Improvising

by Intermittent Rain ~ June 11th, 2013. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


* Modified June 24th, 2015 *

Some time ago an experienced writer told me that he imagined that writing fiction is like improvising jazz. Then he asked me, as a (hobby) jazz musician and budding fiction writer, did I find that to be the case? I said that, as also a legit (classical) composition major in university, I felt that writing fiction is more like composing. To compose I do a similar process that I use when improvising; I listen to what I have in my head and improvise what should happen next, but I get to use instruments that I can’t play, and many at once, if I want.

Still, I try to get inside the music, make myself disappear into the moment of the experience, but I also eventually bring myself — my knowledge, my analysis skills, my hopes or plans for the music — into play afterward, or if I get stuck and need to search for ideas. There is always a cerebral, structured, polished element, and editing and trial and error that I can’t do when improvising.

But now I know what the writer meant with his question.

I have started a daily writing exercise blog. People advise this all the time; one of my music composition profs advised the same for music. I’ve been resistant until now, but with this exercise blog I’ve tempted myself to keep it up by suggesting that I primarily want to focus on writing sentences that I like. Long sentences. Balanced mixture of sentences. Poetic sentences. Sentences of beauty. And secondly, to experiment with different writing styles, characters, objectives, POV, etc. And, I guess, also, thirdly, trying to generate material that might be worth developing further.

What I’ve discovered from these exercises is a different perspective. I usually have no plot, no word count target, no direction for these blurbs. I often start with a situation, a setting, and then just write what comes next. And what comes next draws from what is already there. I write, read, and then write some more, then I read and write the next sentence. I’m writing from inside.

And like those few times that I improvise a good solo, I’m listening to what is there, noting the material that I’ve already created, and building upon that. After a couple defining characteristics or elements, a few more pop up. The story spins almost organically from what I started with, expanding on and growing out of the germs that I had at the onset.

There is a subtle difference in perspective too. As I mentioned, when I compose I listen in my head and then imagine what comes next. When I write I try to get inside the moment too and write as things come up. Yet the flavor is still different. This has a “third person” feel, regardless of the POV used, as compared with the daily writing exercises without objectives, which has a “first person” feel, again, regardless of the actual POV that I use. It’s as if I’ve swung the camera to a different angle. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve swung my search for sources of material to a different view. Instead of looking at the moment from inside a character or from outside looking in like a recording camera, I’m looking inside the writing for what comes next.

Now, this is not entirely new to me. I’ve noticed this before on occasion, but it’s become much more clear and defined because I can feel it over and over again in these writing exercises. Not every time, but much more regularly than before.

I don’t know if this type of writing is better or worse. I know that the resulting writing is more dense, more slower-paced, more detailed. I know that it fits logically and retains consistent tone well. I also know that it doesn’t follow direction easily, that I can’t always bend it to reach target plot points. And, it rarely allows me to continue for long periods of writing. It gets blocked, or ends, or meanders off, or rambles on without direction or purpose and becomes boring.

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