but I ask myself, “Are any of these sad, plodding songs even in the top 50 Dylan songs?” Possibly not, but knowing that it’s not only Dylan, but Dylan at age 56, embarking on his late life journey as guy with a cheeky sense of humor about himself just going and going, still writing good music, it’s inspirational. Verse chorus, verse chorus, sometimes a bridge, verse chorus: This is all he does all day, like Giacometti remaking the same figure again and again.

Alas, my “copy” of Time Out of Mind is off the Internet, just line items on my iTunes, or I’d have listened to it all week. So instead I turned to Get Happy!!, which, according to Elvis Costello’s biography Complicated Shadows, he recorded in a small town in Holland in 1979 with the Attractions, a big stack of soul records, and a steady supply of cocaine. His manager visited from London once, when he saw how high their booze bill was and needed to see what the hell was going on.

It was an easy Elvis album to take a pass on while I was in college. It lacks obvious favorites. But God damn, song after two-minute song, one solid pop track after another, a walking AM radio station. Side One finally takes a few breaths with “Clown Time Is Over” and “New Amsterdam,” the eighth and ninth out of ten songs, and you know it’s time to wind down the task at hand, before “High Fidelity” puts you back on the adrenaline train. Cocaine and Motown. Get it done.

(Ahh, music videos were better then.) I guess being a screenwriter means forgoing any hope of being known for a body of work the way a great songwriter is. You get something like two chances to make an impression, and even if you are successful, you still won’t have the luxury of an audience that contextualizes any individual script by seeing it as part of your overall work. There are a few writer-directors so noteworthy that even their less-than-stellar films are rewarding to watch closely, but screenwriters? Except for Paul Schrader, I can’t think of any.


  1. Thanks. Pleased to have found your blog. I’ll explore further. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

  2. Ah! Cocaine is the secret ingredient! I always loved the hi-octane soul of GET HAPPY!!, and it almost immediately comes to mind when people ask me what my favorite Costello album is.

  3. Nice one Charles- I find myself in need of ‘disciplinary distraction’ and this is it


  1. […] week I’m singing the praises of the “lesser works” of great songwriters, the next I am complaining about the lesser works of great screenwriters. Woody Allen, if you […]

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