Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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 ….