Years ago, I was helping a friend brainstorm and outline a book, and at some point in the course of our conversation about writing, I said, “Writing is like jazz.”
Both of us were jazz aficionados, so the phrase was apt, and it stuck. He has reminded me of it repeatedly ever since.
What did I mean? Three things, basically:
Duke Ellington was raised by pianist parents, started piano lessons at age 7, and learned from numerous teachers during his formative years. Trumpeter Miles Davis took music lessons from Elwood Buchanan and attended Julliard School of Music before joining Charlie Parker’s quintet. Nina Simone studied under Carl Friedberg at Julliard and took private piano lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff before recording her debut album, Little Girl Blue. These and many jazz musicians acquired the rudiments of their craft. They learned the rules and gained experience in working within those rules.
Similarly, writers who wish to be published—and read—must learn the basics: spelling, grammar, composition, structure, etc. They must know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and between “your” and “you’re.” They do well to read The Elements of Style. They should write a lot (not alot), like a musician learning theory and practicing scales.
This also comes into play with every new thing a writer begins. Whether it is a novel, nonfiction book, essay, review, or poem, good writing starts not only with good materials but also with good structure. The foundation must be firm before the walls go up and windows are installed. Good writers, whether they’re “planners” or “pantsers,” begin with an outline, synopsis, or some kind of framework in mind.
The 2016 film, Genius, portrayed the relationship between New York editor Maxwell Perkins and novelist Thomas Wolfe. A memorable scene in the movie occurs in a Harlem jazz club. Wolfe takes his staid editor there to try to convey through jazz how Wolfe’s writing mind works. The musicians begin with a familiar tune, playing it straight, as it would have been written on a page of sheet music. Soon, however, they begin to improvise and embellish, not only playing the music but playing with the music and playing off of each other, turning one work of art into something new, fresh, and lively.
A writer who has learned the rules and mastered the tools of language and persuasion can successfully bend or even break the rules, experimenting and improvising, and sometimes turn a simple sentence or scene into a work of art. Such a writer doesn’t ignore spelling, grammar, structure, and so on, but may transcend those things, playing with the music of thoughts and words, creating something new, fresh, and lively.
When a jazz musician—a good one, anyway—discovers a new groove or improvises a new riff, the musicianship doesn’t end there. She may sing or play it a hundred times, sharpening and smoothing it more and more. He may record the tune, transpose it into a different key, or hear how it sounds on a different instrument or in a different voice.
That resembles the writer’s tasks of rewrite and revision. No matter how engrained the skills are and how inspired the writing was, plenty of clean-up always remains to be done: cutting, fitting, rearranging, shaping, sharpening, polishing, and more. Speaking for myself, even after thirty years as a professional writer, I don’t even show my wife my first drafts. And I seldom show anyone my second drafts.
I often tell people in writing seminars, “If you’re not sick of your article, story, or book by the time you submit it for publication, you probably haven’t reviewed, rewritten, revised, and edited it enough.”
Writing, like jazz, is a lot of work…and loads of fun. When it is done well, it is almost like being in love.