Paul Anka is eating with Frank Sinatra. I’m guessing Italian. Sinatra is pissy. He tells Anka he’s sick and tired of the music business and that he’s getting out.
Two years earlier Anka bought the rights to a half-assed French pop song, almost on a whim. Anka is thinking about Sinatra. He pulls out the music and his Selectric in the middle of the night and gets to work. He fiddles with the melody. He writes new lyrics. He writes the way Frank talks. It takes him four hours.
“My Way” stays in the Top Forty for a year and a half.
These things are magical, but they aren’t magic. Paul Anka’s four-hour moment of genius at the keyboard didn’t happen because a tiny Francis Albert sat on his shoulder playing muse. Sinatra was a trigger but the bullet was packed with the powder of living music and writing lyrics for years. “My Way” is payoff for the times when the IBM sat there humming with frozen hands hovering above it, refusing to type.
You can have a negative opinion of Paul Anka. That’s easy. “(You’re) Having My Baby” has been dishonored as history’s single worst song. “Puppy Love” may be responsible for the death of at least 29 diabetics. You can say what you want about Anka but no matter how much you smack him around, he has “My Way” on his resume and you don’t.
“My Way” is a lesson for writers.
Its writing is a story of a collision with vehicles coming from every corner of the intersection. Sinatra. The French pop tune. The experience and the history. The play-acting. The decision to type at one in the morning instead of sleeping. There’s luck and lyrics and griping about the music business over Clams Posillipa. Paul Anka stood in the middle of the pile-up and walked away with the source of about 240 well-chosen words
That’s writing, isn’t it? It’s the ability to un-mangle the twisted bumpers, to tend to the wounded and to find something in the whole chaotic mess.
Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, it just feels like work. It feels like you’re breaking rocks with your fingers instead of a sledge hammer. It’s ditch-digging without the sweat.
When it’s all grind and the only inspiration is checking another item off your to-do list… When you’re coming closer to “My Best Friend’s Wife” than “My Way,” this working with words thing can be pretty damn grim.
That’s a good time to take another lesson from “My Way.” Anka, channeling Sinatra, gave us a reminder about the right way to approach all of this. The hero-narrator knows that fulfillment stems from the decision “to say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.”
No matter what you’re writing… No matter why you’re writing it… Take your blows and do it your way.