Back to the Primeval Forest of Story

I took music lessons from about the 8th grade on. For a long time, it was just saxophone lessons, but when I was a high school senior, I started taking jazz theory lessons as well. I had a friend or two who’d done so — a pianist and a guitarist — and they both recommended the local freelance jazz pianist, a guy named Bill Richards (who I see is still playing and composing, happily). Bill was an excellent, thoughtful, and engaging teacher, as well as a genuinely good person, and I got a lot out of our lessons.

I remember him suggesting I take notes along the way, documenting my musical progress, so I would know how I got to where I was at any given time; I could be more aware of what I was doing and why. He told me he’d reached a point, at some time, where he’d kind of lost that thread and had to go back to the beginning, building his playing up again from the ground up. It was hard for me to imagine, since he was sort of a theory-guru figure to me at the time, a master of sorts. It felt like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain and saying, “Yeah, pal, I also need to practice every day, and do my scales and practice run through changes and stuff…”

Anyway, something I read on Justin Howe’s blog recently brought that to mind: the importance of being aware, conscious, and knowing what you are doing, and why. Justin’s point was that you can do anything, really: you can write a story lush or sparse, following a familiar route, or some bizarre and winding path. But the thing is, it comes down to control — to being aware of what you’re doing, and knowing why you’re doing it. Executing the story with absolute control.

After I recounted Bill’s story, Justin commented about the idea of “Beginner’s Mind” which, actually, makes a lot of sense. (Just because it sounds new-agey doesn’t mean it’s wrong.) When you’re new to something, you tend to be more sensitive to it. This brings me back to the saxophone, to how it felt to have the thing in my hands, how it felt to have the slightly rough reed against my lip, the metal mouthpiece gripped by my front teeth, the weight of the horn transferred to my neck by the strap, and the gentle tickle of the vibrating reed against my lip, resonating with my jaw and even my skull, ever so slightly. The feeling of how it was to breathe, the solidity of the sound once I got my embouchre right, and the breathing supported, and had the right mouthpiece and reed strength.

I haven’t played my saxophones seriously since 2006 or so — maybe longer, depending on how you define “seriously” — and to be honest, I probably won’t return seriously to the tenor sax again unless I can get a new one. The one I’ve had, well, it’s been with me through thick and thin, through some of the best and worst moments of my life, but I’ve been playing it since middle school, and it’s just an intermediate model: I need a better saxophone, and one of the few things my university sax professor said that was true, was that the horn had so many intonation problems, getting it to play passably was something of a constant battle… meaning I learned a lot of bad habits, or what would anyway be bad habits if I were playing on a proper horn.

When I pick it up, occasionally, there’s this period of time when I come to the instrument as one ought to — in the Platonic way, as in, this key makes this note, that key makes that note. But on this saxophone, this key does not make this note: it’s always a little flat, so I have to half-open that key to get it in tune. And that key doesn’t play that note, it’s always a quarter-tone sharp, and I need to adjust with my lip.

All that became an excuse, for me, not to play. Well, and it is a frustrating instrument to play on, even if the results are probably better than I think most of the time. But I think there’s another thing I did wrong: I lost my way. I started earnestly taking notes, and then, well, I lost track of them. Somewhere, in a box, I have pages of manuscript paper covered in notes, scribblings of Bill’s and scribblings of mine, but I don’t remember them. When I run changes, now, I am mostly struggling just to keep up, rather than hearing something and playing it.

(It’s not as sad and awful as it sounds: I mean, if I was deadly serious about getting a saxophone, I could get one. Someone I know owes me about enough money for me to get a nice used one, or maybe, if I throw in a little more, a really nice used one —  or a pretty-good tenor and a pretty-good soprano. Hell, I may even go ahead and earmark that money for that very purpose. But this is a digression…)

Well, lately I’ve felt a little lost when it comes to writing. Of course, I’ve been through this before, and I know enough to know that when you start feeling lost, you’re probably doing something right: that it’s time to pay attention because you’re often going into uncharted (for you) territory. It’s not something to panic over, so much as to start paying attention carefully again, and learn from. I think it’s a good thing, in some ways, to go back to basics, and rebuild your technique from the ground up, from time to time. Kind of like burning down the old hut, and building yourself a new one, with a few more tricks thrown in that you hadn’t thought of the first time.

The kind of lost I’ve been feeling lately, when it comes to writing, has to do with the kinds of limitations I put on my own writing. I was writing a lot of strictly SF stuff, and it had a kind of familiar shape, born of reading a lot of writers who wrote in a kind of contemporary hard-ish SF shape. You are what you eat, I suppose, and my recent turn to reading more broadly again has been pretty rewarding in the way it’s thrown into question a lot of the boundaries I’d set up for myself.

(The Russell Hoban novel that Justin loaned me, The Medusa Frequency, and which I reviewed here, is a case in point: it blew me away on a lot of levels not because I thought it was a flawless novel — it isn’t — but because of the freedom in it. It was a little like how it feels picking up an Eric Dolphy album you’ve never heard before; you pause, and go, “Oh, yeah, right. You can do that.”)

This brings to mind the Inner Game series of books, which are also vaguely New Agey, but have a good point deep down under the rhetoric. I have a post somewhere about the Inner Game of Music text, which I reread last summer while working on a paper about creativity and the TEFL classroom. For some reason, the post went unpublished, so I dug it up and published it today. You can read it here, and I recommend you do, as the summary below is very simple.

The gist is that there are kind of two selves in each one of us: the side that studies rules and guidelines and techniques and then inordinately focuses on them, meanwhile tripping us up at every turn, and the other side, which actually can feel or hear why this or that technique came to be, on a more intuitive and natural level.  The thing is, these sides don’t tend to work together all that well, and that most people tend to focus on the former, to the neglect of the latter. Instruction is crucial to this tendency, because, as the Inner Game books point out, a lot of pedagogy focuses on Self 1, to the utter exclusion of considering Self 2.  The way we teach things like music performance, or tennis, or swimming, or skiing, reinforces this because it is often so utterly focused on formal technicalities and away from the experience, the sensual perceptions of the student, the anxieties and the natural, intuitive insights she or he would have if the space and time were given for self-aware, self-reflective practice to take place. So, pedagogy conspires to help stop us from paying attention to our own experience of performing these tasks.

It’s obvious why this kind of methodology would work well tennis, golf, swimming, or music. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised when, dropping by Timothy Gallwey’s website for the series, I found books related to work and to handling stress as well. Broadly speaking, these insights are applicable to many, many areas of one’s life, work, and to learning in general. I myself have drawn on them in my own teaching, with the most spectacular results in courses involving creative work, and public speaking. (As I discussed in the post linked above.)

But I’ve been thinking, for the last year, of how I’m also wondering if it might not be also applicable to writing probably on some level also to writing: I know I’ve got all kinds of rules in my head about writing, and am trying to get back to the other side, the side that is hyperaware of how stories feel, when they feel right, even when they break this or that “rule” of storytelling. The rules aren’t always born from pedagogy, of course: it’s not all “write what you know”-type nuggets of Creative-Writing-course insight that have built up those rules. Other rules have built up from the more limited reading I did for a while, when I felt desperately behind, and that I ought to “catch up” with modern science fiction. (I still feel like I haven’t, but I also feel like that’s not such a horrible thing… especially if sticking only to that stuff it is limiting me in ways I should be aware of.)

When you have plateaued in your writing, it feels good at first. You don’t quite realize you’ve plateaued at all, more like you’ve arrived somewhere. But the frustration kicks in, one bit at a time, at least if you care about what you’re doing, and finally it becomes impossible to ignore. That’s the state I’ve been in lately — feeling like, yeah, it’s not so hard to crank out a story of the kind I’ve written and published before, and like I could do it again. But not really wanting to, and not sure how to do the work of climbing up to a higher level, not sure where to look since, when you’re on a plateau, it looks like it extends out the same level in all directions, except from where you originally came from. Down there is bush countr, a rough and wild place, and you spent a lot of time there already, and you feel like you remember it.

But you don’t. The higher you climb, the more distant the calls of the strange birds in those ancient trees grows. The longer you stay on your plateau, happy to have ascended so high, the fainter your memories of the squirrels in the branches become.

The way up is the way down. That is to say, the trick, of course, is realizing that the day will come when you need to climb back down, and spend some time in the primeval forest of story, and then, when you feel ready, wander off and try another cliff face.

It helps to leave some markings on the cliff below the plateau from which you’ve just climbed down, of course. (Not so that you never go there again — revisiting good places is fine, but you should try not to mistakenly climb it again thinking you’re going somewhere new.)

If you want to go higher, you need to climb down first. You need to remember that, even if you find a bag of magic beans that sprout a vine so tall you can climb it up to the clouds, that that’s not your limit either; sooner or later, it will be time to climb down again.

The primeval forest of story is always there, vibrant and green and writhing with magnificent untamed wildlife. It is always ready for you, poised to accept you when you need to descend again, for a while. You are part of it, another beast in the wilderness, and it is good for you to go home, between bouts of wandering.

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