It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor. I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase. I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession. My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key. The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws. A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.
Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection. I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio: two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase. Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool. Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase. It had to be perfect.
In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer. I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin. Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician: how to perform the perfect phrase.
Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place? A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense. But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time. What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece? Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work. (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.) The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier. I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head. Writers constantly think about their work.
I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence. “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.” Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence. Oh, if I could write like that, I thought. I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence. Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can. I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA. While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.
What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath? She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” Oh my God that was so good. Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time. This is what makes a great writer.
Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand. I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit. He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.”
With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs. It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones. If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else. Life is too short.
For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft. Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers. Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.