Writing as Jazz, Jazz as Writing: Part 4
Words of writing wisdom gleaned from some jazz greats.
Because I have a musical background, I often think about writing through a variety of musical lenses.
Writing as classical music with its sonata form and three act structure.
Writing as rock music with its raw power of emotion.
Writing as country music with its love of character-driven stories.
Writing as hip hop with its embrace of the poetry of storytelling.
But if I had to choose one musical genre which best fits what we do as writers, it would be jazz.
Why? Because every time we sit down to write, we have to do two fundamental things:
- Write in the moment
Every scene exists in our present tense. We have to be right there with our characters to experience the story unfolding in ‘The Now’.
Every time a jazz musician performs live, they exist in the moment. They find the spark of creativity by playing off each other and giving themselves over to every second of the songs they perform.
Likewise whenever we sit down to write, no matter how much of the story we’ve figured out, we have to give room for spontaneity and to improvise when our characters veer over here or there.
So, too, jazz musicians whose lifeblood is improvisation, making it up as they go along, pushing the envelope, and testing each song in nightly performance.
That inspired me to do a series this week featuring quotes from some of the all-time great jazz players.
Today: Ella Fitzgerald.
I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.
In the spirit of the quote from Ella Fitzgerald, let’s steal some wisdom from it. “I stole everything I ever heard.” Similarly we, as writers, can learn the craft — big and small parts — from other writers and their creative output.
Style, tone, pacing, scene construction, personality, feel, atmosphere, structure, character, dialogue, themes, tropes, memes, any time we read a story, listen to a poem, watch a movie, take in a play, we can ‘steal’ from the creators. And I think in the spirit of what Fitzgerald intended with her comment, most of that is unconscious ‘wisdom’, a kind of creative osmosis whereby what we learn settles in as an instinct.
“But mostly I stole from the horns.” What we can take from that is this: While we may benefit by being exposed to a wide variety of creative influences, at some point it behooves us to zero in on a few specific writers and/or stories which become a touchstone for us. Start wide, then narrow it down to the “horns”, those handful of writers or even one writer who resonate most clearly with where our creative impulses are taking us.
Bottom line, we learn from those who came before us, but eventually we should strive to find our own unique voice. Be so damn good at what we do as writers, others will steal from us!
For inspiration, here is Ella Fitzgerald in a haunting 1968 performance of the classic show tune “Summertime”: