Is writing supposed to be easy? There are so many poets (and some fiction writers and playwrights, too) who claim that writing is a compulsion for them, reflexive and almost involuntary, like breathing. If that were true, then I would be a severe asthmatic. Composing a poem is a long, unpleasant process of worry and frustration, redeemed only by the great satisfaction of the finished work. If I had to compare it to a bodily process, I would say it’s more like childbirth than breathing. I’ve never had a baby, though, and, frankly, I think I’d prefer to stick with the poetry.
It might just be my writerly mode, of course. My poems aren’t really known for their gleeful abandon. I’m more interested in control, in the carefully crafted contraption. Lately, though, that’s been causing more frustration than usual. Things have been feeling too forced. The labor has become belabored. Some of the drafts just feel like they’re trying too hard.
So I’ve been looking at other art that pushes too hard. For instance, Francis Ford Coppola’s forgotten 1982 film One from the Heart. After the madness of Apocalypse Now, Coppola just wanted to make a sweet little love story with a small cast. But then he set it in Las Vegas, and then he turned it into a musical, and then he decided to film entirely on sound stages with elaborately constructed sets and stylized theatre lighting, and the budget exploded from $2 million to $26 million. It only made $636,796 at the box office. If it’s remembered at all, it’s remembered as the film that bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola, who spent the next decade trying to direct his way out of debt.
The movie’s a gorgeous mess. The sets, vast and profuse with neon, are stunning but feel unnecessary. There are beautiful and talented actors (including Raul Julia and Teri Garr with a terrible perm), but they seem confused, unsure whether to play it straight or as stylized as the painted backdrops. The dialogue is spastic and the plot is thin, but the emotional underpinning of the movie is affecting. The film was billed as a musical, but only two characters sing, and only briefly, and the dance numbers are very few and very far between. The soundtrack, though, is phenomenal; it was written by Tom Waits (who was nominated for an Oscar) and sung by him and Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn’s betressed little sister.
Coppola wanted something sweet and easy, but for some people, nothing is easy. You have to put some force of will into every piece of art; once you start, once you’ve engaged and built up momentum, it can be hard to know how to stop. Coppola pushed and pushed and his movie rolled away. I’m keeping this in mind as a poetic cautionary tale: don’t overdo it. That said, if Tom Waits wants to compose a soundtrack for my next book, he knows where to find me.