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.