Ain’t that a kick in the pants?

So, another semester has begun. I’ve fallen into a pattern of one live and one online class. Online is the History of Jazz. I’ve never been a fan, mostly because the smooth jazz that such radio stations play sets my teeth on edge. However, a lot of classic jazz I love, and I’m quite surprised just how many sounds jazz encompasses. Still, my opinion of the style is summed up by Jimmy Rabbitte, band manager, in the movie The Commitments. Speaking to Dean, the saxophone player as they stand in front of the urinals in the bar where the band is playing, Jimmy tells him “Jazz is musical wanking. If you want to wank, use what you’ve got in your hand, not your sax.”

What the hell does that have to do with writing? Well, my in-person class is the creative writing seminar class I took this time last year, with the same fabulous instructor, Jill Ciment. She’s running it a bit differently this time around. There are more people in this class so we’re scheduled to present our stories.

In our last class she played us two versions of the same song to illustrate the difference between a first draft and the subsequent rewrites. While the songs, as much as I love music, didn’t do much for me, they definitely shine some light on the concept of how a writer’s work should evolve from first draft to something to be shared with the world.

The song was “My Favorite Things“, first, as sung by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. There it was, all the schmaltz and none of the feeling, bright and cute. There was no depth, no significant emotion in this Little Mary Sunshine rendition. You half expect little bluebirds to fly out of the speakers, with rainbows draped between them and rose petals falling out of the sky.

By contrast, the second version was by John Coltrane. Again, interpretive jazz isn’t my thing, but I can’t deny the amazing virtuosity of the music. Each musician takes it in turns to simultaneously compose and perform, a process that fascinates me. On a musical level, the piece went on a bit, but it illustrated the point Jill was trying to make. The first draft can be banal crap, but it gets your idea out of your brain and onto the page. Subsequent rewrites and editing are like another artist covering the original tune, adding their own spin to the basic melody. Each character is like the performers in that jazz band, taking their turn in the spotlight, the others accompanying them in support, adding layers of complexity and meaning to the story.

Maybe there’s something more than random chance guiding my class choices. It seems to work out that whatever two random classes I manage to get are doing more than fulfilling the basic requirements of the (mostly useless) degree I’m seeking. They somehow seem to complement each other in ways I wasn’t expecting. Last semester it was the combination of Psychological Approaches to Literature and Abnormal Psychology. This time, who knew that the History of Jazz would have a damn thing to do with a creative writing workshop?

And honestly, if jazz is musical wanking, fiction writing in its own way is very self-serving too. When Jill asked me with a big grin on the first night of class “What’s your story, why are you back?”, I gave her the only reply I could. I suspect Jill already knew the answer to my question before I said it aloud.

“There are these people in my head that won’t shut up. And even if I never get published and become an author, I will always be a writer.” There is nothing altruistic whatsoever in that statement. My writing isn’t meant to change people’s lives or impart some great wisdom, it simply is.

And I will always be a writer. It’s what I am.

This particular post is part of the Writer’s Gauntlet Challenge among my crit group, an exercise to keep us writing, thinking and being creative. Other Gauntlet entries can be found at S.A. Hussey and Pages.

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Writing and first drafts: or What I’ve Learned This Semester In College

So, I’ve been taking an advanced creative writing class. I’ve had such classes before and they are loads of fun, as long as you aren’t afraid to let anyone else read your work. I got over that a long time ago. All our assignments have been 2-3 pages, some with some guiding theme. We were directed to write one story as our exact opposite type, personality, upbringing, whatever made that person different from ourselves. Another time it was a condensed life, packing a character’s life into those few pages. Such short assignments is meant to teach us to shape our prose, to weave a compelling story structure and do it in the space allotted. That and the short pieces mean we get to cover several per class, otherwise we’d never get anything done.

I’m amazed and in awe of the talent among my classmates. All of them have demonstrated humor, drama and deft skill in shaping words and phrases to tell a story. And Jill, our instructor, is amazing. She can cut right to the heart of what a story could use to make it even better and also tries to coax from the readers what it is they are finding in the story that needs helps, all of which is fantastic in helping me as a writer hone my skills.

Jill gave us an excellent analogy for writing. All of our pieces we have presented are first drafts. She likens writers to anthropologists and biologists, specifically Jane Goodall. Our characters are like those chimpanzees and we are the observer. We don’t know why Bucky just smacked Bubba upside the head, nor do we understand why Delilah broke up the fight. We just watch what they’re doing and write it all down. That’s the first draft. The second draft and those subsequent are when we writers/anthropologists go back to our tent in the jungle with our notes and start rereading them and figuring out what the motives behind the actions are.  We sit under our mosquito netting and revise what we know about our characters based on everything we have observed. So, it becomes apparent that Bucky was retaliating for Bubba stealing his nesting spot and Delilah, as their mother, felt it necessary to stop the fight before it got out of control, Or whatever it is your characters are doing.

So, I’m off to the jungle, to follow some chimpanzees and take some notes.

What a scary thing to do…

scardycatSo, I took the last thirty pages or so of the Big Damn Story and put it in a new file and started rewriting, writing poor Garoben out and changing Rayne’s reactions and mental state accordingly. I like the major angst going on, but then, that’s just me. I don’t want the story to become such a mess or for her to be such a mess, but am enjoying exploring the emotions and evolving feelings she and everyone around her has during her recovery.

Yeah, none of this makes sense unless you read it. Some scenes have been reviewed by friends but the whole thing is still mostly in my head. As if it’s not enough that I’ll probably never finish it, then I have to go and muck around with the ending. It may not stick, but exploring the alternate ending is fun so far. Now if I can just make myself go back and write on the backstory leading up to this point, I’ll be doing good.