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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The songwriters: McCartney's "no rules"

At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”

At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”

The great songmaker and fabled collaborator with John Lennon is on YouTube talking with Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, at Rollins College in Florida in October 2014. “I don’t really know how to do it,” Paul says — and that, of course, struck me. I’ve heard it said about any kind of writing that every damn time you do it, it’s as if you’re learning how to do it for the first time. Or trying to. But what if that’s a good thing?

I’ve often noticed, again and again in fact, that in doing anything worth doing — say, meditating, writing, or working with my hands — as soon as my mind says, “Wow, I’m  getting this!” or “I’m really doing good here!”, that's when I will screw it up. Get into some tangle, lose the focus. Rather than being the doer of this work, the mind just seems to get in the way. In his conversation with Collins, McCartney likens songwriting to painting, which he also does — “and the worst thing is to sit in front of a canvas for hours and think, ‘What can I paint that’s significant?’ It’s the same with a song.”

Charlotte Joko Beck, the late Zen teacher, wrote a book that she titled Nothing Special. And to listen as McCartney talks about his early songwriting with John Lennon is to hear how that very attitude, taken naturally without thinking about it, became so incredibly productive for those two guys. That, plus actually putting in the time.

“Starting off, we were just kids,” Paul says, “and we didn’t think there was anything special about it at all. But it was special, and for exactly the reason you say. I would maybe start a song, or he would — it didn’t matter. We would sit down for a writing session, and we would usually write for about three hours. You’d lose interest after three hours, you know?

“... I think me and John wrote just short of 300 songs together, under the Lennon and McCartney banner — and looking back, there wasn’t one of those sessions where we didn’t write a song. Every single time we sat down to write, we came up with one.”

Collins then asks: “What would be the most important thing to know, for someone trying to compose music?”

“Follow your own heart, follow your own passions — things that tend to be clichés, you know,” Paul responds. “But what I think the most important thing is, do a lot of it. It doesn’t have to be 10,000 hours, I’m sure; but the more you do it. You write your first little thing, and then you go on from there, write another one — and if you’re lucky, it gets better from there. You start to see what you’re doing.”

What can we draw from this? First, I think, is that you don’t have to know what you’re doing. It’s almost an advantage not to think you know. “Nothing special” can set you free.

Second, you have to do the work. Just expect to do a lot of it. I hesitate to put myself even in the same column with Paul McCartney, but people have often asked me — I think a lot of writers get this question: “I want to write a book. How do I get it published?” Or, “How can I find an agent?” The answer is, Write the book. Do the work. Write the book. 

The third thing I draw from Paul’s conversation is that sometimes, you do get lucky. Not everything you write will be worth keeping — but if you keep doing it and keep doing it, that’s when you can get lucky. But is that luck or hard work? We tend to think of the two as being separate; but what if they’re not?

Maybe you have to combine a “Nothing special” attitude, or approach, with seriously getting down to it, and staying with it. Then you can get lucky. Sometimes.

“I encourage my students in Liverpool to just start. You just got to get started,” McCartney says. “It’s not always good.”

But maybe ... just maybe ... sometimes, it is.

If you're interested, here is the full, hourlong conversation between McCartney and Collins.

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