Dec 112014
You don't want to know what goes in.

You don’t want to know what goes in.

A few of us get together every week for a jam session and try new and creative ways of screwing up familiar and unfamiliar songs.

And you know what? It’s a lot of fun.

There are four in the core group: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist who doubles on piano, and me. We have others, but these are the ones who show up every week.

We also have a few people coming in just to listen. Love ’em. They must be really tolerant or totally deaf, because sometimes what we do sounds pretty bad. Like geese farts on a muggy day? You bet.

We have our moments, but we call that thing we do “making sausage.” You don’t want to know what’s in it and you probably don’t want to watch us make it. Unless you’re brave.

That’s the creative process for you. It’s ugly. You don’t want to watch. It’s embarassing. If you want to project the image that you have your stuff together all the time, you’d avoid doing this at all costs. And you sure don’t want to do this stuff in front of people.

But that’s where we grow. Forget about grabbing the side of the pool at the shallow end and working on the kick, you’re learning to swim by jumping off a boat. But that’s not an apt analogy. A better one would be if there are people in deck chairs watching you struggle to stay afloat, holding signs like 6.4, 5.5 and the like. You’re not going to see any 10.0’s.

Making sausage is one bold act. But it’s an essential part of the creative process, with or without the audience.

Talk to me: What messes are you making this week? Please share.

Aug 102012

It was pure slop, but you know I planned it that way. Honest.

I got into an online discussion with some other writers about plotting a story vs. merely letting it run organically. There’s a lot to be said for both methods.

The creative process gets real interesting sometimes. Fiction writers will tell you about those times when the characters in a story conspire to burn the author’s original outline and take over the whole story on their own.

Musicians will start on something, and no one is sure where it ends up. Other artists say the same thing about their work.

Even someone starting a business will use his research and plan things out, while making things up as he goes. From there it’s just a matter of proportion — how much was planned and how much wasn’t?

When I was a kid, my parents had a pool table and we worked out many a blood challenge there. We had an ironclad no-slop rule. If you pocketed a ball on pure luck at our table, you were supposed to say, “I planned it like that.” Whether the shot was allowed depended on how shameless a liar you were.

The planned/unplanned mix varies. Bandleader Charles Mingus said that as long as everybody starts together and ends together, everything else was wide open. Contrast Jimmie Lunceford, frequently reviled in jazz circles for his over-trained over-rehearsed over-standardized band of “trained seals.” OK, so he liked everything just so. Both Lunceford and Mingus had their fan bases and a sound that defined them.

I read this blog post by a writer I “met” on Linkedin, and he’s planning out a new novel. He already has an idea how many chapters he’ll have, plus word counts for each part. Of course, the story line is already figured out and the characters developed.

He hasn’t started the first draft yet, and he knows all that stuff.

Other writers will fly almost totally blind through the first draft. I mean the starting point is already determined. Might even know how it ends (whether the main characters are still alive, whether the protagonist gets the girl). Other than that, it’s all quicksand.

I’m somewhere between those two, though leaning more toward the improvisational side. I’ll put together the barest of outlines — my starting point, how I want to finish, and maybe a couple of steps in between. Fill in the blanks as I go, and at some point step back and tighten up my outline. Plotting on the fly.

I’ve had those moments where my characters take on a life of their own and hijack the story line while I stand there at the keyboard sucking my thumb. A little rough for the OCD-riddled control freak in me, but I actually love it when that happens. The only real work then is to keep up with the characters and ride herd, and the end result is much more alive than I could have done on my own.

I was the same way when interviewing. I would have an objective and a couple of main questions, then free-associate a few more just seconds before the interview. But when talking, I may use a few — or none or all — of my prearranged questions, and go with the flow of the conversation. It all depends.

Preparation is part of the process. One needs to know the general direction he is going, and know his tools. For a writer it’s in the vocabulary, grammar, and just plain knowing how to lay out a story. For a musician, the tools include his facility on the instrument, music theory, and his knowledge of dynamics. The better you know your tools the better you’ll perform, no question there.

But knowing the fluidity of real life helps temper all that knowledge, makes the process fun and gives the product a life you never knew it had.


(How appropriate: I started to write this post on one subject, but one short paragraph took it another direction. But that’s fine; what I ended up with became a living example of the subject matter while my original post remains on my hard drive, ready for another day.)