Why you should write like a jazz musician plays

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Do you know how to write freely? Here’s a metaphor that might help. Pretend you’re a jazz musician who’s improvising…

When I moved away from home at the age of 21, I started pondering how to take music lessons. I’d always wanted to learn the piano but quickly realized this wasn’t compatible with living in an apartment.

After months of weighing options, I finally settled on the flute. It was small, portable and inexpensive, compared to a bassoon, which also appealed. An intro lesson revealed that getting a pleasant sound out of the flute was going to be shockingly difficult but I stuck with it for about 10 years. While I never became much good (I didn’t practice enough) I found playing the flute both fun and rewarding.

I studied mostly classical repertoire and, at the five-year point, asked my teacher if we could try a little jazz as well. What possessed me? I didn’t know enough to be able to attempt this sort of music — I didn’t even know that I didn’t know enough. But my accommodating teacher accommodated me.

And I gasped when I saw the other players in our quintet. All of them — I’d seen them perform at recitals — were far more experienced and skillful. At the first session, however, when we each spent some time improvising, I was reassured. The more confident and skilled the player, it seemed, the more difficulty they had improvising. They couldn’t “let go.” They wouldn’t risk making mistakes.

The same thing happens in writing.

I was meeting with one of my coaching clients this week. This writer is an academic, widely lauded in her subject and fully tenured (meaning, she’d have to commit a gross indecency in order to be fired.) Yet when she writes she becomes paralyzed with fear.

She described to me how she prepares an outline for each piece she writes and even goes so far as to plan every paragraph — and, indeed, every sentence — before writing. I’m not making fun of her! She does this for very logical reasons: No one had ever taught her a more productive method. And her subject area demands rock-solid, carefully reasoned arguments. She is plagued by the notion that she’s going to make a mistake or, even worse, leave a hole in her argument that will allow a fellow academic to belittle her.

But here’s the thing about writing: You cannot worry about your problems or shortcomings while you are writing a rough draft. This is the time to “let go” so you can learn what you think about your subject.

The best process isn’t: research ➔ thinking ➔ outlining ➔ writing ➔ editing.

It’s more like this: research ➔ thinking ➔ mindmapping ➔ writing ➔ taking a break ➔ editing ➔ more editing ➔ even more editing.

Stephen King puts it simply when he says: “I write to find out what I think.” Joan Didion’s more nuanced view holds… “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In large part, the act of writing — the act of all creative arts — is figuring out what you want to say about a particular subject, while you are saying it. This reminds me of the business aphorism “you have to build the plane as you’re flying it.” Or that, actually, “ready, fire, aim” is the better order in which to pursue tasks.

Today, I watched an entertaining TED talk on jazz music  by medical doctor and musician Charles Limb. (If you can spare the time, it’s only 16 minutes. You even get to hear him rap, which is amusing in such a buttoned-down guy.)

As Limb explains, the main networks in the brain become quiet — or “deactivated” — during improvisation. And it’s this very deactivation that allows creativity to flourish. Now, I’m not saying that if you just allow yourself to spew trash onto the page, you’re going to become the literary equivalent of Keith Jarrett or John Coltrane.

Obviously, you need practice and training to be able to write at such a level. But I can tell you that there’s nothing wrong with spewing trash onto the page, if you’re willing to take the time to edit it.

And buried within every piece of trash there may be one silver nugget that gives you something interesting and unique and creative to say. Also, spewing trash onto the page is way more fun and less painful than working to deposit only perfectly polished gems. And if you find writing fun, you won’t dread the process and you’ll do it more often and more happily.

Write like a jazz musician — go with the flow, take risks, accept less than perfect results — and do it secure in the knowledge that you can always edit it later.

Are you able to “let go” like a jazz musician when you write? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Russ Skinner, the winner of this month’s book prize, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King for a March 17/16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Telling True Stories, a collection from the Nieman Founation at Harvard University. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.


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