On Goofing Around in Adjacent Areas...
Rather than taking on a new question this week, I wanted to follow up on my Office Hours post of last Thursday, about forms of “re-filling the well1,” and also on our ongoing chat about the Automatic Novel Chapter exercise we did behind the paywall two Sundays ago.
After I’ve finished a big project, I sometimes feel a resistance to starting again – that’s the “my well is empty” feeling.” But because I love working, I’ve developed the habit of goofing around in (let’s call them) adjacent areas: non-fiction writing, as discussed last time, where the initial point is the travel itself and then the writing that results is of a different, slightly more literal, flavor; screenwriting (ditto – it seems to draw on a different energy from fiction writing, especially because I’ve only worked on adaptations of my own stories, so there’s no “invention from anew” required); and, lately (starting with the Russian book and continuing here in Story Club), writing about writing – which, again, is different from fiction writing and, in a certain way, more self-starting: I read a piece and react to it. (We might say that, unlike in fiction writing, the content supplies itself.)
A few years ago, I stumbled into another “adjacent area” that has proved to be a real well-filler, somehow.
I was about to record my backlist on audiobook, and my brilliant producer, the wonderful Kelly Gildea (the mastermind behind the “Lincoln in the Bardo” audiobook (166 narrators, including me, my wife, our kids, my parents, friends from all periods of my life, as well as many great and well-known actors), knowing I played guitar, asked if I’d like to go into a studio and record the intro- and outro- music for the audiobooks.
This was one of many kindnesses Kelly has done for me over the years, and I jumped at the chance. I’d been playing music since I was a kid, long before I started writing, and this was a chance to get into a studio with a music producer (in this case, the talented Peter Coleman, from Santa Cruz Recording).
The goal was modest: make 2-3-minute “songs” for each of these books that somehow spoke to their essential content. A little snippet would be played before the reading started and another snippet after – it was mood music, essentially, and…there didn’t need to be much of it.
The first song we did was this piece for “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.” The “Phil” of that book is a mediocre, bitter guy who, through calculation and cruelty and embracing a form of rabid nationalism, quickly rises to the position of dictator. It’s, ostensibly, for all of that, a funny book. The “characters” are composite beings, made of plants and machine parts and so on, and the running joke is that the dominated country (Inner Horner) is so small that it’s impossible for all its residents to live in there at the same time. So, the music needed to be a little goofy. And manic. And, it is, as you’ll see. And it needed to reflect some essential Phil quality – he is, in the book, both clueless and sneaky.
What I found electrifying about this experience was the way it shot me back to the early days of my writing life. Instead of having an intention and trying to execute it, we were just, truly, messing around. I’d come in with some little composed nuggets, and we’d record these and then Peter (a master engineer) would chop them up, and/or treat them with effects, and then we’d listen to that bit, and just…mess with it further. And then…repeat. It was truly a collaboration. It was all for fun, with some sense of a ticking clock – we had just one day to record and mix the piece.
Neither of us had any “intention.” We were just reacting, over and over, in real time, to what we’d just done, to see what we might want to do next. The mutually agreed-upon goal seemed to be to keep surprising and even mystifying ourselves. (“What is this thing we are making?”) Peter is a very generous producer, whose mantra seems to be “Yes…and?” For my part, the fact that I have no reputation whatsoever as a musician (i.e., expectations were low) was really freeing. The piece was just a goof, a lark, something we were doing, but we didn’t know what. It didn’t need to be beautiful or perfect, just lively and unusual. Whatever burden of “mastery” had accreted around my writing of short stories was gone. And the resulting experience turned out to be a great reintroduction to a state of true “beginner’s mind.”
I’m sure many of you can relate to this: any time we gain a little ground in this life, the ego solidifies around that gain. And this locks us into place, slightly. We think we have “mastered” something and then…we start clinging to that mastery. We don’t want to lose the ground we’ve gained. This can be fatal, if the goal is to keep growing, since, the first time we broke through, we may not have had any idea what it was we were doing.
This was the case when I was writing the stories that would become CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. As I’ve recounted here before, that book came out of my sense that I’d reached a dead-end with all my attempts to channel or imitate Hemingway (and/or Kerouac, and/or Joyce). I just, basically…threw in the towel – conceded that I was no prodigy, consented to try to do something more fun and natural and even, if I could manage it, entertaining. Out of my desperation, I just started goofing around, thinking, “You don’t have to do everything, you just have to do something.”
It felt, back then, like all discovery, no planning. No pretense of expertise, nobody to let down, no previous work to live up to. No sense of what I “wanted” to happen or which writers I was trying to honor; no sense of trying to produce a certain effect. I was just trying to make some heat, of any “flavor.” A word that was in my mind at the time was “undeniable” – I wanted to feel that, if I sent the story to a magazine, the editor would have no choice but notice it, even if the tone of that noticing was a “WTF!?” feeling and an outraged rejection. I was tired of people responding to my work tepidly – that had come to seem like the worst, most insulting thing.
I was trying to make it hard for the reader to stop reading; trying to not sound like all the other writers; to do something excessive; to be bold and, in the process (if this turned out to be all I could do), make a train-wreck the reader couldn’t look away from. It was a feeling of shucking off that little “you should” voice that constantly runs in the head of an artist. You all know it: “You should make this more like Graham Green. You should make this more political. You should know what your theme is by now. It should feel this way when you write.”
It was amazing to be, in that studio, with Peter, having that beginner-mind feeling again. That feeling had come because I was working in a form in which it was O.K. to be a duffer. I knew nothing and wasn’t supposed to, and had no aspirations and no pre-conceptions about what I was trying to do. Which is how, I realized, we should always feel when working. It’s all for fun. “Joy, not fear.” Our work should be (another Hemingway notion) “serious but not solemn.” Another phrase I try to keep in mind: “I’m just throwing some paint around.”
The time will come, in a work of art, where we have to get rigorous and serious, but it’s down the line, and having a nice foundation of Fun makes it easier to be rigorous and serious, because the esthetic die has already been cast: the Fun makes a shape we can then work to clarify.
Peter and I went on to record two more pieces, for In Persuasion Nation (a book about, among other things, the problematic aspects of advertising and capitalism, as you’ll hear in the song) and Pastoralia (a book that pivots between the lyrical and the insane, ditto.)
I want to write more, soon, about the above feeling – about the abandonment of agenda and expectations and preconceptions – a process I’ve come to think of as “freakification.” It’s a delicate, possibly dangerous, idea, but I feel we’ve got a real trust going here between us all, so I promise to try it sometime soon…
Thanks to A.J. Bright for pointing out that this notion of filling the well was actually Hemingway’s, not Twain’s.
Here’s the exact Hemingway quote(s), also generously supplied by A.J.: