Plum On Productivity #3

“(1) I now write stories at terrific speed. I’ve started a habit of rushing them through and then working over them very carefully, instead of trying to get the first draft exactly right…”   from a letter to Bill Townend from P.G. Wodehouse dated 28th Feb 1920

Two constants in my daily routine are Michael Brecker and P.G. Wodehouse. Without fail I listen to Mike and read a bit of Plum every day so I can safely say they rule the Pantheon for me. Jazzers will know Plum even if they’ve never read him. He wrote Broadway shows with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern – all three progenitors of modern jazz: they helped create the canon, our repertoire of Standards . This trio of musical fame’s output was so massive, they had five productions running simultaneously on Broadway with a dozen out on tour at one point.

How did Plum manage such a workload and still find time to knock out all those legendary periodicals, short stories and novels?

Reading the works and the three books that make up Plum’s autobiography, you get the distinct sense that it just flowed out of him. The nimbi of writer’s block, it would seem, never cast shadows over his battered old typewriter.

I suppose the obvious answer is HE HAD TO. In the literal sense, he couldn’t afford to fail – certainly in the early years writing his daily column for the London Globe that earned him a steady £3 a week. The stakes were huge.

Even after considerable success in America, Plum still had to perform under extreme pressure from demanding and unscrupulous Producers such as Col. Henry ‘Hank’ Savage who famously gambled with double-sided coins and induced breakdowns in authors – a man Donald Brian described as a ‘hornswoggling pirate and premier louse of the world’.

All-night re-write sessions were the norm…

“‘May I ask a question?’ asked Plum.

‘By all means.’

‘When do we sleep?’

‘Sleep?’ said the Colonel reprovingly. ‘You didn’t come here to sleep. You came here to get a show ready for Broadway.'”

High stakes indeed.

The salient point for me though is this idea of forming a habit of rushing drafts. Just chucking stuff at the page.

Check this out from ‘Bring On The Girls’…

Guy Bolton is visiting Plum at his Queen St flat in London. Incidentally, he finds Plum throwing a sealed and stamped letter out of the window as he can’t be bothered toiling up and down stairs to get to a postbox. His logic running thus…”These are honest people, you know, each one his brother’s keeper, whoever picks it up will quicken his pace as he hurries it to the nearest letter-box.”

To the crux…

“…But what is that large affair with a great big roll of paper hitched up behind her?’

‘That,’ responded Plum, ‘is the great Wodehouse invention.’

‘You type directly on to that roll of paper?’

Plum explained. ‘Nothing is more destructive,’ he said, ‘when the steam’s up and ideas are tripping over each other to suddenly arrive at the bottom of the page. You have to take the page out, lay it on the pile, find another sheet, put it in, then find yourself uncertain what the last word was, find it, realize you’ve misspelt it…But, with this Wodehouse invention you just type merrily on, words flowing like a purling stream.'”

In the same letter of 28th Feb 1920 quoted above, Plum also talks about scheduling:

“(3) Recently I have had a great time with my work. We have been snowed up here after a record blizzard, and nobody has been able to get me for ages. As a rule I like to start work in the mornings, knock off for a breather, and then do a bit more before dinner. I never work after dinner. Yet in the old days that was my best time. Odd.”

This letter, by the way, is partly a response to questions from Bill Townend. Townend was at this point an aspiring author and looked to the master for instruction.

What can we take from Plum’s precious, sound advice?

  • Get stuff on the page without worrying about finer points of detail or even if it’s any good and get the musical ideas ‘flowing like a purling stream’.
  • Have a schedule, a ritual. Get to know the time of day you work best. Try to find out why.
  • Remove distractions: No calls, emails, Facebook.
  • Get up early to start work. Hard if you’ve been gigging late.
  • Create stakes. Strict deadlines are preferable to Hank Savages.

These principles will be used from now on.

If you’ve never read any Wodehouse, check out what Stephen Fry has to say…

 

I’ll leave you with a fabulous anecdote from ‘Bring On The Girls’…

“Guy raised the question of when they might hope to get together on another show. Plum suggested that they should reunite the old triumvirate, Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern. Guy said it couldn’t be a ‘Princess’ (theatre) show. Jerry (Kern) had set his face against writing again for the tiny playhouse.

‘If we can’t get Jerry, who else is there?’

‘Irving.’ (Berlin)

‘Fine, but he wouldn’t want me. He writes his own lyrics.’

‘Do you remember that boy who was rehearsal pianist at the Century?’

‘You mean the lad who could make a piano sound like a whole jazz orchestra?’

‘That’s the one. He said he’d like to play us some of his music.’

‘Every rehearsal pianist wants to play you his music.’

‘I know, but I was with some people not long ago and they talked about this chap and someone said he was a genius.’

‘You sure it was the same fellow?’

‘Yes, I’d clean forgotten his name but when they said it I remembered it. I’ve written it down so I won’t forget it again and when I get back I think I’ll look him up.’

‘What was the name?’

‘George Gershwin.’

‘That’s right, I recall him now. Pink cheeks, nice smile, a terrifically strong beard that even the closest shave couldn’t conceal.’

‘If I decide he’ll do, will you come over?’

‘Yes, but try to get Jerry. After all there’s only one Kern.’

‘True. Still, who knows? Maybe there’s only one George Gershwin.’

 

 

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