Notes on Writing

This weekend The Huntington opens the first major exhibition on the life of award-winning author Octavia E. Butler. For those who do not know of her, Ms. Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award and the first African American woman to win widespread recognition writing in that genre.

I am not particularly an aficionado of sci-fi, but she was a master story-teller and to those of us pursuing the ‘creative’ or ‘narrative’ nonfiction path, stellar story-telling is the holy grail.

Ms. Butler’s literary archive resides at The Huntington and included among her manuscripts and drafts are what I might call ‘notes to self,’ including the one above, and this affirmation shown below – don’t knock the power of positive thinking!

NPR and Jazz?

I have very mixed feelings about NPR and their commitment to jazz, or lack thereof. They long ago dropped staff and funding for Jazz Profiles — no new ones, just re-runs. Jazz Set, now hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater is still running (I don’t know how much of it is new or not), and thankfully Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz also continues. (I think there’d be a world-wide honest-to-God rebellion if they dropped Marian’s show.)

But lately I’ve taken notice of the NPR online jazz offerings such as their Jazz & Blues page with changing features and Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler. This week’s sampler is titled Feeling The Vibes: The Short History Of A Long Instrument. The five selections include the usual suspects — Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson — plus Stefon Harris playing Bach, specifically “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

This particular track brought to my attention The Classical Jazz Quartet featuring some of my favorite people – Kenny Barron on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and Ron Carter on bass. How this series of recordings (CJQ Plays Bach, CJQ Plays Rachmaninoff, and CJQ Plays Tchaikovsky) escaped my radar I do not know.

Perhaps due to my classical conservatory training, combined with growing up in a jazz household, I am one of those who love the jazz/classical hybrid. Eons ago, during lessons with Roland Hanna, he would take a classical piece from my repertoire and interpret it his way. At that time he was especially fond of Debussy and also introduced me to Scriabin. I could only dream of making such magic.

To this day, when I’m writing, or editing, I find it soothing to listen to John Lewis’ Bach Preludes & Fugues or Ron Carter Meets Bach. So now I’ve got some new CDs on the way.

For Love or Money?

Seldom is it that artisans, whatever their metier, choose their career path expecting to earn goo-gobs of cash; fame perhaps, but not fortune. Of course there are those who find fortune…

“I’d rather play Chiquita Banana tonight and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.” — Xavier Cugat, “Personality” in Time, July 29, 1946

“Only sick music makes money today.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner, Section 5

Now some might argue that Cugat is no artisan, but it is interesting to note that those who are dismissed at one time, may later become admired. The Quotations Page reports that the complete Nietzsche quotation is “Only sick music makes money today; our big theaters subsist on Wagner.” Does that put Wagner in Cugat’s boat? Had Mark Twain been around back then he might have quipped:

“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The line is usually attributed to Twain, but it is not his. Twain uses the line in his Autobiography (1924), but he attributes the quote to popular humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye. The Quote Verifier, a book by Ralph Keyes, agrees and then cites other sources who quote Nye similarly. Still, the mistaken attribution proliferates exponentially thanks to the Internet.

So, is any of this attribution consternation important? Perhaps…or perhaps not. Whether innocent errors or lack of care, it can be the edge of a slippery slope. Who would have thought that lessons would not be learned after Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair debacles. And after Goddess Oprah flayed James Frey for his fabricated memoir, how is it that a suburban white girl could write a “memoir” about her life as a ghetto gang banger/drug runner and pass it off as true? Hello, is anybody awake out there? Or am I the one who is asleep? They all get lots of publicity and that leads to new book deals or the speakers circuit or maybe even a movie of the week. (Here’s what The New York Times says.)

As for the love or money quandary, I’m still aiming for both — provided I don’t have to slide down the slippery slope.

The Influence of Music

I wish I had written this. The following is an excerpt from Jazz Messenger, an essay by Haruki Murakami in The New York Times Book Review (July 8, 2007).

…Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model. One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

Haruki Murakami’s most recent book is a novel, “After Dark.” This essay was translated by Jay Rubin.

Update and Writerly Quotations

I’ve been hard at work rebuilding SnapSizzleBop and it’s almost ready to launch. So whilke I get back to tweaking the programming code, I’ll leave you with these pearls of wisdom:

Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you only a minute. Or you might not write the paragraph at all. ~Franklin P. Adams, Half a Loaf, 1927

An original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate. ~Chateaubriand, Le Génie du Christianisme, 1802

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947

A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident. ~W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, 1938

Transitions – Part II

Before I get back to my plans vis a vis ArtistShare, allow me two short digressions. Two weeks ago I attended a National Writers Workshop and heard speak some writers I have long admired. Some of the “stories” they write are more slice-of-life/snapshots than news stories (ie the stuff I love) Pulitzer Prize winner Jacqui Banaszynski was inspiring, as was Rocky Mountain News Columnist Tina Griego, but it was depressing, too, because these writers are on-staff at newspapers and/or teaching — they have a big platform/assignments and/or other income. Such jobs are few, many in jeopardy, and not a viable option for a 50-something year old writer seeking entry.

Two days later, reading Hilton Als look at the life of Ralph Ellison (The New Yorker, May 7, 2007, p74) I found this quote from the prologue of Ellison’s Invisible Man

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those that haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Granted, he was writing in the 1950s about the “invisibility” of “Negros” but looking around today I see lots of invisible people – they may be poor or homeless, physically or mentally challenged, or set apart by cultural or socioeconomic differences, but they are people, and they should have a voice. We should see them, and come to understand them.

Again I am plagued by the lack of compensation for doing the kind of writing that I think is important. And again I start thinking that I have my own online platform and that *if I write it, they will come* — okay, am I about to naively make the same mistake all over again? I hope not.

My resistance up to now has been one of self-identity. Having been a publicist in years past I am aware of the power of image and public perception. I am also haunted by the phrase ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none’ Writing is not a hobby. I have spent years studying and honing my craft and I want to be known first and foremost as a writer, not as a personal manager, or publicist, or web designer… who also happens to write.

That being said, I also want to pay my bills. The problem, a friend tells me, is that I am trying to make my passion pay the bills. (Actually my mother has been telling me that for a long time, but sometimes we tend not to listen to our parents.) What I have decided to do is change my focus and restore my priorities. Or, as a friend put it to me this morning over coffee and mixed metaphors, “Stop tilting at windmills. Just grab on to one of the spokes and ride the Ferris wheel.” And then there is this apropos quotation:

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. ~Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963

Well, I’m not so sure it’s an anticlimax, but here’s the big picture: I define myself as being a writer. I am going to concentrate on the writing and keep trying to “get noticed” through the quality of my work and word-of-mouth and click-of-mouse. In other words I am going to pursue my passion regardless of recompense. AND, instead of wasting time and energy tilting at windmills, I will allot ‘that’ time to building web sites for paying clients. In other words, passion and practicality will henceforth be separate but equal, one feeding the soul, the other putting wine in the fridge and bread on the table.

The smaller picture is this: SnapSizzleBop will be reborn with a new tag line: Shop, Look & Listen. The “shop” part will be an online store where you can buy books and other items. The Look & Listen part will feature, for FREE, news and clips relating to my current projects — “At the Feet of a Jazz Master,” “Seeking Harmony: The Life and Music of Luther Henderson,” and a series of short pieces titled Neighborhood Narratives. These will be the slice-of-life type of stories I enjoy, and I think they will provide contrast and balance to the book-length projects that are underway. Those who sign up for the email announcement list will be automatically notified when new files become available.

I’m not expecting the store to generate any big bucks, but it will be a convenient place to buy our wares — I’m thinking of the books and perhaps some cards or coffee mugs made from our personal photo collection. But my real hope is that the free content will be of interest to a wide audience and that you will enjoy looking and listening audio and video clips, photo galleries, and such. And I’d love it if the Neighborhood Narratives create even a local buzz. Given the stories shared by the narrative newspaper writers at the one-day conference I mentioned, coupled with responses that I’ve had recently to my blog post about the death of my long-time friend Les “Coach” Fernandez, I really do believe that there is a wider audience out there interested in stories about average people.

I still think we should be able to earn a living as writers covering stories we feel to be important, even if those stories speak to a smaller audience, but I sure am tired of ramming my head against a wall. So, if you know anyone who needs the services of an ace writer or web-builder, send them my way for I am both…or as some dear friends have dubbed me, SuperD.

Stay tuned at DevraDoWrite. I’ll let you know when the transition is complete and SnapSizzleBop is back in action. I hope to have it up and running by next week.

Transitions – Part I

Two years ago I began blogging, and it’s been great. And yes, I will continue, but not for the reasons I started. The “biz wiz” (business wisdom) was, and still is, build a platform. That was the chorus sung by publishers and agents. (Remember the movie Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come.”) So, I built my platform and have developed a small but respectable and fairly consistent readership – worldwide, figuratively from Borneo to Nome. (Remember that old bit of lyric from Guy’s & Dolls? That’s a post of it’s own for another day) In reality, last week’s DevraDoWrite readers hailed from Japan, Australia, Brazil, Singapore, Scandinavia, Turkey, France, Poland, the UK and of course the US. My readership is wonderfully eclectic, but not yet large enough to impress anybody.

Still, blogging has other benefits that are perhaps more important and less tangible. Blogging motivates me to write often and better, and the more I write, the better I write and the more confident I feel. (Teachers told me that would true, but I didn’t realize how true!) Blogging also allows me to connect with others (you) in a way that is often missing from the solitary nature of a writer’s life. So, this brings me back to the old dilemma — what’s more important in life, commerce or the other stuff?

I tried to find a compromise, a way to merge the artistic and the humanistic with the need to make some money, a/k/a crass commercialism. ArtistShare seemed to be the solution. So a year ago I registered the SnapSizzleBop domain and then spent five-plus months prepping three projects for launch. Why three? Well, not having a large pre-existing fan base I thought the combination of my readers plus John’s friends and colleagues, plus Clairdee’s fans and Leroy’s network would create a synergy – a critical mass sufficient to generate a buzz and hopefully some sales. I thought that the subjects of jazz history, biography, photography and singing would be of interest to a broad spectrum of people. We launched in mid October and today, seven months in, sales are tepid and not sufficient to cover the expense. Biz wiz? Cut your losses and re-assess.

I was the first writer to try out the ArtistShare model. Dan Ouellette, writing the authorized biography of Ron Carter, has since joined the ranks and I wish him the best of luck. If it works well for him, I suspect it will not be because of *his* fans (though I am sure he has a following from his work in Downbeat, Billboard, and other publications), but more so because of Ron Carter’s stature. I have come to believe that people today only want to peek behind the scenes at those who have already attained some degree of fame, and that fame is often defined by being onstage (or onscreen) rather than ‘onpaper.’ Yes, there are some who might just want to see a work in progress, regardless of the artist’s ‘fame quotient’ but they are mostly students hoping for a how-to manual and their plates are already quite full with school assignments. Others who, in theory, might be interested are an older demographic — while comfortable with email and perhaps an iPod, they do not live online and they prefer holding books in their hands and watching movies on a larger screen.

I may be all wrong about what audiences want and don’t want and whether they want it online. Or maybe I’m just not waiting long enough for the tide to turn. If so, it won’t be the first time that I am out of sync with the tides. I just heard the news that Simon and Schuster is creating author videos to post on YouTube. The Wall Street Journal says “the videos will address such issues as how authors get their ideas, personal anecdotes about how they became authors, and a sense of who they are as people.” But I still think that the artists/writers will have to have avid fans and/or more than an iota of fame to be of interest.

I remain a supporter of ArtistShare — “where the fans are making it happen.” It’s a great concept, and I myself am a fan participating in half-a-dozen or so projects by other artists. But even I, who am something of a tech maven, am having trouble keeping up online. I also have to admit that I am part of that older demographic and I do prefer books in hand and movies on a larger screen.

So what to do?

When Worlds Collide

As I may have mentioned, in an effort to generate a little more income to sustain me while I work on three books, two of which are artistshare projects at SnapSizzleBop, I have been spending some time designing websites for clients who happen to be in the psychoanalytic field. So here I am, immersed in Freud and issues of ego identity, transference and such, missing my jazz, feeling guilty about time not spent at SnapSizzleBop, when the worlds suddenly collide in a delightul and unexpected way.

I just received notice that soprano saxophonist/composer Jane Ira Bloom‘s musical composition based on Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams has garnered her a Guggenheim Fellowship. Actually, I don’t know if that composition directly resulted in the award, but the press release mentioned it. These awards are given “to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed.”

Jane, who has already won many awards and been distinguished by having an asteroid named in her honor by the International Astronomical Union (asteroid 6083), is also receiving a 2007 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for lifetime service to jazz. And guess what. She’s got an ArtistShare project too.
Here’s my favorite quote from her web site:

“Sometimes I throw sound around the band like paint and other times I play and feel as if I was carving silence like a sculptor.”

I’ve Got Mail

Just heard from long-time friend Dick McGarvin. You may know him as a drummer and/or radio deejay. He refers to himself in this email as a bloggee, as in reader of my blog, me being the bloggER. He was writing to say that even though my posts are sporadic these days, he continues to check in– for which I thank him mightily, as I do Bill Crow who recently chimed in with a comment, and you too, whoever you are reading this now. Dick went on to say:

Anyway, what prompted me to write now was this from your blog:

I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

It reminded me of a quote I like. Composer/Arranger John LaBarbera said, “Arranging is composing without the royalties.” If you go to his website and click on ‘Arranging’, you’ll see it’s listed first in his ‘Arranging Tips’.

Thanks, Dick. LaBarbera has provided a treasure chest full of little gems. (And while I am not prone to liking movies and such on home pages, I really like the animation on his front page.)

I mentioned Bill Crow’s comment above. If you didn’t see it, he was writing to tell us about Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature and I must say it looks fascinating. It comes out twice a year ($12 for 1 year) and the journal is also available at Barnes and Noble or Borders Bookstores. They don’t share any excerpts online but they do post a list of books from which pieces that were originally published in the journal. Definately worth a stop at the bookstore! Thanks, Bill.

Exploring Subcultures

I feel very privileged to be friends with so many talented people, many who are actually renowned in the fields of my two primary interests – jazz and non-fiction writing. The other day I mentioned author/mentor Marita Golden, and today I received news from another guru/writing mentor/friend named Lee Gutkind.

Some years ago, James Wolcott, in one of his writings for Vanity Fair, dubbed Lee “the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction.” It was not intended to be a compliment, but Lee has made good use of the title ever since, founding the Creative Nonfiction Foundation that publishes a journal of excellent writings, and also directing the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, all while continuing to write amazing books that immerse readers in worlds they are unlikely to encounter otherwise — the world of heart transplantation, veterinary medicine, psychiatric institutions, to name a few, and now the world of robotics. Here’s he promo blurb on his latest book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”:

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
(For more information on Almost Human: Making Robots Think, visit the official website.)

When I am dreaming up book ideas, usually I am either intrigued by a desire to learn about a world unknown to me, or driven by a desire to show a particular world to others. As a reader, I love books that bring me into a new world, or show me sides of a world I thought I knew, in ways that allow me to identify with the people and or circumstances. I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

Lee Gutkind, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder — to name just three — they are all masters of this craft known by many names: creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative nonfiction. Wednesday, March 21 you can hear Lee Gutkind on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” To find the stations nearest you that carry this program, go here.

Lee’s schedule includes a bunch up upcoming live appearances in and around Arizona, far closer to me than the Pittsburgh home of the journal, but I’m up to my eyeballs writing, so rather than travel I’ll have to make do with listening to him on the radio. In my neighborhood “Talk of the Nation” airs from 8-10 PM, but I’m also hoping that NPR will post the show online afterwards as they do with so many of their programs.