The Bill Shankly guide for writers

21 Jan

For a few years in the eighties, Aberdeen FC broke the two Glasgow teams’ dominance. How? By hiring Alex Ferguson, the best manager in the game and a worthy successor to that other Caledonian weaver of soccer magic, Bill Shankly, who a decade earlier had taken Liverpool to the kind of world-beating status now enjoyed by Barcelona. A man also eminently quotable:

A lot of people seem tae think football a matter of life and death. But I can tell you, it’s a lot more important than that.

We lost by one goal tae nothing – and were lucky tae get nothing!

But it’s another Shankly gem that interests me here. He was speaking about Keegan but, as was his wont, blending particular and universal truths. The boy Kevin, he said, was no more talented than the other lads playing togger on the street.

But he was the one still kicking that ball around when his mates had all gone home for their tea.

In 2008 Geoff Colvin wrote the book, Talent is Overrated. Colvin starts by taking on the Mozart myth of innate genius, already debunked in a 2004 Simpson’s episode. He points out that (a) the ‘child prodigy’ had a disciplinarian father, himself a more than competent composer and tutor; (b) Wolfgang’s first symphony, written at eight, has little significance beyond that fact; (c) the cherished myth of sublime music pouring unedited from a mind divinely moved ignores the sheer hard labour that went into its creation. That Mozart, unlike the more erratically brilliant Beethoven, never puts a foot wrong indicates relentless dedication, not heavenly guidance.

(Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was a tour de force, but gorgeously wide of the mark. Never more so than in having Wolfie on his death bed, dictating his (own?) Requiem to an astonished Salieri – who more than any other appreciates his arch-rival’s genius, and has declared war on God for allowing it to enter the world through so cracked a vessel.)

Colvin moves on, as I recall, to Ivan Lendl – his slave-driving mother cut from the same block as Leopold Mozart – but it had by then become clear to me he’d made his point, and would be devoting the rest of the book to restating it through successive examples. One of a few things that excite me about writing in the digital age is the steady erosion of publisher as gatekeeper, and of the market tyranny that demands a whole book where a ten or twenty thousand word essay would do nicely. As we shift from printed to electronic forms, and to self publishing as a respectable endeavour, not only can we expect new genres but the revival of old ones sidelined by the economics of printing and distributing books. I mean the novella and the essay.

That segues neatly into the substance of this post, which is neither soccer nor symphonies but the written word. A friend recently told me one of my favourite writers, Mark Twain, had once ended a letter with this:

I’m sorry it’s so long – I didn’t have time to write a short one.

The beautiful simplicity of Twain’s writing makes it look easy. But as one who’s devoted much time to this subject, and over decades, I say nothing could be further from the truth. In writing, as with other creative forms, simplicity is hard won. And Twain’s remark about not having time to pen a short letter resonates. I once foolishly allowed my services as writer to be hired by a charity. Its CEO and founder, her estimation of her worth reflected in a salary she could have earned nowhere else, queried my bill for a piece of writing. “It seems a lot for a few hundred words.”

In what would prove one of our last conversations, I said I could have given her two thousand words for a lot less, and chalked up a better hourly rate, but there’s no arguing with philistines.

My own hard luck stories apart, the point I want to end on is that good writers, and I’m vain enough to count myself one, get to be good by working at it. There’s no mystery. Like any other activity – bricklaying or bank robbery, pastry making or particle physics  – we get better the more we do it.

No, that’s not quite right. If practise really made perfect, the standard of driving on our roads would be a thousand times better. OK, practise with reflection  makes perfect. There, fixed it.

I think it was Dr Johnson who said that any man may write, so long as he set himself doggedly to it.  I just checked. Johnson was born in Lichfield and died in London but we can’t rule out his having had Scottish blood, can we?

11 thoughts on “The Bill Shankly guide for writers

  1. There have been varying degrees of brilliance in all walks of life throughout the ages but genius, such as Shakespeare, Mozart, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, is a very rare gift.

    • You may be right Ceejay but I go with 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. The names you cite come with a huge dose of mythology. We can add similar from science, with the name Einstein so prepackaged and hallowed as to make it hard to tell man from myth. (I’d argue that though Albert initiated a ‘paradigm shift’ in physics, he advanced our understanding by a lesser degree than Newton had, but Einstein not Newton has entered the vernacular as shorthand for unusual intelligence.)

      Newton’s relevant to the arts too. His ‘seeing further because I stand on the shoulder of giants’ is also applicable to Shakespeare, Mozart et al. But our take on such things tends to be idealist and individualist. We play down the hard work those guys put in, and the fact they drew on a wide cultural legacy of knowledge and skills. Words like ‘genius’ can obscure this. I wouldn’t want to write innate talent completely out of the picture, but agree with Shankly and Colvin that it’s the lesser component in the mix that begets outstanding work in any field.

    • You know what, Ceejay? I’ve been mulling further on the ‘1% inspiration – 99% perspiration’ formula and that doesn’t seem right either: too blunt, too definite and too fixed; useful only as broad-brush corrective to dreamy notions of creativity. I suspect the mix of light bulb moment to hard graft is more 50-50, but that also is too fixed. I’d say the mix varies greatly. At times creative writing is near effortless, at times a real struggle, and either way there’s no clear correlation with quality of output. One thing I’ve grown more sensitive to is my inner experience when striving for accuracy and truth on the one hand, drifting into the business of rhetorical effect on the other. Both are hard work but there’s a kind of tightness – round the top of my head! – when straining for effect, and it isn’t there when I’m struggling for truth. But I have to be paying very close attention to notice the difference.

      I think there’s a science to creativity, but one more complex than I’ve implied. Another favourite writer said something I’ve long found true and useful. Success, said E M Forster in Howards End, may not come when we try but does come through trying.

      • I feel another post coming! Fools rush in and all that. No way can I put such a subject as this to bed in a few hundred words. I doubt even Mark Twain could do that. I’m wading in treacle but making limited progress. What we’re up against here is not just the nature/nurture debate but also our dual natures as individuated and social beings. Regardless of the ratio of talent to hard work, icons like ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Mozart’ and ‘Einstein’ are just that – icons. They aren’t real, and that’s true not just because we’ve invested so much into their elevation but because even the real flesh and blood men drew freely, whether they knew it or not, on the collective well of human knowledge. To give a trivial example, when Hamlet gloats over Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ‘hoist by their own petard’ was Shakespeare coining a term we’d be using for the next few centuries? Or did he hear it the night before in a tavern? More generally, Shakespeare – whoever he was – had the gob-smacking good fortune to live at a time of great beauty and greater expressive power in the English language. Credit for that goes to a variety of forces but we can single out the conducive conditions of Elizabeth’s long and stabilising reign. A decade after Hamlet we had the King James bible and as the century progressed would get Donne, Milton and Dryden, Purcell and the Restoration dramatists. Boyle, Hooke and Newton too. Credit here to the Stuarts – see Peter Ackroyd’s excellent, Civil War – who for all their shortcomings oversaw a flourishing in the arts and sciences.

        All art is love and theft. All science too.

        I think one of the most exciting fields of human inquiry is linguistics, because in language – the most formidable set of cognitive tasks we’ll ever face, yet master as three year olds – we get close to rigorous engagement with what ‘creativity’ really is.

  2. My experience in writing, the Fowler brothers and playing the guitar lead me to say “practice with attention makes perfect”
    In connection with talent and what not, Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working”.

    • I like ‘practice with attention makes perfect’, Charley. I think it’s a good addition. ‘Practice with attention and [subsequent] reflection makes perfect’.

      • Didn’t the Fowler brothers swing for a murder down Attercliffe in the nineteen twenties? It was a mob thing, and they were found guilty through the ‘common cause’ argument that would in my own lifetime – just – hang Derek Bentley.

        Just refined the algorithm. Practice with attentiveness and reflection after the fact makes perfect. Not very elegant is it? I’ll work on it. Maybe I should chuck in a current buzzword. By mindful practice, duly reflected on, we shall raise our game Watson.

  3. Ho ho. Not the King’s Justice, they perpetrated the King’s English…
    This well known about Paco de Lucía:
    ‘Antonio introduced Paco to the guitar at a young age and was extremely strict in his upbringing from the age of 5, forcing him to practice up to 12 hours a day, every day, to ensure that he could find success as a professional musician. At one point, his father took him out of school to concentrate solely on his guitar development. In a 2012 interview de Lucía stated that,’ “I learned the guitar like a child learns to speak.”’
    However, Antonio introduced Paco to the guitar because, when Antonio was teaching Ramón, Paco’s brother, Paco once said, “That’s a piece of piss. I could do that” “Go on then, clever Dick”, say Antonio. So Paco, who had never picked up a guitar, did.
    “I never had the slightest difficulty playing anything”, said Paco. “It all came naturally.”
    Lying awake at night listening to the flamencos playing in the patio Paco would spot rythmic mistakes and mention them to his father next day. “Ay, lad” said Antonio, in his best gaditano accent, “just mek sure tha never meks same un”. And he never did.
    Steve Byrd could play incredibly complex rythmns straight off, no study or practice. He did practise of course, but he could learn things in seconds that I would never be able to play if I spent the rest of my life on it.

  4. A couple of general comments/observations.

    Firstly on creativity. I’ve just watched the video on Trump and the media before revising this thread and the animated drawing and talk combination reminded me of a Royal Society animated talk a few years back on their website about education. At one point in the talk the speaker made reference to a study on creativity which began with a group being assessed for their creative skills. The initial assessment found as a whole the group were somewhere in the upper 90% range (around 97%-98%) of the group scoring genius level for creativity.

    The same group were given the same assessment every two years over a period of 12-13 years from the initial assessment. In each tow year assessment the percentage of the group scoring genius level for creativity went down until at the final assessment it stood somewhere in the mid 20% range.

    Ah! Sorry I missed a bit of vital data from the above.

    The age of the group assessed on the first assessment was three years of age and the two yearly assessments followed this group right through their schooling until they left school. I don’t think much more needs to be added at this point.

    The second observation relates to Phil’s observations about truth and quality. Which reminded me that these are both major themes of that we’ll known work “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” A clever and intelligent work of writing of stunning observations which for anyone who has not yet read it is well worth the effort.

    • Zen and the Art was a must-read when I was a young man Dave. Yet still I never read it. I’ll add to my list.

      • You will not regret it Phil. When I eventually read it in the mid to late nineties I recall wishing I’d read it a decade and a bit earlier when I was studying Systems with the OU.

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