October 14, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Having been impressed with Todd Hasak-Lowy's collection of short fiction, The Task of This Translator, I was happy when he volunteered to write a Why Obama essay. The resulting piece arrived in my inbox at the same time Hasak-Lowy's debut novel, Captives, showed up on my doorstep. Though the essay was impressive, Captives gripped me from the first page to the last. Hasak-Lowy balances dark comedy with social criticism in this wonderful debut novel.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Darkly humorous debut novel…This wittily incisive take on the film business, suburban life, and contemporary dystopia is recommended.”
Why I Mentioned Part I of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert in the Acknowledgments of my novel Captives
(Or: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Writing and Improvisation)
[Opening Disclaimer: As a person of the overly self-conscious variety, I recognize with some anxiety that my invocation of Keith Jarrett’s improvisational jazz classic both here and at the end of my novel might look to someone like a simple, cheap, or cynical effort to look cool. Because, honestly, what’s cooler than jazz? I am not opposed to being considered cool. Obviously. But please believe me when I say that this is not the goal here, nor was it my aim when thanking Mr. Jarrett and his music in the very last line of my book.]
In Monty Python’s hilarious skit, “Novel Writing,” a “Bank Holiday” crowd gathers with great excitement to witness Thomas Hardy as he begins work on his eleventh novel. The proceedings are described by a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator (who at one point comments with disappointment, “It looks like Tess of the D’Urbervilles all over again.”). Though the spectators grow restless as Hardy first doodles aimlessly in the top corner of his first page, by the end of the skit (which lasts only as long as it takes Hardy to complete his first sentence), the crowd, who “are really enjoying this novel,” cheer wildly over the Hardy’s masterful performance.
I will now do something very unfunny: I will explain why this skit is so funny. We all understand that there are few cultural forms that lend themselves less to performance than the writing of a novel. Novels are written in private, they usually take a long, long time to write, often very little is actually happening during the time a novel is being written, and the most extreme physical action required is one hand writing or two hands typing. The notion of a crowd gathering to watch someone write (let alone this “event” being broadcast) is perfectly ridiculous. And thus pretty funny.
The good people at Monty Python illustrate that if we position various types of art out along some spectrum that we might call “Improvised vs. Prepared in Advance,” then novel writing is at the far edge of Prepared in Advance. 99.9% of the novels most of us read are complete, finished, and fixed—and typically there is no sign of the process by which they were produced. Painting and movies are also near this end, though movies capture performances, possibly even improvised performances, while some paintings quite clearly contain signs of their production. Moving closer to the other end, we find things like plays, dance, and live music.
And right out at the far reaches of the improvised, we find things like Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, which wasn’t just a musical performance, but one that was wholly made up on the spot. Keith Jarrett walked out on a German stage, sat down, and just like that conjured up twenty-six minutes of unforgettable, never-before-played music. Listening to a recording of this concert is obviously and qualitatively much different than witnessing the concert itself, but still, the recording The Köln Concert can be thought of as a document of an extreme instance of improvisational art.
I happened to stumble upon The Köln Concert at my public library a day or two into writing my novel, and I wound up listening to the first part (the first twenty-six minutes) of that recording almost every time I sat down to write this book, meaning I listened to it a good two-hundred times. There are plenty of fine reasons to listen to music when you’re doing something else: it occupies that part of your brain that will otherwise wander and drag the rest of you to distraction, it puts you in the right frame of mind, it inspires you. All these reasons are relevant in my case, but there is an additional, much more particular reason. I have always listened to jazz when I write fiction because I try to make a place—a very central place—in my writing for improvisation.
Here’s what I mean (and don’t mean) by improvisational writing: I don’t mean just riffing for the sake of riffing. I don’t mean just sitting down any old time to see what might happen. I need to feel like I’m ready (i.e. focused, alert, and genuinely excited, eager, and even impatient to be writing). And I need some structure within which I will improvise. Musicians typically improvise within a set of chord changes or at least a scale. I use a small section of a plot, or a specific character or setting during a particular moment.
What I’m trying to do when I write—and this might sound a bit corny, but I mean this with more conviction than just about anything else I could say about my writing—is capture the energy that I’m pretty certain informs the improvisation in all those jazz recordings that I listen to over and over. These heroic musicians make old standards sound utterly new, they bend the rules in order to turn a melody inside-out, they take risks—a moment of insightful, inspired boldness set atop years and years of practice and reflection—to produce new and beautiful possibilities.
I want to write at the border of what I understand and what I can anticipate, on the one hand, and what I am just discovering and still can’t explain, on the other. I want my writing to be a little rough, a little raw, and nearly out of control. When I’m improvising well, and it happens much, much less than I’d like it to, I’m writing at that border, and it feels absurdly good to be there.
Now I won’t pretend to understand why other people write, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of telling other people why to write or how to think about or approach their own writing, but I will make an additional observation on this subject, one that all you writers out there can feel free to consider as a piece of advice. One that happens to have your mental health in mind.
Thinking about writing as an improvisational form has the added effect of placing process (and not product) at the center of your writing. And in the end this process is the only part that is 100% yours. You can’t control more than just a very little bit who, if anyone, will acquire, edit, publish, market, publicize, purchase, review, and read your writing (and how they will do any of those things, if they do them at all). Moreover, you will be almost entirely absent at every one of these later stages.
I think the admittedly natural tendency many writers (including myself) have to look ahead to completing and selling and getting a piece out into the world plays a central role in why so many writers take a lot less satisfaction and pleasure from their writing than makes sense to the great majority of people who don’t write themselves. The writer is, I argue, mistaking where and when their art really happens, or, more to the point, where and when the writer actually intersects in a meaningful way with his or her own art. The writer’s art happens, at the risk of stating the very obvious, when the writer is actually writing. Everything else is something else.
My first novel is about to come out. I really hope it does well. I hope a lot of people buy it, and I hope it gets all sorts of great reviews, and I hope it sneaks onto the bestseller list, and I hope it gets translated into 25 languages, and I hope it wins prizes, and I hope people come to my readings and say nice things to me, and I hope I get long, thoughtful emails and even hand-written letters from people I never have and never will meet, emails and hand-written letters that tell me that my book changed their lives (or at least made them happy, or got them thinking, or entertained the hell out of them). I won’t lie about my ambition (or greed, ego, etc.).
But what I truly, really and truly, want more than any of that, is to be back in the middle of another book. I want to look forward to those two or three hours a couple days a week when I go off and improvise with words, when it’s me, my lap-top, some great music, and a slowly-emerging imagined world coming into surprising focus. That’s all I want. Or more precisely, that’s all I want to want (as opposed, say, to wanting to check my ranking on Amazon). In the meantime, I wait, praying for some inspiration, or at least the discovery of a new recording I had somehow missed until now.
Todd Hasak-Lowy and Captives links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
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52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)