Every Note Has Its Consequence

No wrong notes
(image by Mpeha, via Wikimedia)

I’m often taken by the ways in which things are like other things, and therefore also notice the degree to which we limit our thinking by only comparing any phenomenon to “related” phenomena. That’s more a statement about our categories than it is about what we might learn.

I got a lovely email from a friend a few days ago, in which she copied her email newsletter from the author Louise Penny. It was full of quotes and ideas about “process,” an abstract word for how we do stuff. One quote was from Joyce Carol Oates, in which she said that “Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Well, far be it from me, right? But my experience of writing is different from hers. As one might expect. Here’s what I wrote my friend in response:

The thing about first drafts is that, for me, there isn’t one. There are several thousand. Each sentence is its own first draft, getting revised a couple of times before moving on to the next. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a paragraph. And then I have to go back and revise within that paragraph, too, so all that secured work gets modified again. Then, after a couple of hours, there might be a component of a scene or a stretch of dialogue. That’s also sketchy, and may not add up to a coherent whole without some new internal work.

Then I set it aside and go to bed. The next day when I start up, I re-read what I’d done over the past couple of days (what some writer once called “the snowplow method,” in which you hit the snowbank at ten miles an hour and shove it all forward another few feet). That requires its own post-fit trim work.

Eventually, there’s something that looks like a chapter or a section. Once I have that, reading it a few last times for minor finish flaws, I’ll set it aside and go on to the next. But after a while, I’ll see something that looks like an idea that I had while I was writing an earlier section. “AHA!!!” sez I, the trained analyst. “I’ve stumbled across a THEME!” So then I go back through what I’ve written to see how I can foreground that theme in earlier iterations, playing up some detail or moment of conversation to add a bit of that color to the mix.

So rewriting, as in eliminating whole sections of a story or cleaning up some hazardous waste site that I’ve let languish for months? I never do that. Revision happens every second of the writing day. Structurally, I write like readers read: “And THEN what happened?” Well, I’d like to know, too, but unlike the reader, I have to do more work to find out.

I love writing. I know that people find it agonizing, like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. But for me, it’s more like a cat with a paper ball; every time I touch it, it’s going to do something cool and unpredictable, and I’ll chase it around all day.

So last night, I was immersing myself in music, and watching a little teaching video by the once-in-a-lifetime musical genius Jacob Collier, whose photo opens today’s post. In this brief clip, he talks about the idea of “wrong notes,” which he utterly rejects. As a composer and an improvisational performer, he’s completely invested in the idea of time and sequence: “If I do THIS, then I might do THAT or THAT next.” And he gives the example of a “bad chord,” an array of notes that sounds dissonant. He says, “well, rather than say I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds, you think, well, how can I justify that as a sound?” And sitting live at the piano, he says to himself, “so this can go up and this can go down… yeah.” And he plays a second chord that makes the first chord into a brilliant introductory move. He closes this way:

Rather than saying this note is good and this note is bad, it’s more “this note hasn’t found its consequence.”

And that helps me imagine that my writing “process” is akin to improvisation. I find people in places with problems, and I write my way into learning more about the people and the places and the problems. And without long-range planning, I try to discover what the consequence of all that first stuff is. What am I learning in later writing that makes the earlier writing come back to me, but in a new way?

It’s crucial to say here that I claim no special authority for this process. I do not suggest that it is correct, or superior in any way. Every writer, every musician, has her or his fans, and others for whom the work leaves them cold. What I can say is that it IS a process, and one that’s served me pretty well in the simple enjoyment of writing as a way of living.

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

Raymond Chandler, to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, 1947
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