Monday, May 20, 2013

There's Always a Band

The Music Man is one of those insanely happy musicals where everybody seems cheerful all the time. I mean, they sing “76 Trombones” for Pete’s sake. But there’s a moment late in the play (the Big Black Moment, for those of us in the writing biz) when it looks like Professor Harold Hill is going to get busted. Everything seems to be falling apart—even young Winthrop, who’s been the professor’s devoted follower for most of the play, accuses him of trying to trick the good folks of River City, of never wanting to have a band at all. To which the professor replies in all seriousness, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”

That’s a surprisingly profound statement when you think about it. The professor, after all, is a con man. He’s trying to trick the people of River City into buying instruments for a non-existent band so that he can abscond with the proceeds. But he has to believe in his non-existent band in order to do what he does. So in effect he has to con himself in order to con everybody else.

The thing is, I know exactly how he feels.

I’m in a fairly typical situation right now, one that a lot of writers go through. I’ve got several projects I could embark on, but there are also good reasons for not embarking on them. And I’ve got this idea. Right now it’s sort of embryonic, but it’s slowly taking shape and I kind of want to pursue it. What I don’t want to do is let myself do nothing. If you stop, it’s sometimes hard to get restarted, and you don’t want that to happen. So basically, you convince yourself there’s a band.

This idea, embryonic though it might be, is actually terrific. It will be the best thing I’ve ever done. I can hardly wait to get started. I already know someone who’ll want to publish it. Seventy-six trombones led the big parade…

You see what I mean. You have to trick yourself into getting into the process sometimes, but you can’t let yourself know it’s a trick. Like the professor, you have to deceive yourself along with the world at large until you’re well into the project. And I’d argue this technique works in a lot of situations, not just with writing. Doing a presentation at work? It’ll be the best presentation ever. Making gazpacho? It’ll sing. Planting an herb garden? You’ll be an earth mother.

Now this determination may not last throughout the project. In fact, it’s almost certain not to (see Big Black Moment, op. cit.). But with any luck, you’ll be far enough into the project by then that it won’t matter—you’ll keep going just because you’re already started and you don’t want to waste all that effort. 

The imaginary band is most necessary at the beginning of a project before momentum takes over and pushes you to the end. But it has to be there. At least for a while, you have to think there’s a band. And then, sometimes, there really is.

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