One question I see posted in a lot in writer forums, but especially during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is: how do I keep going when I know this is terrible? I know I struggle with this question constantly in the drafting phase, and it made me think of my brother, Dr. Adam Booker, and his work as a professional jazz musician. Adam and I grew up surrounded by jazz musicians, and we learned at a very early age that no matter what, no matter how godawful something might be, you can’t stop in a middle of a song if things aren’t going well. The show must go on, as they say, and it’s a principle I’ve applied to my writing. Keep going, keep moving forward no matter what. This is nice in theory, but how does this actually work in practice?
I sat down with my brother this week for an interview because I wanted to ask him about the creative processes he uses in delivering a jazz solo. I’ve provided the full interview at the end of this post, but in case you don’t have an hour to burn (because you should be writing!), I’ll run through the best parts.
As my brother explains, a jazz song allows for a section, generally within the middle, for a solo. This is where a musician steps forward and plays…well? Whatever they want, but with some stipulations. In the first sentence of his syllabus, Adam explains that improvisation is not “just making stuff up as you go along,” but it entails taking “harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic material and reworking it.” This is a lot like writing where we take the basic building blocks of language (nouns, verbs, subjects, predicates, etc.) and try to say something new and fresh. Adam contends, though, that he’s not necessarily as concerned with saying something new, but saying something cogent. To me, this was a good point about writing because I know when I started my first draft, I wrote all sorts of bizarre, chunky, clunky word vomit in an effort to say something “different” when I really should have been focusing on clear storytelling. In fact, the fundamental feedback for my novel I had to take forward for my R&R was that I needed to cut down on the purple prose. Too many notes, as it were. And when I slashed and burned the adjectives, a much clearer story and voice came through the pages.
But for Adam, a part of finding that clarity in his solo work involved literally transcribing dozens of solos by famous bass artists such as Charles Mingus. By doing this, he understood not just the technical choices these artists made, but the artistic choices as well. He talks about, too, the importance of mentorship in his early years in San Antonio with the band Small World who allowed him to take the stage…and fall flat on his face. Today, so many young people are afraid to experiment and take risks, but this is the only way to figure out what works.
A highlight of the interview for me comes at 18:20 where Adam discusses what goes through his mind during a solo. There’s a pretty funny moment here where he discusses thinking about Star Wars during a solo, but what he gets at is very important. In a solo, he’s not trying to tell the whole Star Wars saga, but to describe a moment between Han and Leia or how an Ewok smells. He says as artists, we need to draw from those elemental things: the color of his wife’s eyes, his dog running around the house. He states, “If you spend too much time trying to tell the whole story, you’re going to lose your audience.” I think this is a wonderful point for authors in the drafting process. Writing a novel can feel so overwhelming, so in those moments of complete overload, it’s good to, as Adam states, “focus in on that one thing and dive in.”
But what do we do when you start out saying, “I’m going to perform a solo about my wife’s eyes,” and it is just not working? He says we then rely on hard work and technique. “We can’t rely on emotions all the time,” he says, and while sometimes we might experience that flash of brilliance where the muse takes over our bodies and everything is perfect, “most of the time it’s technique.” To me, this is a key point in the interview. I think when writers sit down to write, we want that heady, feverish feeling where everything falls into place and we find that elusive and poetic voice we’ve been searching for, but this expectation isn’t sustainable for a novelist. For me, most nights are just putting the words down on the page, throwing down cliche dialogue and derivative plots–not because I’m a terrible writer, but because I need things to fall back on in my drafts in order to move forward. When I get stuck, I ask myself, “What would JK Rowling do?” Which is basically asking, “What story fundamentals have worked in the past? What’s going to float me while I draft this novel and figure out what I actually want to say?” I spent a great deal of last year editing out a plot point that felt vaguely familiar to a bestselling novel, and I’m not ashamed of that. It was a tried and true story line that I could rely on until I developed something different, and I did! I see a lot of writers quit in the middle of NaNo because they think, “This sounds too much like Twilight” or “this sounds too much like The Hunger Games.” For one, good on you for recognizing the funny ways our subconscious works. And two, who cares? Keep going. I can almost guarantee that in your later drafts, you’re going to edit that out and come up with something really genuine and original.
Which I think brings us to another good point Adam made: “If you are practicing and it sounds good, you have ceased practicing…you are no longer working on anything.” I know for myself, when I first started NaNo, I was shocked at how horribly bad my writing was. As someone who studied literature, I assumed that I would have no problem composing gorgeous prose. Wrong. WRONG. But the point is, it’s supposed to be terrible. If your writing isn’t terrible, you’re probably not pushing yourself creatively (or you’re delusional). As Adam discusses in the interview, the idea of the “artistic genius” is an expectation that non-artists place on us. And so when we struggle, we think there’s something wrong with us, that maybe we’re not cut out for this. But any real musician or writer who has worked professionally in their field knows that to put out an album or write a novel is a shit ton of work and it doesn’t come easy. It is a struggle from beginning to end. A worthwhile, exhilarating, inspiring struggle. But a struggle, nonetheless.
For me the high point of the interview comes at 39:00 where we discuss our doubts and insecurities in the creative process. For Adam, he’s had to cultivate a “general acceptance that it isn’t always going to be perfect.” He feels it’s important for artists to recognize “things are what they are.” When he walks onto the bandstand, he has to accept that “this might suck” and be absolutely okay with that. I feel like too often we turn away from creative endeavors at the first sign of sucknitude, and that for many of us, we can’t arrive at a place where we can accept that something might be unsuccessful. When I started my NaNo novel in 2013, I was at a low point in my career and felt I had nothing else to lose. All my hopes of a tenure-track job had been dashed because of budget cuts, and I thought…”Why not write a novel? It might suck. It probably will suck. But it could be fun.” Fast forward two years later…in any case, I think the acceptance that “this might suck” was key for me and it seems to be for my brother as well.
At the end of the interview, I ask Adam what advice he would give to the first-time NaNo writer stuck in the middle of a story and not sure of where to go next. He said point blank, “Keep going or quit.” While it may not be the raucous cheer leading ra-ra we like to hear, I think it’s truly what is fundamental for being a successful artist in any field. I’m not the most talented writer I know, but I’m the writer who keeps going no matter what, no matter how bad things get. Adam stresses fundamentals and says, “Think about what you can write in one minute, maybe jump to another scene, and don’t kick yourself for being stuck.” He discusses too how important it is to figure out what works well for you, what routine is going to help you get the most out of your creativity. But the point is, keep going.
Keep going NaNos!
You can find the whole interview below, but before you do…
Check out Adam Bookers’ debut CD Unravaled Rival at www.shiftingparadigmrecords.com
It’s also available on itunes!
And check out his website for news and upcoming events.