A little over a week ago, I saw Edgar Meyer in concert. Edgar Meyer, for those of you who don’t know, plays double bass, the HUGE acoustic bass that you see in jazz bands and classical symphonies. And saying that Meyer “plays bass” is bit like saying that Willie Mays “played baseball.” Meyer is a virtuoso, the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, and someone who has excelled in classical, folk, bluegrass, and jazz circles. You might know him from the Appalachian Waltz and Appalachian Journey recordings he did with Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor.
This was a solo concert. He opened with the Bach Suite for Solo Cello no. 1, which he adapted for double bass. Brilliant. Then he played a work in progress — a concerto he’s composing. He had the first and third movements just about complete, but he was still working on the middle of the piece, which was going to be one or two movements. He played one middle movement, but he made it clear that it was, for now, a place holder, something that might or might not remain in the final version.
His willingness to perform an unfinished work struck me as incredibly courageous. Now granted, the man is probably the greatest living bassist in the world. It wasn’t like any of us were about to walk out if the performance wasn’t flawless — which, by the way, it was. But still, playing the piece for us took guts.
And yet, it was also something I could relate to. [Please note: I am NOT equating myself with Edgar Meyer — I’ll wait to do that until after I’ve received a MacArthur Grant of my own…] I’ve done readings of works-in-progress — short fiction and segments of novels. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to do this. Reading from incomplete works makes me hyper-aware of their weaknesses; sometimes it helps me identify them. Which, of course, is the point. It’s not that my audiences for readings tell me what sucks and what doesn’t. They’re almost always way too polite for that.
Rather, I become much more aware of which parts work and which don’t as I read aloud and make myself hear what I’ve written the way my audience does. Sometimes even preparing for a public reading of incomplete chapters and stories forces me to evaluate them in a different way. I read them through not as a writer preparing a first draft, but as a performer rehearsing a script. And doing this, I become more self-conscious, and less willing to tolerate wording that I might otherwise let pass in the early stages of a manuscript’s development.
So, if you’re working on something and need to identify problems that you might otherwise not see, do a reading — for colleagues, for family, for friends, for a single person you trust. The act of performing the piece might help you work through some of those issues you’re having.
Usually, I would end my post there, but I had another revelation that night at the concert that I thought I might also share with you. This requires a bit of set-up, so let me start by telling you two things about my creative process. 1) As some of you already know, I’m usually a plotter. I tend to outline my books ahead of time, as opposed to structuring my books as I go, the way so-called “pantsers” do. And 2) I often listen to music as I write. When I do, it is almost always instrumental jazz or bluegrass with a strong improvisational element. I find that the creation of music in the moment feeds my creativity as I write.
But my current project is one that I haven’t been able to outline — I’m not sure why, but I’ve found that this plot doesn’t want to reveal itself to me in that way. I’ve been plotting as I go, which has been the source of some fits and starts along the way.
That night at the concert, though, I had an epiphany. I usually write with a good deal of structure in my process, and so I thrive on relatively unstructured music to inspire my creative process. So, I thought, what if with this project, to which I’ve taken a relatively unstructured approach, I listen to classical music and use that high level of musical structure to impose some order on my writing? I started doing just that the following day, and it worked really well. I was more productive, and found my thinking about the book more focused than it had been in recent weeks. The experiment continues, but I thought I would share the experience, on the off chance that it helps some of you.