Leaves of insight, before they disappear

6130889443_74c365a02b_b Here are three quotations from my reading over the past few weeks. Each has something to do with writing, even when it is not about writing.

In this profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels (“Giving Voice,” John Calopinto, New Yorker, March 4), who is the surgeon who saved Adele’s voice, another patient, Scott Flaherty, “an operatic tenor… working as a teacher,” describes his motivation for undergoing risky surgery to restore his singing voice:

He explained [to Colapinto] why teaching was no longer satisfying. “I’ve grown tired of just talking about it,” he said. “I mean, when you sing you’re giving voice to your soul.”

Teaching singing to singing parallels the relationship of teaching writing to writing. It’s not enough to talk about or comment on. And yet that seems to be mostly what there is time for. This was my mournful state of mind in the weeks leading up to Spring Break.

The playwright Annie Baker (“Just Saying,” Nathan Heller, New Yorker, February 25) also teaches in the graduate playwriting program at NYU. In his profile of her, Heller follows Baker and her playwriting students into the basement of a Washington Square bar, where they discuss the pressure to outline screenplays. Baker is wearied by them and negotiates her contracts to avoid outlining. She says

“I feel like it’s the most dangerous — I actually feel like Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays. And then it trickles down to grad writing programs. Like, I’m willing to sit around for hours to talk about what the screenplay’s going to be, and talk about ideas, and doodle diagrams on dry-erase boards, but I just won’t…. Because by the time I finish the outline, it’s dead.”

Talking and drawing can be explorative and generative when it comes to creative writing. But outlining: a killer. Too much left brain.

Piano player Jason Moran (“Jazz Hands,” Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, March 11) lives in New York but teaches once a month at the New Conservatory of Music in Boston. In tutoring Jiri Nedoma, who played his own composition once hesitantly and again with more sureness, Moran directed him to play it again, changing “the whole idea of the song”:

“Make it entirely different. Could you play it in stride piano?” […] Put different factors into the equation. Play it backward. Upside down. Your left hand might use something 1940 and your right hand is 2000, and what you find becomes part of your vocabulary.”

Nedoma played it again: “more delicate,” with richer chords. “He ended with a series of rising notes.”

Moran responded

“What you played at the every end, that’s where you should start… It’s almost like you played all that prelude just to find that little bit.”

Play, play, play. Mess it up. Experiment in unlikely ways. Often, you discover what you’re writing about at the very end — that’s what we tell students. It seems like this is true in other kinds of composition. What is found, at the end, becomes the new start. Not everyone, though, will have the perseverance to revisit one’s own work with the eyes of new discovery.

Image, “A Sense of Direction,” by Constanza on Flickr via a Creative Commons license

6 thoughts on “Leaves of insight, before they disappear

  1. Susan and I had this discussion today about discovering what you want to say only when you get to the end and then having to go back and recast the piece. As Mark Twain said, “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

  2. Your last paragraph–Pamela and I just had this conversation at lunch. Also, the attack of the killer outline! Yes. Related to that is research you do to prove points you’ve decided on rather than just reading a book on a topic to discover what is possible. (Students hate me when I try to get them to do it. The only ones who learn to love me again are the ones who find the wild story in Chapter 15 that they could never have looked up in the index.)

  3. Pamela and Susan: Maybe at our university, or maybe at all of them, “efficient” and “effective” have been applied to too many tasks. I personally love the discovery aspect of writing. In fact, I have assigned myself a freewrite this week as a way of getting in touch with a topic that interests me yet mystifies me.

    Perhaps students get this over time. The most meaningful undergraduate writing project I worked on was in my second semester senior year of college. I finished it one week before graduation! It started with my curiosity about D.H. Lawrence’s deliberate use of the pronoun “it” in his short novel St. Mawr. I did a lot with that “it,” let me tell you. And from that project I learned that one can inquire deeply into a small detail and learn so much by following your nose.

  4. Well, one thing that works against the discovery aspect, both ourselves and for our students, is deadlines and due dates!

  5. I once had a fully-realized piece for military band, since that’s what I was a member of, with parts to showcase the strengths of the various musicians. — Got started talking about it and it died. I know exactly how you feel!

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