Taming the Wildebeest

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This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.

He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.

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I got both in one day. Color me excited!

During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”

They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.

Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”

That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.

Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?

He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.

That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”

Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.

Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!