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.”
“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