At some point — somewhere around one or two years ago — I made a conscious effort to focus less on larger elements and to pay attention to how I worked with phrases, sentences, paragraphs; the elements of writing in general as opposed to the elements of a novel or of fiction that you learn in school. My theory was that the larger inspirations could be explored and developed at any time in my writing career, and that if I could spend the time now working on my technique, then I would have that technique available to me later, to better or to properly present the grander aspects of amazing plots or irresistible characters. Over the years I have developed confidence in my fount of raw inspiration and ideas, though the execution and timeliness is sometimes inconsistent.
I was reflecting on this during my walk from the bus stop, balancing the umbrella and grande cappuccino in one hand while finishing my cigarette using the other, thinking about how writing technique compares with musical technique, and I remembered a comment from a recent issue of The New Yorker. When I arrived at the office I looked it up. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about Annie Clark (of whom I know nothing) and her technical ability, saying:
She … eventually attended Berklee College of Music, in Boston. (Rock musicians often apologize for or qualify the fact that they attended Berklee, possibly because they believe that too much technical skill interferes with the visceral mandate of rock. …)
Berklee is highly regarded, particularly in the jazz music world. The contributions of its alumni is massive. Past students include Gary Burton, Joe Zawinul, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Swallow, Al Di Meola, Quincy Jones, and the Brecker brothers from the time when I was up on such things, plus more recently Diana Krall, Donald Fagen, as well as Mellisa Etheridge and Steve Tyler.
Generally, I’m not intending to write the fiction equivalent of rock music, though I have written rock music (via MIDI) and what I consider to be low-brow fiction, so hopefully the development of my writing technique doesn’t interfere with the visceral elements of my writing, when I need it.
I’m probably too old and have outgrown those visceral qualities anyway. I can write graphic scenes, but I’m not likely to be capable of maintaining a raw edge to an entire story.
Now that I say that, of course, I may have to try.
My technique has improved, and expanded. I’ve done exercises writing in second person, writing without quotation marks, writing using an unreliable narrator and other approaches. I’ve critiqued, been critiqued, written characters far removed from my personal experience and opposite my own values. I’ve written in a way that one critter read my work aloud to critique, telling me that my writing is like poetry (in spite of the connection between poetry and music—I’ve set poems of Stevie Smith and T.S. Eliot to music—I dislike poetry, finding it too self-absorbed and pretentious, though of course I’ve written some too) and I’ve written intentionally poorly to represent the narration of a child and another time the report of an incompetent bureaucrat. All grist for the mill. And maybe it’s time the mill can look at trying to produce some magical plots or characters.