I recently finished the first draft of a short story. Initially there was an idea, an image of what I was going to create and that “vision” got me through the first steps. Unfortunately, despite it being just a short story rather than a novel, as I wrote I felt the vision and the reality diverging. I felt, at different points, inadequate to the task, out of my depth, and just plain frustrated that what I had imagined just was not appearing on the page. So, the early excitement of trying to create gave way to the frustration of being unsure, even disappointed, with the creation.

However, I muscled through and finished the first draft. That remains a big part of my struggle with writing. It is one third, in fact: starting, finishing, and re-writing. Re-writing is my weakest skill as I have very rarely re-written anything. That’s right. Almost every essay I produced at school and university, and everything else I have written, has been the first draft. Even my English coursework that I did on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, for which I received an unbelievable 100%. First draft and, still, I have not read the book. I worry that was my peak. I still remember the day I was told. I arrived at the school dining hall for afternoon break, to get a juice and an iced bun, and my English teacher asked to speak to me privately. Cue a sense that I had done something wrong. He then informed me/congratulated me on getting 100% on the paper. And he instructed me not to tell anyone, which I’m pretty sure I failed to obey. I remember him asking if my friend accompanying me was my bodyguard. I certainly wouldn’t have been his!

Sorry, that was a tangent if ever there was one. Anyway, to the point because lord knows no one wants to read about how awesome I was/am/always will be. While I was in the struggling phase of getting this story written I was reminded of Beauty and the Beast, specifically the soundtrack. Beauty and the Beast is probably my favourite Disney animation. I get a warm, comforting feeling when I hear David Ogden Stier’s introduction (…As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a Beast?) Belle is a great character and the main Disney “princess” I had a crush on. Gaston is a fantastic villain. And the music is magical.

Oh, Gaston.

I have the special edition soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast. It provides a perfect illustration of how magic is hard work. One of the tracks is a work tape and demo of the titular song “Beauty and the Beast”, with Howard Ashman working away at the song. It’s a wonderful, comforting, moving, inspiring, sad insight into the creation of something that brought me, and others, so much joy and wonder. Now, first, there’s the simple matter of Howard Ashman’s story. Beauty and the Beast was his final film, as he died before its premiere at the age of 40 after a years long struggle with HIV. So, hearing his work, his voice, knowing just a fraction of where he was in life, is moving in and of itself.

Obviously, though, the main focus is seeing some of the process behind crafting a magical, timeless song. It is fascinating to hear him singing through a part, but the music is just off, and the lyrics are off. “They’re not even friends, then somebody bends, very gradually.” You can hear Ashman going through the song and you sense he knows that it is off. You can hear him, at one point, make a disgusted sound. We know what the finished product is meant to be, but we are listening to him figure it out. It is somewhat exasperating. You find yourself half mad with sympathy as you shout encouragement. Just change those lyrics, man! “They’re not even friends” changing to “Barely even friends” and “unexpectedly”. Then we deal with the “Just a little change, small to say the least. Suddenly they dance, suddenly a chance, Beauty and the Beast.” We know that’s wrong. Oh it is so wrong! It’s meant to be “Both a little scared, neither one prepared” which touches the heart so much closer, captures that feeling of the first blush of love so much more sweetly. The changes are small, but their impact is huge. The song clicks, music and lyrics match perfectly. There’s none of the previous awkwardness in how the syllables fit to each note. Here, in its full glory.

I don’t know how long it took Ashman to write that one particular song. I imagine it was much more than Sam Smith’s purported 20 minutes for his James Bond song. Of course, Beauty and the Beast is timeless, while Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” has been forgotten. That’s the difference when real care and craft is applied to a piece of music. What is useful about this work tape and demo is the demonstration that even something short like a song requires significant work. Even someone of peerless talent has to labour away and struggle with the fact that they aren’t getting it right, until they do. It must be quite a eureka moment, a euphoric moment, even. And then to have created something, something that touches people, something that people write and talk about years after it first appeared. That must be a strange feeling! Though wonderful, in some ways, as well.

One day I hope to create something and if I can bring even a fraction of the care, craft, and beauty that Howard Ashman brought to the world through his work, then I will be pleased as Gaston on seeing his reflection.

Happiest man alive, right there.
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