Friday, May 6, 2011

The importance of revision

I went to Jazz Fest again yesterday. The weather was lovely, Cyndi Lauper was great, and it was my guy's first time there, so it was pretty neat all around.

I recently finished another round of revisions on the novel I've been working on for two years now. I was so proud of myself when I wrote the first draft in three months, but little did I know that revisions would take much, much longer than that original draft. Of course, I haven't been working on it constantly during the revisions phase. I took breaks for months to work on theater projects, and this turned out to be quite helpful, because when I returned to my manuscript I had established some necessary distance from it.

But back to Jazz Fest. I saw something there yesterday that reminded me of the importance of revision. A musician announced that he was going to perform a song that he'd written "about three hours ago." Then he proceeded to start and stop the song more than once, to complain about the sound mixing (and tell the sound tech "You're killing me, here!") and to communicate with the band backing him on stage regarding what he wanted them to play. Once it became clear that he was actually going to proceed with the song (at this point, the tent began to empty out - some people had already given up on this guy) he started singing some of the worst lyrics I have ever heard. I turned to my mom, sitting next to me, and she said "I think he really needs to work on his lyrics." We ended up leaving the tent before that song ended. By the looks of it, most of the other audience members had already had the same idea.

Now, it is entirely possible that this guy is capable of writing good lyrics. I had never heard of him before and am not familiar with his work, but he did seem to be a technically skilled musician. The song was about something he clearly felt passionate about. But it was just not working. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is because he had just written the song, and was full of I-just-wrote-something glow, and didn't have any perspective on it yet.

I wonder if, a few months or years from now, he will come across the notebook where he had hastily scrawled those lame lyrics, and he will think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I performed this at Jazz Fest."

Perhaps not. Maybe he will always think it was a great song. Maybe it really is the best lyrics he can write. But most of us hearing him perform that day gave up on his performance because of that song (and, I suspect, because of the negativity and tension in the room when he started complaining to the sound guy). After all, there were several other bands playing on other stages at the same time, not to mention food to eat, art to admire, and everything else Jazz Fest offers.

Failure is a painful but important step in the learning process. I certainly can't say that all (maybe not even any) of the art I've produced is the absolute best that I'm capable of. But it's important to remember that your audience has options, and if you don't really strive to do your best, they are likely to give up and seek out someone else's efforts. You don't automatically get an "A" for effort. Practice, refine, and for God's sake, REVISE!

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