Mindful of the persistent student perception that their grades simply depend on who reads their work, I tried an experiment. I took one of my pieces and, acting as if a student wrote it, asked a colleague what she thought of it (sharing student work is not an uncommon practice—we frequently share pieces for help with difficult grading calls). My experiment failed inside of a minute—she turned to me and said with firm conviction, “YOU wrote this.” I admitted the ploy, and asked how she knew so quickly. “I was halfway through the first sentence,” she replied, “when I thought ‘I KNOW this voice!’”
I should have known. A former girlfriend, Jean, once read me a passage she wanted to share. “Nice!” I noted. “Do you know who it is?” she asked (Jean was fanatically competitive and given to provocation). “No,” I answered, “but it sounds like Joyce.” “It is Joyce,” she confessed.
In college, I used to look for my fellow music major and best friend Gordon, a trombonist, simply by walking around the practice rooms—I knew his sound from the other trombonists. One day in the snack bar, scarfing down my cheeseburger and fries over lively conversation, I suddenly stopped, exclaiming, “That’s Phil Woods!” recognizing the alto saxophone work I admired on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” playing on the radio, a song new to me that day. Much more recently, a writing colleague and friend called me to excitedly say “Turn on the radio!” I did. He was listening to a classical piece and wanted to purchase the recording. “Do you know what it is?” he asked. “No,” I responded, “but it’s Beethoven.” Then the violin took over. “Oh!” I explained, “It must be the Beethoven Violin Concerto,” a judgment the announcer later confirmed.
In a few seconds, I can tell the difference between Baroque and Classical, Stravinsky and Ravel, even which orchestra and conductor are performing—and so can any other musician. [I’m reminded of a cartoon depicting a smug looking music listener and his agitated wife, saying, “Why can’t you just say ‘Scarlatti,’ instead of ‘Scarlatti, of course!’”] We also talk about “an ear for language,” and why not? I’m in the midst of reviewing a new text for my Intro to Poetry class, and the emphasis there on slight variations in sound, meter, rhythm and their permutations will be enough to send the average undergraduate into utter despair over ever passing the course. [I’ll work on fixing that problem.]
My fellow writing professors understand this about language, but they also notice a difference between us. Looking over my shoulder while I composed a piece on my laptop during a contentious faculty meeting, one colleague noted admiringly, “You’re just so fluent at this stuff.” Another colleague on a previous occasion remarked, “I can see the poetry in your writing.” A bit confused (since I’m primarily an essayist), I shared that with Tim, another colleague and friend, who nodded and said, “You don’t write poems, but you do write poetry.” My department chair, after visiting my class (on my request), had a single comment afterward: “You should be editing MY writing.”
None of this is to my credit—it’s just who I am. My colleagues are excellent writers, but different writers. And I can see the difference they mention too—my friend and colleague Joe and I see writing much the same way, but we also couldn’t be more different. Joe always wanted to be an English professor, and his frame of reference is continually focused on that perspective. Joe is also a musician, but he sees the world in terms of his English background. I NEVER intended to teach writing (not that I’m sorry), pursuing instead a career in music—which led to music business, which led to writing for those businesses, which led to free lancing, which led to offers to teach, which led to teaching at better colleges—and while Joe and I see writing in similar ways, my approach to the world is that of a musician, and it colors my writing.
How, then, does one write as a musician? Well, when I recorded my albums, I designed first the overall idea, the structure—then added other elements quite freely (jazz background kicking in here). In many ways, I could have played anything over the underlying structure, as long as it reflected and either reinforced or developed the overall idea. This is how I write too. The piece needs an overall flow, but it also needs percussive elements arranged in a pattern that both keeps the piece moving forward and adds interest and vitality. This isn’t easy to explain. Jazz musicians call this approach “feel.” We just know it when we hear it. Many music writers have noted sentiments like “Many people note that music is expressive, but when asked to explain what it expresses, fall silent.”
Aaron Copland may have summarized this best in his essay “How We Listen”:
“My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music must has a certain meaning behind the notes and that that meaning behind the notes constitute, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, “’Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’ Therein lies the difficulty.”
After all, what does a Bach fugue mean? Or a John Coltrane improvisation? Sure, songs have lyrics, but change the underlying music, and your favorite songs could easily become silly. Imagine ZZ Top in their standard style performing the theme from “Titanic.” Um…could change it a bit. [Could be fun, though: “Word goin’ round….ship goin’ down….by an iceberg round North seas…”]
Improvising over a song structure is not a matter of just going nuts, but rather mining the original piece for essential elements and reconstructing those pieces in multiple, original, creative ways. Classical composers do the same thing—look what Beethoven does in his Fifth Symphony with just a few notes. How does a musician learn to play like this on demand, live? Practice. Lots and lots and lots and lots of it. For me, writing is the same. All that reading? All that studying? All those drafts? These become tools and material ready to use to develop a motive on the page.
How does this translate to writing? First, I choose a direction. Sometimes, as in an argument, I can state that purpose explicitly, others, it’s just a feeling, as in a piece of music, and only implicit. From that starting point, I choose the major “events” that will happen along the way, looking for a good flow of ideas toward a meaningful climax and satisfactory denouement—whether I can explain it literally or not. And I remember that no musician grows without taking chances, exploring new territory, going out on a limb…(substitute your favorite cliché here—see the point?).
For a good musical example of how I see writing, download Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” [or buy this excellent album—“Still Life (Talking)”]. It starts quietly. The drummer is pushing a very quick regular “train” background consistently through what comes off as a slow, easy song. Listen and you’ll see what I mean about this song and writing.
Then it builds in the middle, adding (what else?!)—voices.