For the past three years I have spent a week in January immersed in the complexity of jazz twelve hours a day for six days. The unlikely venue for this opportunity is “The Jazz Cruise,” an operation now in its fourteenth year. In the company of 2500 jazz lovers, big-name performers with thirty years’ experience and some musicians who look as if they can’t legally order drinks at the bar get together in spaces large and small and man, do they jam!
My husband is the jazz lover in our family; I’m more interested in words than in music. However, this year after an eye-opening lecture by Shelly Berg, (exuberant pianist, composer, arranger, teacher and Grammy-nominee) I came to understand that performing music—particularly improvisation—is very similar to constructing a story. Here’s how: to play well, musicians need to practice every day. I was surprised to learn that even wonderful pianists like Berg practice chords and scales daily. Ugh. I remember chords and scales from when I was twelve—borrrringgg. Yet Shelly said that if he doesn’t practice every day, he notices the difference. After two days, his wife notices the difference. After three days, the audience will notice the difference. It’s the same with writing. Stephen King writes ten pages a day; Ernest Hemingway wrote two. Jack London’s goal was 1000 to 1500 words (four to six pages), while Simone de Beauvoir wrote daily from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and then again from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. It’s the old joke: Q: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” A: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Mastery of the basics—chords and scales, story structure and grammar—frees one up to improvise without needing to think about it. When a musician—a jazz pianist,for example—improvises well, it’s because the elaboration on the main theme is neither thoughtless nor planned. The art is in the middle ground–the gap where the mastery of the instrument and the ability to know without thinking exactly where in the music story you are–enables the leap into the unknown, relying on your technical skills to carry your improvisation to the other side, back to the main melody. It’s the same with writing.
In his recent book, Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland explains the Chinese concept of wu-wei, which he translates as “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” People in wu-wei (or “the zone,” as we think of it in sports) “proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song.” Writers are often advised to let go, not to censor themselves when they’re in a writing “zone” and to go with the flow. That works best when the writer need not think about grammar and story because it’s already in there.
It’s the music of writing.