If you are a writer, or anyone who creates, really, I think you owe it to yourself to watch the Beatles documentary Get Back.
Due to various family situations over the holidays, I have now watched it three times. That’s right. It’s three episodes total eight hours long, and I’ve now spent 24 hours watching it. That’s a lot of watching. It’s all good, though, because I get a lot out of it that I’m using to help my writing.
I mean, I’m pretty sure I’d be fine watching it again.
Here are several things that I’ve taken into my brain to funnel it into my own creative pursuits.
First and foremost: Dare to Be Bad. It’s incredible, really, how often this comes up in the creation process. I’ve long before taken to saying that the great thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to be cool in the first draft, but still I can get myself hung up because I can’t push through a dry point. Yet, here are the Beatles, with arguably three of the greatest songwriters in history, constantly hitting places where they have no idea what’s going to go next, and what do they do? Well, mostly they just leave holes behind and move on.
They know the work isn’t good, but it’s where the song is at right now and they trust that something will happen and the song will work out (hearing George use the phrase “a pomegranate” in the place that will eventually become Something’s “no other lover” is alone worth the hours of viewing).
Then there’s the idea of cycling vs. rewriting.
That’s a thing in writer’s circles, you know? The old Heinlein’s rules come to mind. But then, what is rewriting? I don’t know very many writers who just sit down and string publishable fiction together in absolute first draft. It happens sometimes, but not really, you know? But cycling is not rewriting, and I’d place what the Beatles are doing as cycling. Mostly. They are going over and over a piece because they know it’s not together, yet (and also because they are literally collaborating, so there’s lots of ideas being thrown about). Only in the case of “Get Back” itself does the band actually attempt to actually rewrite the core idea of a song, and that quickly falls by the wayside.
When the song itself is done, they do, of course go back and practice it several times. That’s something that a writer doesn’t really need to do (with the exception being if one is going to give a reading). The Beatles are performers, though, and they are soon going to give an iconic concert. They need to be good, so, yeah, practice.
That’s not rewriting, though. When the song’s framework is done, it’s done.
It’s also amazing how quickly things can happen. It seems there’s a period in there where George is going home every night and then returning the next day with a piece he wrote that evening. “I Me Mine” is one of those. Yes, it’s a short piece, but it seems to be ab example of a work that just flowed—basically he brought it into the group in its fully complete form. And, of course, it’s a fantastic song.
I’m also struck by how often one of the group members brings something they saw or read or heard the night before into the room that following day. Here are perhaps the most revered creative force of the time, but rather than stand on their merits, they are sponges, wildly open to ideas in the ether, riffing off creative energy everywhere.
As writers, we need to do that.
In a similar vein, it’s clear that they are aware of holes in their skillset, and holes even in the makeup of the band when it comes to a few specific songs. At one point, they have a bit of a throw-away conversation about their need for the piano, but the tradeoff then would be they’d have one less guitar. Since they were trying to put on a show they weren’t going to overdub, so decisions had to be made. When Billy Preston walked in unexpectedly, they immediately asked him to join. Problem solved.
I’m thinking about that when it comes to the wide range of things an independent writer needs to be good at to succeed—or, well, not so much be good at, but to be able to envision in their “product.” The Beatles wanted specific a sound that they couldn’t get it on their own, they had a mindset of what they wanted to create and that idea was more important than anything. I’m thinking here about cover design (and even a bit on book design itself), and I’m thinking about use of various tools us writers have to bring our books to market better, and blogs and accounting and … well, everything it takes to create and make it happen.
Having that vision is helpful, but also having the wherewithal to realize I can’t do it all myself (or don’t have to) is important. Knowing you’ve found the right person to help you, and then letting them help, well … that’s pretty cool to watch.
Billy Preston is simply lighting in a bottle the moment he steps in with the rest of the lads.
There’s more, too. Lots more. Attention to detail. Getting into the flow. Dealing with setbacks. Having a sense of humor about things (it is the Beatles, after all). Through the whole thing—I mean, literally the entire session—the Beatles are failing to success.
And the success they wound up with was the album Let It Be, several bits that would eventually wind up on Abbey Road, and also one of the most iconic performances in Rock and Roll history.
No, you don’t need to watch it three times. But if you’re open to it, eight hours of watching these kinds of people show you how they create things is like a master class.