I spent my first two years of undergraduate studies as a Jazz Performance major. I played guitar, and was proficient, but not because of any thoughtful understanding of music itself; theory and most of the other core classes that didn’t involve playing were a struggle. I remember one particular moment in an Improvisation class when the head of the Jazz Department called on me to solo over “Giant Steps,” that devil of a John Coltrane song famous for both pianist Tommy Flanagan’s difficulty playing over the chord changes on the original recording (rumor was he first saw the changes at the recording, assumed it would be somewhere mid-tempo, and all of a sudden, Trane–tape running–counted it off at blazing speed) and everyone else’s difficulty with the changes since.
But I loved Coltrane, and had the benefit of having practiced over the changes since high school, so there in the basement of the Music Building, I actually pieced together a somewhat coherent solo. When I finished, the professor, who’d been on me for my lack of music fundamentals, said, “All right man, all right. So tell me, what did you do?” He wanted me to explain how and why the notes, scales, and arpeggios I’d played worked, theoretically, over these particular changes. I didn’t have a clue. I only knew they sounded good, because I’d learned them by listening. I played by ear, as they say. But playing by ear doesn’t a Jazz Performance degree earn (unless you’re Dave Brubeck, who was rumored to have received his without being able to read music).
Soon after I switched my major to literature, where I became involved in a different sort of sight-reading and music.
My daughter is one year old, and her vocabulary consists of mama, dada, and caw-caw, the latter from the crows inhabiting the large evergreen in our front yard. It has been a joy to hear her mimic the music of language. She improvises constantly. Though she doesn’t know many words, hasn’t yet figured out how they work together to create meaning, and is still years from diagramming a sentence, she can already hear the music behind it. She’s playing by ear. Sometimes I forget, when writing, that I’m composing not just a series of letters and syllables and words and sentences that work within a certain context to create certain effects and meanings. I’m also making music.
I remember at some point in my musical education hearing some semblance of this quote from Charlie Parker: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” I find the reverse true for my writing. In my first drafts, I stand up there and just wail–terribly–and after that, I practice and practice and practice (read: revise, using all of the skills and techniques and theories I’ve learned) until the writing creates something approaching the desired affect. My old Improvisation professor might be happy to know that, at least in writing, I’m able to now do more than just play by ear. He also might find it ironic that I enjoy the revision far more than the initial wailing.
That said, once I’m finished with the initial wailing and subsequent revising, my last pass at a piece before sending it out is a return to that first editing instrument, the one my daughter’s learning to use, the one that alone couldn’t get me through music school. The ear. I read my pieces out loud, trying to forget about all the mechanisms of fiction, and listen. When we read, I think, the sound of the prose is just as important as the content, if the two can be separated at all.
In Tobias Wolff’s famous short story, “Bullet in the Brain,” we’re introduced to Anders, a book critic “known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.” His bitterness and disconnect with reality, garnered from a life judging letters, are such that–by the end of the story–he receives exactly what the title suggests. While Anders is unlikeable, I’m sure any writer knows him, because inside each of us is a similar curmudgeon, one who will suffer no cliché, one whose obsession with language makes the correct placement of a comma feel like a life or death decision. Our inner Anders ensures the success of our hours of revision. But what happens to Anders at the end of the story, as a bullet travels through his brain, is a return to that first love: the sound of language, in the form of a moment he experienced long ago on the baseball diamond.
“Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all–it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.
They is. In the beginning and in the end of Ander’s life, it’s not the mechanics, but the music of language that captures his heart. That sounds right to me. But I can’t tell you why.
ROSS MCMEEKIN‘s story “Ice a Mile Thick” appears on this site. His fiction also appears or is forthcoming at places like Shenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Tin House Blog, Folio, Hobart, PANK, The Monarch Review, and many other literary journals. His essays have appeared online in Hunger Mountain and The Rumpus. He is the founding editor of the literary journal, Spartan, and before that served as the assistant fiction editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. He received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.