A RISKY BUSINESS
I recently read Al Alvarez's "Risky Business", his second set of collected essays (BUY IT!) and have just read his chapter on the concert pianist Alfred Brendel. Yesterday I posted an article "Rembrandt and Raymond Carver" and this morning the Brendel article goes to the same places. I feel an epiphany coming.
When I teach it is very intense. It's a commonplace reaction for writers on my courses to say their head has been turned to mush. More than one has been nervous about driving home (which is why we always suggest an evening dinner on the Sunday where we just laugh and chill.)
I usually say to writers that immediately after a course (ha, I typo'd CURSE, there!) that they may very well have difficulty writing, and if they do write, the writing may appear to be inferior for a while.
I liken it to going up a difficult, dangerous, mountain. Sometimes the route you are on cannot EVER get to the top. Sometimes you have to climb DOWN a little either to find a new route, or to get extra equipment, or maybe, to talk to a Sherpa Guide who knows the way.
That's only part of the problem!
I often say things like: "You must write totally, completely "on theme" where every word is building in the same way."
But I ALSO say, "But you must ignore the theme! Never write thinking of the theme." and I say, "Get the right characters, and the right opening voice, trust the characters to guard the theme."
But how can I force myself into the strictures of theme at the same time as ignoring the theme?
When discussing the writing art we often have to use the art of writing (I mean beyond competent journalism) to get closer, ever closer, to the meaning we are trying to impart. For example in my article "The Seventh Quark: Finding the story" I wrote that I, "Write with light hands."
What follows might be partly random (I hope so.)
In the Brendel article, Alvarez states, "One of the most important lessons Brendel taught Imogen Cooper was that there is a tension that goes all through a piece of music and never lets up. He used to talk of a long silver cord that one pulls on. "He'd crouch down beside the piano and say, 'Go on, pull, pull.' Sometimes there is a little kink in the cord but it never sags. There's always a force irresistibly pulling it from the first note to the last."
THINK THEME, and the tension in a good voice.
"He used to say, 'You've got to get the audience from the first note.' I'd say you've got to get them from the moment you come through the door. How you command the space between the door and the piano makes the audience listen in a certain way. They listen with their eyes and their ears."
Think! Think about presentation. Think about fonts, font-size, single, double or 1.5 line spacing, white space for time-breaks, the size and boldness of the title, the use of italics for emphasis. Think how, the moment that editor or judge sits down with your piece. ALL of it matters.
You are trying to create "A mode of acceptance."
Think how the start shapes the whole. That's why I can predict the final score a story is worth from the opening. That is why 99% of editors and judge know as soon as they've read two paragraphs.
But remember I'm really talking about paradoxes in how I say we should write (if we want to write anything worthwhile.) Paradoxes, or apparent contradictions…
Brendel says performing is a risky business and the concert pianist who wants to make a work new each time he plays must live life dangerously. (Alvarez)
"As a performer, I have become aware of the paradox of my profession," Brendel said. "You have to be in control, and, at the same time, lose yourself completely. You have to think and feel in advance what you want to do and, simultaneously, to listen to what you are doing and react to that. You have to play to satisfy yourself and also play so that the people in the back row will get the message." In other words (Alvarez says) the concert platform is where his two worlds of intellectual control and inspired nonsense interconnect."
Are we talking genius here? No! Of course Brendel is a genius, and Alvarez probably is a genius, but quality craftsmen have to go to this place also, the greatest sportsmen.
We train the body and the mind and then trust the spirit.
I always forget who for sure, but I think it was Harlan Ellison who said we must write and write and write and absorb technique until it runs in our blood.
It is when it's in our blood that we leave room for extra imagination, room for our angelic inner self to speak. Ray Bradbury (I'm pretty sure it was him) said we need to write a million crappy words just to start being a writer. That first million words is our scales, our music theory classes, our hours at the piano, our weekend courses in music, the summer schools, the endless rehearsals.
Then after the million, we start to find ourselves.
We no longer have to think about dialogue, or speech tags, or whether a noun-adjective here is needed for the flow and balance. It is part of us, the hands know where to go. If we apply thought now it's "beyond" it's expressive, it's extra.
Briefly, this is why I believe in the Boot Camp process. I believe that at least 99% of wanabee writers write far too little. In surveys I've done the average was 147 words a day (and remember these are committed writers and they are probably exaggerating their word-counts.)
Stop RIGHT NOW and work out exactly (not roughly) how many creative words you have written this month. It is the 29th December 2010. If you haven't written 14,000 words, if you haven't written a paltry two pages a day, what the fuck are you doing? How can you call yourself a writer if you are writing the odd 200 words when the mood takes you?
Don't cheat. Don't cheat yourself. You are the one that gets hurt. What fresh work did you write yesterday? What fresh work did you produce on Monday? Did you have the weekend off? Were you going out to lunch Friday and never got into the mood? Was there a "really interesting" thread on some noddy web-site and you just had to get involved? My recent favourite in a writing forum not a coffee-shop was "Favourite Handbag?"
Tell yourself the truth.