Oh, Lady, Be Good

AnitaODay 1958

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If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.

It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does.  In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:

“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing  the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”

Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.

Breathing Room

Post-It

I hate what I’m writing. But I’m writing. My job is not to like it or not like it. My job is to write it.

This is novel number two. While number one is out for feedback, I’ve been working on number two. That was my New Years resolution. Eight hundred words, four times a week. In six months that’s about 80,000 words. That’s an average-sized novel.

But I hate it so far. It doesn’t breathe at all. I’m not excited. Why? Because early on, while working on the first novel, I was outlining this new one. I had a very specific idea in mind. This, unlike the first one, is going to be a mystery/ thriller, and I did some extensive outlining. I basically had written a synopsis of every scene in the book, and because the setting bounces back between the present and the past, I did a lot of historical research. I thought I was prepared to write.

But I write and everything seems terribly cliched and lifeless. I’m not enjoying doing this. It feels like plodding, plodding. It’s a mountain of gruel on my plate, staring me in the face.

When I started writing the first novel, I had no idea what it was going to be. i just wrote. Each day, I barely looked back at what I had written. I never knew what was going to come out. My first draft was basically a series of character sketches. I didn’t even know how the characters related to each other. Eventually, a few drafts later, I found out who they were to each other, but it was surprise after surprise for me.

But now. No surprises. The language is wooden, the characters are wooden, even as they fulfill the demands of the plot. Ughh.

I interviewed the excellent actor Roger Guenveur Smith a few months ago. I asked him to say what the most important thing was that he knew about acting. He barely hesitated, and said: The Breath. Breathing. That’s the source. And more and more, when I watch actors, that’s now my number one criterion. Whatever else it is, for god’s sake, be alive. I don’ t care how technically good it is, so much as that the thing breathes. In a world where everything is roboticized, it seems like our imperative is to breathe.

When I first learned to edit audio for radio production, I was enamored of the way that the editing software could cut out the imperfections, the umms and errs, the wanderings of thought. An interview could be edited together from raw audio and appear seamless. But the more I do this, the more I understand that the danger is that the edits can be too perfect. You can edit so tightly, that no breath is taken before the next thought. It will sound seductively perfect, but there’s no play in the voice, and eventually it registers as mechanical and lifeless. The listener might not even be aware on a conscious level what the problem is, but the voice will sound canned, like an answering machine message. I learned that even if you are cutting from one paragraph to another in a person’s speech, you have to leave in the breath to connect them.

So my problem now is, how do I allow breath back into my writing process? On the one hand, I don’t want to be judging myself as I write. Not in this phase of the writing. I’m just trying to get out the words, any words. But I need to let in some air or it’s going to drive me crazy. I’m making some progress. I wrote about digressions once before. So now, while writing in this phase, I’m allowing myself to digress for the slightest reason and not let it bother me. I know that, eventually, I will get back to my outline template.

It’s like doing improv acting. There’s a classic improv exercise where the audience gives the actors the first and last lines of the scenes,  and the actors must improv everything else in between. It sound difficult–how do you know that you will end up where you need to be for the last line? But the secret to doing it well is to not worry about where you are going to end up. Your unconscious will get you there if you keep going. You just need to trust that you will arrive there in its own good time.

As a writer, I have even more of an out than the improv actor. The actor feels the pressure to be interesting for the audience’s sake. But the writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience yet. I can let the breath go, and I can go where it takes me. If, in the end, it doesn’t go to an interesting place, and it doesn’t fulfill its other obligations, then I can revise –when the time for revision comes.

But for now, my obligation is only to write eight hundred words. In the breathing room, I can play as I wish.