• Very few people who don’t write for a living understand that writing is work, much less that a writer who is sitting in a chair, reading a book or staring absently into the distance, may be as “busy” as one who is clicking away at his computer. My mother, for one, has never quite grasped this basic fact of the writer’s life, which is why I find it hard to get any work done when visiting Smalltown, U.S.A. I once yelled at her for coming into my bedroom three times in a row and attempting to strike up a conversation while I was doing my best to polish off a column and e-mail it to a waiting editor in New York. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever raised my voice to her, and I felt terrible afterward. (It worked, though–she didn’t come back again until I was finished, and then I apologized.)
I fear that I myself have soaked up some of her obliviousness. After returning to New York on Sunday afternoon from a four-day trip to Alabama, I found myself faced with back-to-back deadlines: I had to write my Wall Street Journal drama column on Monday and my Washington Post “Second City” column on Tuesday. I blithely took it for granted that both pieces would write themselves, but they didn’t, and by the middle of Tuesday afternoon I was too tired to eke out another word. Fortunately, my Washington Post editor is an understanding soul, so I sent him a note of warning, took my phone off the hook, and went to bed for two hours. I got up at five-thirty, plugged the phone back in, finished the column, and went out for sushi, marveling at how middle age has undermined my stamina. Time was when I could have knocked off both pieces in a single day, then gone out to a nightclub and listened to two straight sets before bedtime.
Like the song says, I’m not half the man I used to be–but could it be that the man I am now is twice as good a writer?
• A friend of mine who’s going into the hospital today for major surgery e-mailed me to ask if I could suggest an amusing book. I cast my eye around the shelves and spied a copy of In Black and White, Wil Haygood’s biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., which I hadn’t read since I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal a year or two ago. I remembered it as being hugely entertaining and suggested that she give it a spin. Then it occurred to me to look up my review. Here’s the money quote:
Wil Haygood…labors mightily to exhume Davis from the mass grave of half-recalled celebrities, and despite a slapdash prose style and a certain amount of factual sloppiness, he gets the job done.
Having just reread the first couple of chapters, I’d stand by that judgment, but I wonder whether my own bias toward elegant prose might have caused me to undervalue In Black and White a notch or two. No, it’s not beautifully written, but it tells a fascinating story in a very effective way, so much so that my memory of the book was more enthusiastic than my review.
Is beautiful prose an absolute value? Obviously not. Does it matter more to me than it should? Perhaps.
• I love film music and write about it fairly often, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s as good as Mozart or Stravinsky. Most of it is purely functional, and even the best of it is sometimes barely listenable when wrenched out of its cinematic context and performed in isolation. The other night, though, I rose wearily from my desk, turned on the TV to relax before bedtime, and found myself watching The Magnificent Seven. No sooner did Elmer Bernstein’s score start to play under the credits than I said to myself, “You know what? This is a really, really good piece of music.” And so it is. If only Bernstein had shaped the main-title music into a freestanding seven- or eight-minute concert overture–and if only MGM hadn’t greedily allowed it to be used in a famous series of cigarette commercials back in the Sixties–I bet it’d now be every bit as popular as Rodeo or Billy the Kid.
He didn’t, but you can listen to the whole score on its own by ordering the soundtrack album. Try it, and see if you don’t agree.