What Beethoven, Mozart, the Beatles, and Einstein Taught Us About Writing
Thanks to bensond.com for the intro and outro music.
ASK THE AUTHOR: Therese Moore via Facebook: From a discussion of a comment, I heard on a different podcast – What is the difference between “commercial fiction” and “literary fiction”? Interesting in how you answer this.
AARON: Thanks for the question! For me, the answer is somewhat simple: commercial fiction is what you write if you want to make money. Literary fiction is what you write if you want to win hoity-toity awards and impress critics. More specifically, commercial fiction tends to adhere more to common tropes and conventional structures and character archetypes. Usually the stakes are larger (saving the world, epic fantasies, high-concept sci-fi, etc.). Literary often focuses more on the every-day character, the ones struggling to maintain a marriage and/or a job. Usually the quality of writing is higher (compare a Cormac McCarthy novel to Twilight, say). However, there are several novels that are commercially and critically successful. Stephen King has one or two of those. The Harry Potter series is very well written, and for me, crosses the line between literary and commercial–it’s both.
POPS: Get ten people to answer this and you’ll probably get twelve different answers. Such questions are difficult to answer because basis for the questions is artificial. In college I took a class on argumentation (in the scholastic sense, not in the “I’m-gonna-pick-a-fight” sense). The professor taught me something I’ve found very useful: “Always attack the assumption.” In this case, the assumption is that there is a difference between literary and commercial fiction. I think the distinction is artificial. All genre’s have things that make them unique. A cozy mystery and a police procedural are both mysteries told in different ways with different high notes. Literary often holds up the struggle of character or life over action. But there is plenty of heart in commercial fiction. Some say literary is art-driven while commercial is entertainment-driven. I believe that’s a false dichotomy. Animal Farm and the Old Man and the Sea are certainly literary but they are also commercial. What is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? It is, at it’s core, 280 pages of sci fi horror, but it also examines what it means to be alive, to be human.
Firsts in Fiction
What Beethoven, Mozart, the Beatles, and Einstein Taught Me About Writing
Ask most writers about their mentors, the people who influenced their work and most will name another writer or two: Hemingway, Arthur C. Clarke, Dean Koontz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe and a hundred other recognizable names, but you’ve given us a list of people, none of whom have written a book. Why?
Al: I often find inspiration from creative people who work in fields vastly different than mine. Creativity covers countless expressions in architecture to music; poetry to acting; nonfiction to sculpture. And creativity inspires creativity.
Aaron: You’ve give us four very recognizable names. Two born in the eighteenth century; two in the twentieth. None of them writers of books.
Al: Not one wrote a novel but each wrote creatively. Again creativity inspires creativity.
Beethoven, Mozart, Einstein, and the Beatles have all influenced me and my guess is that non-writers have influenced you and our listeners.
Aaron: But why these four? Why Beethoven? Why Mozart? And what about the Beatles? And what in the world does Einstein have to do with writing?
Al: I’m glad you asked
Let’s begin with Mozart.
- He taught me that early success does not mean lasting success. Mozart died in poverty and his body was dumped in a mass grave.
- also taught me that no matter how good you are you will have critics.
- Not everyone will “get it.” Not everyone will get you.
Mozart had his moments, but he was largely unappreciated by his peers and superiors. Most people don’t like geniuses.
- He taught me about the power of the mind.
[One of my favorite movies is Amadeus. One of my favorite scenes shows Mozart’s wife delivering her husband’s works to Salieri. Salieri is impressed but then is stunned when he learns that what he thinks is the final draft is the first and only draft.]
- Mozart heard the music in his head (The movie did a great job showing this.)
- He would hear it then write it on paper.
- Shared it.
- HE TAUGHT ME THE POWER OF DEDICATION TO CRAFT.
Mozart said: “It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”
Aaron: But what about Beethoven?
Al: [Many years ago, when I was younger (and much thinner), I used to be one of those bicyclists you see wearing a loud jerseys and making you nervous as you passed by in your car. I used to ride around Ojai, California and I did so listening to Beethoven.]
- Genius is no defense against difficulty.
[I’m sure you’ve heard the powerful and lovely Ninth Symphony with the unforgettable blend of chorus and individual voices in the soul stirring “Joyful, Joyful.” He never heard it. Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he wrote it.]
[To hear his music, he would lay his head on the piano and play.]
- Genius with determination can overcome adversity.
[Fanny Crosby—who was blind—composed her poems and hymns (over 8,000) entirely in her mind and then dictated them to someone else. She was said to work mentally on as many as twelve hymns at once before dictating them all out.]
- Deafness stole his hearing but not his heart or his talent.
- HE TAUGHT ME THE POWER OF COMMITMENT.
Beethoven said: “Tones sound and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”
Aaron: And what of the Beatles?
- Creativity can come early. The boys were, well, boys—high school students when they first met.
- Creativity came first as a group. Creativity is not always a lone pursuit.
- Grew in their art. There is a huge difference between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and their later music.
[Interesting: On their last album Abbey Road, the song “Because” is based on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”]
- TAUGHT ME THE POWER OF CHANGE.
I am not the writer I was; I am not the writer I will be.
- Change is inevitable.
- Change is welcome.
Aaron: Last on your list is Einstein. A theoretical physicist.
- Thought experiment.
[Theory of Relativity began as a trolley ride.]
- “I will a little think.”
- Concerned over social issues.
- Struggled with personal relationships.
- TAUGHT ME THE POWER OF IMAGINATION.
Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Aaron: Okay, so what is the takeaway of all this?
- What’s your dedication to the craft? Are you willing to learn? To try different things? To experiment? Are you in it for the money? Mozart enjoyed fame, but he lost everything except his love for the craft.
- What is your level of commitment? Beethoven lost his hearing but kept composing. If your book, article, novel doesn’t sell, will you write another?
- How willing are you to change and grow? Every project is training for the next project. Like the Beatles, will you later work be better than present work?
- Ask most people what the most important tool in writer’s tool chest and you might hear computer, dictionary, other books. No, it’s imagination. Without it there is no creativity. But creativity doesn’t come easily.
- The learning process continues.
- Inspiration is all around you.
- Look for mentors who teach you something about creativity.
- Other writers are not your competition. It would seem they are. After all there are only so many publishers. Still your greatest competition comes from within—when discouragement comes, or depression, or a setback, or an unexpected turn of events. But creativity will win out.
- Einstein didn’t fit in at school.
- Beethoven was a loner.
- Mozart alienated as many as he drew.
- The Beatles had no idea the fame they would attract.
- Creativity breeds creativity.