In O! Lucky Man, Lindsay Anderson’s savage film about post-war Britain, someone observes that you won’t make it in the catering business unless you know what to do with the leftovers–and so complete is my agreement with this food-station insight that I’m about to apply it to “Overture,” the audio file embedded in this post. But before we can get to it, to its what, we need to detour through the vaguely akimbo why . . .
At its most distilled, my ongoing work-in-progess is a novel about a former pop musician eventfully remixing a collection of songs from years ago–songs which were the last he wrote. (And if, by chance, I’ve just saved you $26.95, you’re very welcome.) High-concept-wise, it seemingly doesn’t get any simpler than this–but the operational word here is seemingly, and it’s underscored half a dozen times.
The work-in-progress didn’t start out simple: For the first time as a professional writer, I was visited by something that behaved very much like that phrase I’m too superstitious to bang down here. The awful thing that rhymes with Fighter’s Lock. Yes, uh-huh, you know–that which shall resolutely remain nameless. I’d labored for months working out the structure of the book; spent days researching Bosendorfer grand pianos; had meticulously outlined how each sequence of the story unfolded. And yet there I sat–unable to get beyond page 12. This went on for what seemed forever, even allowing for the time spent in Full-Out, Fuck-Me-Hard-It’s-All-Over Freak-Outs.
And then one day–when I was uncomfortably close to bashing-out a series romance novels under the name Christana Metroform to support my obviously washed-up self–I worked out what was wrong. I couldn’t move my protagonist into the remixing process because I onlyconceptually understood what he was tweaking. How to explain this? In terms of the songs he was rethinking, I was attempting to conjure up the tips of the icebergs and not the icebergs themselves. In the case of Page 12, I thought I only needed two actual couplets from an imaginary song which would be expected to feature a 60-line lyric. And, of course, I was Deeply Wrong.
Cue my personal Kubler-Ross Moment: Fast-forward through the numerous meetings of forehead and palm, through the finger-drumming, through the angry denial, to–yes–an acceptance of what needed to be done. Before I could write the book, I needed to write the songs. Like it or not, in order to reveal the tip, I needed to construct the whole goddamn iceberg. Fourteen of them, actually.
And this is how I came to ring up my songwriting partner from so long ago that years and years can be considered equal parts avoidance and spin. “We need to come out of retirement,” I said. “I need songs that no one but you and I will ever see.” Could there have been a sexier, more seductive offer? Apparently not, because we spent the next few months writing and recording my protagonist’s last collection. One that he would pick apart in the studio. (Full-disclosure: After asking my former collaborator to write material that only peeks through the novel’s prose, I neglected to tell him that the songs would also be turned inside-out over the course of the book. I don’t feel guilty about this–sometimes an offer can be too sexy and seductive.)
More fast-forwarding: The demos that represent the pretend collection of my fictional songwriter were completed and, lo, they turned out to be much more than research–at least to our ears. Yes, they were written in-character; yes, they were, by design, in the manner of old-school singer-songerwriter material, but they somehow transcended their deep-background status. Fast-foward once again: The demos did the trick, and my work-in-progress instantly moved beyond page 12. If not exaltation in the streets, there was at least a bonafide Risky Businessmoment that involved me, tube socks, underwear, savage air guitar and a waxed, hardwood floor. But, critically (and less disturbingly), something else happened.
I still remember pointing out to my collaborator that beyond functioning as a soundtrack to the book, the songs were narrative enough to be a set of theater songs. Which–finally–brings us to “Overture.” As I continued to wrestle with the book, my collaborator wrapped a selection of demo melodies into–well, you know.
Yet more fast-fowarding: Discussions with a theater company ultimately fell apart and, sucked back into my writing, the spin-off demo faded into the background. Until today, that is, when I rediscovered it while searching for another demo I needed to tweak the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, “Overture” has remained baroque, fun and, er, theatrical–so what to do? what to do? Spoiler alert: it’s attached to this post . . .
At this juncture, it’s not my intent to release the demos into the wild. After all, they were created for my ears only and it would would be very much like including my working outline with the book. (Which, it occurs to me, is not completely true–there are three songs that definitely transcend their origins, even the being-written-in-character-and-genre bit.) But “Overture” is something different; something designed to be a once-removed core sample of the original demos. And because of this, “Overture” isn’t the inspiration for anything in the novel and, more importantly I’ve a distinct intellectual distance from it. So why not? Why the hell not, indeed.
Thus, Gentle Reader, here’s a glimpse into the musical underpinnings of my work-in-progress that, in their sheer and dramatic orchestral-ness really aren’t underpinnings at all. Insert here your favorite one-hand-clapping metaphor for paradox. If this were a film trailer, “Overture” would be the over-the-top scene that doesn’t feature in the release print–that extra exploding car hurtling pieces of itself at the camera before the smash-cut to black and “Coming Soon.” Up until now, I’ve always wondered about those kinds of trailer moments–why aren’t they included in the release? But having rediscovered “Overture,” I now understand: They’re unrepentant shards of because-we-canfilmmaking that don’t fit into their respective movies and yet remain too cool for the cutting room floor. It’s less a con game than self-indulgence. And you know, I’m okay with that . . .
“Overture.” Smash-cut to black. Legend: “Coming Soon.”
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There’s been surprising amount of positive feedback on “Limitations,” the most recent excerpt from the on-going work-in-progress–and, intriguingly, a number of readers have asked about the rhythm of the prose in this sequence: was my intent to be formal or conversational? To which, of course, the answer is yes.
As I’ve earlier indicated, this project is unique in terms of my writing in that the final draft is always the one that best reads aloud. So determined am I, that I’ve actually passed over better “page writing” in favor of the version that’s better spoken. (Confession–at first, doing this gave me a deeply sick feeling, but I’ve gotten used to it.)
Thus, I’m in a unique position to address (if not answer) that prose-rhythm question because I have the recordings of the work that were made to help me decide what became final drafts. Here, then, is the “Jimmy” sequence from the previously posted “Limitations” excerpt. And to make things a bit more interesting, I’ve retrofitted a soundtrack on the recording. (Well, after all, I had to do something–I’m a writer, not a professional narrator . . . )
Thanks again for all of that kind feedback.
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Written and read by yours truly (from a work-in-progress)
Music: Max Richter, “I Was Just Thinking,” from 24 Postcards In Full Colour
(remixed by me)
Here’s how we play: Sometimes I need to talk to myself in the form of essays about technique–a long time ago I discovered that all my best thinking involves a degree of explaining. Thus this post is primarily for myself, but as always, you’re welcome to eavesdrop.
Over the past year or so, I’ve occasionally posted excerpts from a work in seemingly endless progress. They were shards deemed sufficiently finalized for placement in an online window because–on a number of levels–they really were like still-warm pies. And I have to admit I’ve been both surprised and flattered by the variety of visitors they’ve attracted.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about limitations of such excerpts. Their successful selection for optimal stand-alone scrutiny ensures the complete absence of original context. In effect, a highlight from a much larger work has been wrested and severed and retrofitted to vaguely operate as a short story.
For instance, here’s a paragraph carefully chosen because it contains a miniature backstory arc:
Big, Deep Breath
Third try, then. Big, deep breath. You’re the guy who wrote “Not Really Green Eyes.” Yes, that one–the one on the radio; the one inescapable all that summer; the one that was stately and progressive and about the woman you were living with at the time. So obviously you’ve got The Touch, and, well, any label needs artists with that. Which makes the deal you’re discussing now that much more attractive–and also cost-effective because these days there’s only you. Back when you had topped the charts, there had been a band–though, in truth, Dark Victory’s revolving members had made it more of a conceptual group. But nevertheless, you’re solo now; militantly single after a bad marriage. And to keep yourself from wincing here, you light another Gauloise.
Here also, is the attendant vocal test, because yes, I’m still writing this book that way; in every instance a final-draft passage is the one that works best when read aloud–by design, Best Vocalization even trumps technically better “page writing.”
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“Big, Deep Breath” is not necessarily the best piece of writing I could have chosen, but it is, however, perfectly suited as a bite-sized bit of meaning–its tiny “story” neatly ends with an equally minuscule “closure” (or, rather, something that out of context can be made to function that way).
But here’s the thing: “Big, Deep Breath,” while not the book’s stellar passage, is a far better piece of writing than its excerpt-context suggests. Things are happening in the paragraph that can only properly resonate within the larger work. Sometimes it’s not so much the struck orchestral triangle as it is the interplay of the surrounding acoustics: the book quite literally can be seen as the missing concert hall.
It’s no wonder, then, that these days I’ve been wondering if a better way might be possible–one that doesn’t involve a work becoming its own weird set of Cliff Notes. And then this morning it suddenly struck me that what I wanted was a kind of film trailer.
Coming Attractions have always fascinated me because the best ones rise above the obligation to simply intrigue an audience. A world-class trailer captures the film’s quintessence without necessarily telling its story–or, and this is significant, even adhering to its timeline. In fact, a great trailer frequently conveys a movie’s emotional resonance by significantly rethinking its structure. While the logic of this is obvious (no one–not filmmaker, studio, theater or audience–is best-served by a two-minute Classics Illustrated version), the odd Is / Not-Is of a great trailer is magical in the same way a 20-minute John Coltrane deconstruction of “My Favorite Things” nevertheless remains emotionally true to the vastly different original song.
Since this morning, I’ve been wondering if a collection of excerpts from the book could be cut together and made to function in the manner of an artful film trailer–as a meditation on its essential themes, but not necessarily a mirror.
What I envision is something luxuriously long, at least by the standard of conventional excerpts–perhaps as many as 10,000 words–something with no obligation to match the event-arc of the book.
Given that part of the novel is concerned with the remixing of songs in a recording studio, let me try to put this another way: imagine an instance where the dance mixes of a song collection–which are usually after-the-fact exercises–function instead as its pre-release singes. Imagine getting to know these artful mutations before you meet the real thing.
I’m not claiming that this is breakthrough thinking, but I also can’t recall any instances of book-excerpt-as-film-trailer. So if this has been done, it’s happened only rarely, and–flashing amber light here–possibly for good reason . . .
Despite the lack of other examples, I’m still inclined to see what I can do with this concept. If a book proposal conveys what happens in a story, then film-trailer excerpts could demonstrate how it feels. It goes back to the aforementioned Is / Not-Is of all the best Coming Attractions–just as fiction is a true lie about the world, a further fictionalizing of the relationship of its excerpts might hew truer to the larger, imminent work.
About a week ago on Twitter, I shared this epiphany: “Since I revise responding to the endless reading aloud of passages, the novel’s “definitive” unpacking is my accent and cadences.” And since then, I’ve continued to think about this in terms of consequences and implications. I suspect the pondering is because, for me, vocalizing / revising is an atypical workflow in a writing career lengthy enough to deserve a Doctor–Who regeneration.
Please note I said “atypical,” and not “unprecedented.” Over the years, I’ve certainly read passages aloud–especially In those faux Hollywood moments when I’m trying to nail elusive prose while staring into a deadline. But not consistently; not without fail; not to the extent that the final revision is always the version that yields the most successful recitation. At the same time, I feel that when the novel is finished and I move on to a new project, chances are good I’ll revert to, well, a quieter way of working. My sense is that this book has chosen its own workflow–art, like leaking water, will find its own way through any wall. There’s no doubt new work will establish its own idiosyncratic, creative conduit–which I admit looking forward to, since the current stream of required throat lozenges is unexpected overhead in my writing.
But what I haven’t been pondering during the past week is why I’m writing the book in this manner; the tangled psycho-dynamics of that, while probably a therapist’s payday, might kill the work dead in mid-sentence. It’s better–and safer–to limit myself to the how and what of my current approach.
And to these ends, let’s first consider singer/songwriter Lou Reed–but not for his edgy material, dodgy early behavior or later French deification. What’s germane to this discussion is his famously limited vocal range. Reed’s voice and material mostly exist in a neat one-to-one relationship: three-chord, world-weary rock is performed by an insouciant, three-note voice. Well and good, but what I want to know is if soaring arias exist inside his head–impossibly high notes that the limitations of his voice filter out during the composition of songs. Even more importantly, is right-for-his-voice necessarily synonymous with right-for-his-vision? Is “Perfect Day” what Reed wanted to do, or simply what he could manage? And, ultimately, does this parsing matter in terms of assessing the song?
I’m thinking about Reed a lot these days because my own limited voice is the sole determinant of what remains on the page. Final revisions are being made based on the ease of my recitations. Let me say this again in a different way: I’m not further polishing images, I’m not further tweaking structure, and certainly I’m not fucking with wayward leitmotifs. I’m revising to improve my comfort when reading the material aloud. And this isn’t a way of obliquely saying I’m refining sentence meter because that was dealt with in the mists of time on much earlier drafts. What seems to be occurring is an adjustment of long vowels and the honing of emotional ambience in ways I can’t explain.
On occasion, superior instances of “pure” writing have been discarded in favor of less-crafted passages that better suit my voice. Which leads back to my wonderment about how Lou Reed writes–if he could sing like Pavarotti, would we have a different “Perfect Day?” And–critically–would it be a somehow truer version? If I had the accent and cadences of a Jeremy Irons, would the book be locked down differently? And if so, would the unquestionably more emotive version be any more authentic?
Another issue I keep thinking about is the affect of a vocalize / revise approach on open textuality. Consider again our old friend, Reed–there are not a lot of cover versions of his back catalog; something usually ascribed to the extreme nature of his themes. But I don’t think this is the main reason that other artists ignore his songs. For a two- or three-octave singer, there’s not a lot of room for interpretation in narrow-range melodies. Annie Lennox doesn’t sing “How Do You Think It Feels?” for reasons beyond the lyric’s portrayal of paranoid drug addiction. I’ve worked hard to create an openness in the novel’s text–encouraging a variety of emotional entries into the work and a wide range of interpretations. But if the final revision is thoroughly tied to my flawed and ragged voice, have I not implicitly suggested the ‘real’ interpretation of the book is my own recitation? If I let myself think too long about this, it becomes a real quandary.
All of this too-sensitive-to-live, artistic dithering has been front-and-center because I’m thinking about blogging an excerpt from the book. And in choosing which part to unleash on the world, there’s a temptation to select a sequence that’s less tied to my voice–except, of course, there aren’t any. This, in turn, suggested a post like this might be interesting–a public confession and presentation of my writing as a kind of visible-gear, Lexan clock. I thought it might philosophically prepare the way while the chosen excerpt is readied.
This is why I’ve decided to share an advance paragraph and, to make a probably unwise point, also provide its audio file–me, in Spector-ish, monophonic glory, letting you know whatI intended, even if it runs counter to what you might have taken away. In short, clarifying and suicidal simultaneously. For maximum impact, I suggest reading the paragraph before you listen to it.
And that’s it–back to the work itself, instead of this Prince-Hamlet posturing. After all, downstream of a few hundred-thousand words, the book can only be what it is–sounding, of course, like the odd wisdom of the De Niro character in Deer Hunter . . .
Another season’s whirring, across a less-shaded lawn, as the last elms in the neighborhood begin their rapid decline. The kitchen’s still there; it can still be imagined, complete with its strange dimensions: Too narrow and too long and then all at once wide in a way youremember as momentary. It’s where the savage intimacies of the family had most often been exchanged; collisions leaving many more scars than that drawer full of loose German knives. In the kitchen the family had been too distant and at the same time much too close; it had been a place where acceptance widened-out, only to narrow again. The dining room, however, is only theoretical; it’s now as detail-free as those interchangeable dinners that had marked each holiday and celebration. Reduced to an essence half a lifetime later, this room’s revealed to have been the kitchen in chandeliered Sunday Best; where weekday dictates and intolerance had been served up on good china. But its mislaid appearance has also faded these uneasy memories: The narcotic blessing of forgetfulness, though late, has at last arrived.