Tell the Old Guy to Shut Up

Tell the Old Guy to Shut Up!


In the song “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, a father tells his son why he should think hard before going out into the world.  His words are appropriate, sensible and wise:  “Think of everything you’ve got, for you may still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”


The son then speaks to us about what he’d like to say to his father.  His words in response are equally appropriate, sensible and wise.  He explains that he has to do more in his life than just listen to what older people tell him, that he has to live his life to learn.


In our lives, if we’re lucky, we get to be both the young crazy person and the wise warning person.  As composers, writers, and performers we can actually get the older version of ourself and the younger version to talk to one another.  And that can actually be dangerous for the young guy.


I’ve been writing and composing for over 40 years.  Fifteen years ago there were lots of things I read and heard from my younger self that I wanted to “fix,” to change, because I figured as a more experienced artist I could do them better.  Today, as an even “wiser” creator, I hear them as perfectly acceptable and I’m glad I left them alone.


That’s the danger of the “old guy.”  He may not have the wisdom to realize that the “young guy” should not be acting “older.”  The “young guy” may create stuff only a young person can create.


If you have a tendency to second-guess yourself, even ten minutes after you write something, I’d suggest telling the “old guy” to shut up.  Wait for an even older guy to check it out before erasing your hard-fought battle.  Here are several poignant examples.


As a young man, William Wordsworth, one of the great poets of the English language, composed a huge work called The Prelude.  He lived long enough to revise it, and you can actually read the original version and the one he corrected after a lifetime of poetic experience.  His edits are both minor and major.

They are minor because Wordsworth didn’t change that much…just a phrase here, a word choice there, maybe added or subtracted some passages.  They are major because as I read the “corrected” version I find those little changes are like a million tiny razor cuts.  They sap the life out of the poem, alter the chemistry, make it sound stodgy and boring instead of vivid.


A more modern example is George Lucas and his continual attempts to improve Star Wars.  If you think about it, the idea of taking a movie that changed the world and fixing it seems ludicrous.  But as an older man he seems to have been committed to use his hard-won power to eliminate what he sees as weaknesses but which are really just compromises in a young person’s process.


I am very much in favor of revisions, and have spent decades writing and revising certain of my novels, but this is usually after I sent them out into the world and got good feedback about what was and wasn’t working.  If you are hyper-critical, you very well may kill a good product before it has a chance to walk around.  Trust the young guy (or girl) for awhile and tell the old critic to shut up.


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