Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

On a wing and a player

A writer improvises

This essay on the art of improvisation appealed to me the other day. Lately my creative juices are running more toward music than fiction, so I read it from that angle until I started thinking, Why can’t writing use improvisation the way jazz does?

As guitarist Stephen Asma outlines, musical improvisation is always based on preparation and knowledge. You need to know your scales and song structures, what kinds of things work with a II V I, how to signal your bandmates that you’re taking another chorus. With writing, we have to have mad skills too, but the way we use them is solitary and revision is always necessary. Yet, there’s a certain amount of improv going on when we write a novel — even if we map things out in advance.

I’ve always found that when I’m cranking along composing a scene things start to leak past my preconceived lines. It’s not that the characters take over, but my subconscious certainly can. And even my conscious mind will start wondering aloud things like, Wouldn’t there be a funky smell in that room? Look at her fingernails — they’re chewed down to the quick. What kind of person paints a door the pink of Pepto Bismol?

All kinds of things.

Like most improvisation, though, when a book is published everything in it looks as if planned, as if the writer had those improvised details scrawled on some early 3 x 5 card (“put this in chapter 7!”). The serendipitous connections seem like they were preconceived by one hell of a brilliant mind, when the truth is they hit us in the act of winging it, or even in the middle of the night. Improvisation should feel seamless.

But it’s different in writing. Where music is fluid and a solo never the same twice, writing is aiming for a permanent state. It wants to become “a text,” while a jazz solo is more like the designs in a kaleidoscope, unpredictable (though a little predictable if you know some of the tools and structures the player is using, not to mention the chord changes).

I mentioned recently that I improvised a guitar solo in my song, “Cradle to Grave,” and for probably the first time ever I fricking nailed it in one take. The writer in me goes, “Hey, you fricking nailed it in one take, man. Never touch it again!” I got my permanent text and I’m stickin’ with it. But the musician in me goes, “Yeah but something even better could happen next time, and if you were playing with other musicians there’s no telling what you’d come up with together.”

Making art of any kind involves a certain tango of trial and error, and improvisation is always part of it. What I love about jazz improvisation is that even if there’s some error in it the virtuoso can make it look like he meant to do it in order to set up the next thing. And the next thing might exaggerate the error and then start morphing it into something sublime that couldn’t have existed if the error hadn’t occurred.

Now that’s the art of improvisation. Writers should be jealous ….


16 comments on “On a wing and a player

  1. Carrie Rubin
    April 13, 2017

    I’m an outliner, but I still have those moments of improvisation you mention. Lots of them. It’s always exciting to see where the mind goes. But yes, often my improvisation needs to be tweaked later. And sometimes I even say, “What was I thinking?” Okay…maybe I say that lots of times.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 13, 2017

      I outline kind of loosely, but I like to leave room for spontaneity. You’re right, though: a lot of the time improvisations don’t make the final cut. 😉

  2. John W. Howell
    April 13, 2017

    I love prompts for the improvisational exercise.

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    April 13, 2017

    Thinking aloud in response to this post: I suppose it’s because the intent of writing is the text, whereas music is a performance. Okay, there’s intentionally recorded music, which is more like a text, and may include post-processing and retakes. Oral storytelling is more like music performance, and includes a certain amount of improvisation.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 14, 2017

      Interesting smearing of lines in all of this! Most of us think of music as recordings, which is definitely like a text. In fact, when a live group deviates from the way a solo was recorded, people don’t like it. We wanna hear “Layla” the way it was memorialized on vinyl!

      Wouldn’t it be interesting if there could be a book that was a little different each time you read it?

      • Audrey Driscoll
        April 14, 2017

        Some books already seem that way — long ones with complex stories. I would expect that technology would be capable of producing a book that improvises — but would there be a market for such a thing? And what role would the author have in such a creation. There’s another blog post topic!

  4. S.K. Nicholls
    April 16, 2017

    Great post. Enjoyed the music.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 16, 2017

      Thanks, Susan! Glad you liked it.

      Hey, how did your Vegas research trip go?

      • S.K. Nicholls
        April 17, 2017

        Vegas is a colorful and interesting place, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

      • S.K. Nicholls
        April 17, 2017

        I added a video of Bellagio Fountain to my post on Vegas…sorry about the wind.

      • Kevin Brennan
        April 17, 2017

        Looks like you had a productive time! Great post about your experience there.

  5. pinklightsabre
    April 17, 2017

    Yeah, that’s not fair. If I subscribe to your logic (and think I do, though can’t comment on the musicianship portion) it’s not fair everything needs to look (and to some extent then, ‘ergo’) BE planned…I haven’t written a novel yet, and maybe that’s part of the reason, is the need to have plans, some plans, and yet still sound spontaneous and fresh. I recoil at the thought of outlines. I’ve tried outlines, weird ‘mind maps’ (not weird enough) but the planning hasn’t yielded anything yet. Maybe it’s just more fun noodling, time will tell. Someone or something will tell! Sorry, now back to me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 17, 2017

      Interesting, I think your writing has a nice improvisational feel to it, impressionistic and full of observed detail. It doesn’t feel planned, but it always pulls itself together, like that old image of raising the masts on ships in a bottle. Some writers can pull off novels that don’t feel too planned. I bet you’re one of ’em.

      • pinklightsabre
        April 17, 2017

        Ah good. Thanks Kevin. Good imagery too.

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This entry was posted on April 13, 2017 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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